Nation & World

HLS student makes journey back to Iraq

6 min read

Former Marine reports significant progress on the ground since surge

Those looking for a relaxing summer break may have opted for somewhere other than Iraq. But for one Harvard Law School (HLS) student, the visit to the country in August was about work — and duty.

Erik Swabb was there as part a tour sponsored by Vets for Freedom, a group founded by combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, whose mission, as stated on its Web site, is “to educate the American public about the importance of achieving success in these conflicts by applying our first-hand knowledge to issues of American strategy and tactics in Iraq.”

On this recent visit, Swabb, a former Marine, was also reporting for the National Review. A frequent contributor to the magazine and Web site, he was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 18th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad.

Instead of football or baseball greats as boyhood idols, Swabb’s boyhood stars were fighting men.

“All my heroes growing up were military people; one of my idols was Gen. Grant,” said the Columbia graduate who majored in political science.

“I thought it was kind of the ultimate challenge in life to be able to make decisions under stress and in combat … for a cause greater than oneself, and the sacrifice involved.”

While stationed overseas as a platoon commander, the HLS student ended up making these sorts of decisions himself, facing ambushes and firefights, and witnessing numerous casualties.

It was after his college graduation that Swabb’s interest in the military and desire to engage in public service led him to enlist. He joined the Marines just prior to 9/11 and was eventually deployed to Iraq where he served for several months outside Baghdad from 2004 to 2005. His unit saw combat during the effort to retake Fallujah, a former insurgent stronghold in the Al Anbar province.

After returning from the war, Swabb felt compelled to write about his experiences. One of his first efforts appeared after the escalation of violence in 2006 and was sharply critical of the military for placing the blame heavily with the civilian leadership at the time.

“The military deserves its fair share of blame for shortcomings in Iraq,” wrote Swabb in an opinion piece that ran in the Baltimore Sun in June 2006. “Because of the failure of the top military leadership to institutionalize the lessons of the Vietnam War, initial U.S. forces in Iraq were not prepared to wage counterinsurgency. As a result, we are facing a more difficult battle.”

He was also moved to pick up his pen, he said, after talking with his best friend, another Marine who had also served in Iraq.

“What is going on?” Swabb recalled the two asked each other of the situation on the ground in Iraq in 2006. They were confident the tactic of living and working in the local communities, side by side with Iraqis, was the way to go, but incredulous that the approach wasn’t being adopted on a wider scale. “We wondered,” recalled Swabb, “‘Where in the chain of command is it being lost what the correct approach is?’ … We just didn’t see it happening, Baghdad was descending into chaos; it was just so disheartening.”

Swabb knew firsthand the strategy could work. After the second battle of Fallujah, his former commanding officer relocated his unit to a local town instead of to a U.S. base. While there, he said, they removed improvised explosive devices, uncovered arms caches, and targeted former high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“It was great because we were able to see what a difference that living out with the people … makes. You’re out there providing security 24/7 — that’s the only way someone’s willing to give you intelligence on the bad guys.”

This past August, Swabb was back in the country getting an inside look at the current situation on the ground. In Baghdad he met with members of both the U.S. and Iraqi security forces, inspected police stations, visited checkpoints, and attended the graduation ceremony of the country’s largest police academy.

Swabb said the story across the board was a consistent one: Things are improving, with Iraqis increasingly confident and in control of their own safety.

“From the colonel down to the private you want to hear what their evaluations are, and it’s uniform throughout that entire chain of command, which is why you can be pretty confident in the assessment: [Things] are a lot better.”

Swabb was even more impressed by what he saw. He described Iraqi security officers returning to their homes, unarmed, still dressed in their uniforms, a move he said was unthinkable only a short time ago.

“That would be a death sentence before the surge and before the new strategy because unarmed, wearing an Iraqi police uniform, you are going to be kidnapped and killed.”

On a visit to a detention center, Swabb unexpectedly encountered two Iraqi human rights workers also inspecting the facility. Though he wasn’t allowed to speak with them, Swabb said just seeing them there was a positive sign.

“This is wonderful; this is what you need to see. It’s great to have international human rights workers taking a look at this stuff or have Americans looking at this stuff, but if the Iraqis can look at this stuff, that’s awesome and it was wonderful to see that.”

When it comes to timetables, Swabb isn’t a fan. The problem with establishing such fixed withdrawals of troops, he argued, is that it ignores Iraqi preparedness.

“If the whole point of us being over there is training up the security forces to turn it over to them when they are ready, how can you regiment a timetable?” he said.

He also noted that the concept of a timetable has a different meaning for Iraqis than Americans.

“Their view of what a timetable is is different than the American view. A timetable by definition is inflexible for us; for them,” he said, “everything is flexible.”

Swabb acknowledged the situation is still tenuous and that questions remain about the future role of the Sunni Awakening movement, former insurgents who have joined with the Americans to provide security and help reduce violence in the country. And questions remain as well about the future role of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army that has clashed with U.S. forces. Swabb warned, “a premature withdrawal of troops would be incredibly reckless.

“There are no guarantees, but the strategy as is has had more success than anything else. … I don’t think it’s wise to change what has been working.”