I watched in disbelief as KP opened the glass Budweiser bottle with nothing more than his teeth and then spit the bottle cap to the floor. Seeing my jaw slack in awe, he grinned. “Let’s see you do that, Yank!”
My parents spent thousands on orthodontic work and I’d already chipped a tooth in college, so I politely declined, fawning reverence instead. KP’s wide smile increased, and he handed me a Bud, which I opened with my wedding ring. Not as impressive, but he inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“So you were homeless after the war?” I asked continuing our conversation. KP nodded while other people lounging on the couch listened in.
“Was a bridge troll for a stint after I got back from Iraq.”
I screwed up my face. “How did you end up playing bass for a band on Warped Tour then?”
KP’s story was stranger than fiction. He’d enlisted in in the British Army, been an intelligence soldier in Iraq, and then came home to struggle with readjustment to civilian life. He ended up homeless and lived under a bridge. Eventually, he ended up in “university” (college) and was now working on a Masters in Astrophysics. He had also joined a punk rock band that got a slot on the 2013 traveling music festival, Vans Warped Tour. And that’s how — ironically — we met. We were bus mates toward the end of the festival tour and both fellow Iraq War veterans.
At the time, I was working for a geopolitical intelligence firm following my departure from the military. I’d ended up on Vans Warped Tour by volunteering for a two week assignment in what would become my future job once I left the intel world. Having another soldier on the bus — let alone a British one — became comforting when I knew no one initially. KP and I ended up spending several evenings talking about our past lives, bonding over shared service. This evening however, our topic of conversation veered into the initial invasion of Iraq, and KP asked a question most soldiers never broach.
“Why Iraq?” He asked in his thick, British accent. “We had assessments and intelligence about the possibility of invading Iran. Plus, you and I both know the WMDs were a load of bollocks.”
The Iraq War had been a subject of several debates in my office. Employees were a hodgepodge of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs. Devout Jews worked in the same cubicles as Palestinians. Neocons worked with bleeding heart liberals, and former spooks teased those of us who were ex-military. By most accounts everyone should have hated each other, but got along and put aside their ideologies to produce analyses and piece together geopolitical puzzles. Iraq, however, was a disconnected series of facts and conjecture among each employee, especially those of us who had served there. KP’s revelation about a potential invasion of Iran wasn’t the first time I’d heard it mentioned, but this was the first time I’d heard it from a Brit.
“The U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East is… complex,” I stated emphasizing the last word. When KP pressed for more, I launched into a long diatribe about the history, culture, and background beginning first with Afghanistan.
Much of my views since that day on the bus haven’t changed, but understanding U.S. foreign policy, warfare, and propaganda is paramount to discerning the recent tension between Iran and the United States. Currently, everyone’s walking around like a cultural, military, or geopolitical expert when the reality is much more nuanced. So if you want to understand fact from fiction and history from misinformation, I suggest you keep reading.
I. The beginnings: Afghanistan
Most everyone in my former office agreed on why we invaded Afghanistan. Having fought there in early 2003, the answer was simple: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the aftermath of the initial invasion is what many in the public missed, and the debacle that is now Afghanistan has direct implications to the Iraq War and current Iranian tensions.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 the United States needed to crush al Qaeda to avoid a repeat of attacks on our home soil. Afghanistan became the punching bag because of terrorist training camps throughout the country and close ties with Osama bin Laden, who moved back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not wanting to deal with a nuclear power (Pakistan), Afghanistan was enough to move the U.S. eye of Sauron firmly into the crosshairs. The problem, however, was that we lost the initiative to crush al Qaeda and capture bin Laden after the Battle of Tora Bora. This resulted in a destabilization of the area by removing the Taliban from power and setting up a shell government. As the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers have laboriously pointed out, not six months after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld knew the campaign was becoming a quagmire. There was a complete inability to provide a clear goal, let alone figure out how to stabilize the country.
Instead, Afghanistan got sold in a myriad of different ways to the public. From cross border ops, crushing terrorism, democracy, drugs wars, or a source of wealth in mineral commodities, Afghanistan became a pig wearing lipstick. No matter what way each administration sold it, they should have stuck to reading history books instead.
Every invading force in the history of Afghanistan has left licking their wounds. Alexander the Great was the first to try and was met with disastrous results. The historian, Plutarch, compared Afghan tribesmen to a hydra-headed monster — as soon as Alexander cut off one head, three more would grow back in its place. The British would also meet disaster and were expelled from the country within fours years the first time they tried to invade (and within three months the third time). Most people can only recall the Soviet-Afghan War prior to the U.S. invasion and that’s only because of the movie Rambo III. Even the Russians saw Afghanistan as a lost cause and left in 1989, leading to the Geneva Accords. Then there’s the United States. We walked in without a plan and no means to quell an increasingly hard to find al Qaeda (of which many fled to the Middle East or Chechnya). Once our campaign lost public interest and went poorly, we dug in for the long haul.
Until we came up with another idea.
II. The Iraq War, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Soleimani
The Iraq War became a centerpiece to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East once politicians and generals realized Afghanistan wasn’t going as planned. Here, however, is where a lot of analysts and experts deviate over just how the hell the war happened or why.
One view postulated within my workplace revolved around a source inside the National Security Council (NSC) who stated that after the failure of Tora Bora, top generals advised President George W. Bush to drop thirteen nuclear warheads on Osama bin Laden’s location based on intel reports they’d received. Bush was apparently sane enough to decide that was a bad idea.
Then, because Iraq sits strategically between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the U.S pressured — well, blackmailed — the Saudis and Iranians into helping root out terrorist cells by encouraging jihadis to come fight in Iraq and get destroyed. That aim would be largely accomplished within the first year. Afterwards, we fired the Iraqi Army and created an insurgency.
I hold a different variant of the view listed above.
Because of Iraq’s location, I believe — and take this with a grain of salt — the country became the lynch pin between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan to destabilize the Middle East and get our enemies to fight each other while avoiding another attack on U.S. soil. The religious sects of Islam within Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia helped created this target rich environment once we invaded. To understand how that’s a huge piece of the puzzle, you must understand the Sunni and Shia divide. I’ll let my close friend and geopolitical expert Peter Zeihan explain with an excerpt from his book The Absent SuperPower:
“Citizens of Iran predominately practice Shia Islam, while the Saudis follow a militant, puritanical strain of Sunni Islam. Clerical interpretation on both sides labels the other as heretical. Saudi Arabia holds Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, locales sacred to all Muslims regardless of denomination. Riyadh has on several occasions denied Iranians access. Globally the Sunni outnumber the Shia 6:1, which encourages major Sunni powers (like Saudi Arabia) to claim to speak for Islam as a whole; but within the Persian Gulf the Shia outnumber the Sunnis, which encourages Iran to claim to run the region.”
Because Iraq is predominately Shia but was ruled by the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein, destabilizing the country attracted the ire and interest of both countries once the Shia’s began to consolidate power under the new government. The Saudis enjoy having American troops in the area because it focuses their regional nemesis, Iran, on America as opposed to them. Saudi Arabia has no real military to speak of, but what they do have is a never-ending checkbook and connections with the U.S. Because political Islam hadn’t existed to that point, both the Shia and Sunni factions had to respond to Iraq which led to a lot of dysfunction and — with time — the Arab Spring and a full blown crisis in the Middle East. From the American perspective, we sat back and watched the in-fighting, covering it in our news cycle but also an ocean away and safe from the unrest (or another terrorist attack). The lynch pin move worked to a degree, but also gave rise to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Insurgencies rose and fell keeping the turmoil alive, all the while enlisting a lot of angry young militants.
Throughout much of the Iraq War, the Iranians had their hands in training and equipping said fighters, particularly Shia backed militias. Spearheading these militias was the elite Quds Force, led by Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani’s track record reads like half spy/half sociopath. His teams engineered the U.S. military’s most devastating adversary of the Iraq War — the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP). The EFP would slice through armored vehicles like a hot knife through butter, and unlike the IED, we could never combat the device. If you got a call about a vehicle hit by an EFP, you knew there were casualties.
Outside of Iraq, Soleimani orchestrated attacks ranging from Thailand to Nairobi, and was also the puppet master behind Assad’s factions in the civil war raging in Syria. However, his crème de la crème came in 2011 when he tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States while in Washington D.C. That pissed off the Saudis and the U.S. who began making calls for his assassination. Ever since, we’ve kept a close eye on the man responsible for the most American deaths during the 2010s.
Oddly, when a U.S. drone killed Soleimani a few days after an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Soleimani was idolized in the media as more a politician than mastermind of chaos and death. This is because no one seemed to care to review the past decade and passed misinformation as fact.
III. Misinformation and mind control
Beginning with the end of Bush’s presidential term, the U.S. slowly began to withdraw troops from Iraq. Obama continued the troop withdraw, but also carried out much of the Bush administrations foreign policy, but in the form of an absurd amount of drone strikes. At the end of Obama’s presidency, he authorized 542 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. He reportedly told an aide: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
Democrats shy away from this portion of Obama’s legacy, but the fact remains — the use of drone strikes got their feet under Obama. He used them as an effective check-and-balance while also keeping good on the promise of withdrawing troops. Given that the American populace had lost their stomach for war after seemingly endless conflict, politicians began moving the U.S. away from being Team America: World Police. This was even one of the campaign points Trump ran on and has carried out. Even with recent troop buildups, U.S. deployments in the region are down 75% from their peak. America wants to wash their hands of Iraq and the Middle East, even despite recent events. But with Soleimani’s death, the media cycle and social media pundits began pushing for war. One side encouraged it, while the other side despised the idea. Both, however, began to plant misinformation that it was inevitable.
The U.S. has never had a good relationship with Iran. Since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days, we get trigger happy when people touch our embassies (see also: Benghazi). Since 1979 it’s been a constant battle with Iran ranging from “death to America” to sanctions to nuclear talks. Iran and the U.S. both have sat down at the table to negotiate only to promptly leave multiple times. But with the U.S. withdrawing from the global order, we’ve let a lot of the bullshit slide.
As volatile as Trump’s ego is, consider the following: Iran shot down a $200 million dollar drone in July 2019. They attacked Saudi Arabia’s petroleum facilities in September 2019. They intervened more in Syria within the past year while also deploying troops to Iraq to crack down on anti-Iranian protests.
What was the U.S. response under Trump? Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
But the embassy attack in Iraq? That was a bridge too far, and Trump responded by killing one of Iran’s head honchos with a clear message to back off. Iran, seeking to restore a bruised ego, responded with a missile strike that was largely splashy and attention grabbing, but not meant to be effective or further push a conflict. There were no casualties, some rockets didn’t even explode, and one missed by 20 miles. But once the headlines hit, everyone collectively lost their mind. Public figures like Michael Moore, Rose McGowan, and Sean Hannity were suddenly experts on the Middle East, foreign policy, war, and Iran. One is a filmmaker, the other an actor, and the other a right-wing puppet and parrot. It’s bizarre that, in regard to foreign policy and intelligence, any person with an opinion appears reliable as opposed to expert analysis. We don’t let truck drivers pilot space shuttles and pastors don’t let atheists preach sermons, but hey, the chick from Charmed is totally reliable, right? Much of what we see on social media and certain news sites is misinformation and propaganda, and it’s being used — just like what I proposed happened with Iraq and the Middle East — to keep us fighting each other. In fact, media sites and social media have stolen their tactics from the U.S. military.
During my time in the military, I spent most of it under the Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. Civil Affairs soldiers are cultural experts and help minimize civilian interference on the battlefield while gathering intel and helping advance a commander’s objectives. PSYOP soldiers help influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and behavior of foreign audiences. These two sets of soldiers often work hand-in-hand. During my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were inseparable. Because we’re both under the same command, there’s a lot of collaboration and learning about the others job.
I first noticed how we were using the PSYOP playbook because I’d read over the manual and seen it in play overseas. The PSYOP training manual alone states that “media and propaganda may be used to influence the will of the people and key leaders.” Or consider this gem about how to choose a target audience:
- Identify groups and individuals that can accomplish and support Psychological Operations objectives
- Understand the motivations for target audience behavior
- Identify potential vulnerabilities PSYOP can use to influence behavior
- Develop a PSYOP argument and the recommended actions to influence target audience behavior.
Sound familiar? It should, because everyone from your Facebook buddy stating Trump-can-do-no-wrong-I-love-him to your aunt who thinks the-world-is-burning-and-it’s-all-Trump’s-fault is playing directly into these objectives by media conglomerates. They’ve been PSYOP’ed. Which is what happened with this whole Soleimani situation. People became so misinformed they thought a draft was coming back and crashed the Selective Service website. Right wing news sites began to bang the war gavel and left wing sites began to imply we’d have WWIII within the next week. Social media only exacerbated the problem when everyone became a soapbox expert.
Instead, here’s the reality of the situation. Trump used a drone strike made popular by his predecessor. Neither during Obama’s presidency nor under Trump’s has there yet to be oversight on the use of drones, and it’s only gotten worse. Using a program that was already popular as opposed to actual soldiers on the ground was a mitigated risk. Soleimani was on terrorist watch lists and has killed numerous civilians (and not just Americans) since the 1990s. When Iran fired back — more a propaganda move to show their constituents they weren’t weak — they did so with an underwhelming show of force knowing the U.S. tolerance for horseshit is low. Trump, surprisingly, didn’t flip out, claimed all is well, and let the missile strike slide. As much as it irks me to say — because I find Trump to be a buffoon — this tactic worked to America’s advantage. Considering every general worth their salt has resigned or been fired, this is somewhat shocking.
While the incident appears to have blown over, the question people are still wondering about is whether this could still lead to war?
IV. The military, future war, and a draft
Shooting you straight, a war could still happen. Given that both Iran and America have seemed to go their separate ways though, my bet is that it seems unlikely even despite the recent tensions. Then again, U.S. troop withdrawal and future scuffles largely depend on Saudi Arabia. Were a war to break out with Iran, I think the Saudis would be the ones dragging us back into the fold. Remember that the Saudis and Iranians hate each other, and Iran is more the military might than the Saudis are. If we withdraw from the Middle East for good, then the Saudis are back to providing their own security and worrying about Iran’s intentions. Keeping Iran and the U.S. fighting each other is a win for Saudi Arabia, and they have the financial means to back terrorist cells — which they’ve done in the past — to draw America right back into the fray. Is it an asshole move? Absolutely. But that’s what most country’s foreign policy is: creating a series of prickish moves to ensure their agenda is the one going into effect.
But the other question still looms: if war breaks out given this hypothetical situation, would there be a draft as people fear?
We’re engaged in the longest running war in U.S. history, but there’s not been a draft. Repeated deployments over the past eighteen years have been borne by less than 1% of the U.S. population. Years ago, the military transitioned to an “all-volunteer force” with the assumption being that enacting a draft would take place only if a large scale conflict (think a World War) were to take place. That’s yet to happen and we have a new batch of young soldiers with no deployments. Most of the old breed, like myself and others, have gotten out of the military or retired. To give you some perspective, had I stayed in, I would have retired last year. Of those I deployed with, I only know of four still serving. Now when I go to military installations, the vast majority of soldiers I see are what we call in Army lingo “slick sleeves.” These are soldiers who do not have combat patches, indicating they’ve never been deployed to a combat environment. Thus, with a new batch of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with little to no combat experience you have no need for a draft. But even then, the U.S. strategy at the moment is still withdrawal, and getting kicked out of Iraq only helped accomplish that.
Here’s the other thing about the military people misunderstand. Just because you enlisted doesn’t mean you’ll see combat if you deploy. You’re more likely to be poisoned (1 in 53 chance) than see combat. That’s because of the 7.3 percent of living Americans who have served in the military, roughly ten percent have seen combat. To fight a war, there’s a lot of logistics and planning that has to take place which accounts for the vast majority of jobs in the military. But when Americans hear the word “Iraq veteran” or “Afghan veteran” they assume the person in question was running around the desert like John Rambo when they may have lived and swam in Saddam’s palace, played grab ass, and punched a keyboard all day.
WWII Marine Corps veteran, EB Sledge (no relation that I know of) found this to be the case after World War II. When he returned home, he discovered that, to the people of his hometown, “a veteran was a veteran — all were the same, whether one man had survived the deadliest combat or another had pounded a typewriter while in uniform.” While 11% of the population served in WWII, only a rough third saw combat. Thus when people fear about their sons being drafted and dying on foreign soil, I tell their parents to have them enlist as a mail clerk or some other sublime job should it happen.
V. What’s the point of all this, man?
The point is that people have a due diligence to become informed and responsible citizens, who seek reliable sources of information. When fear and hysteria rule the airwaves the results only lead to further division and calamity. We saw the direct implications of this after Hurricane Harvey when misinformation sent Texas residents into a gas buying frenzy leading to a very real shortage. Remember that the greatest source of convincing the German people to commit atrocities or turn a blind eye during the Holocaust was media, misinformation, and propaganda.
We must learn from history, or be ruined by it once more.
*Special thanks to Peter Zeihan and Michael Nayebi for reviewing the accuracy and information provided in the article