Iraq War Veteran Who Led Marines During 2003 Invasion Reflects On The Conflict

Mar 23, 2018

Fifteen years ago this week, U.S. forces invaded Iraq, launching a controversial war that in some respects hasn’t ended.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with former Marine Matt Ufford (@mattufford), who was there and is now writing about his experience.

Ufford, a Marine lieutenant who was in charge of a tank platoon, says he remembers being in a “hardscrabble camp” in northern Kuwait when President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. He says he never imagined the war would last this long.

“We didn’t know how long it would take to get to Baghdad or how long the fight would be,” he says. “But it wasn’t 15 years.”

Interview Highlights

On the time leading up to entering Iraq

“It was filled with extreme boredom. We had a couple of weeks where we didn’t have any electricity at night. We were in a completely flat section of Kuwaiti desert with tents that held about 40 Marines, and there would regularly be sandstorms that blew the tents down in the middle of the night. We’d have to put on goggles and go outside and try to save them. There just weren’t enough tasks to fill extremely long hours of the day, and it was just complete and utter eyeball-drying boredom.”

On how he felt before going into combat for the first time

“I was always someone who felt pretty self-assured. And when I spoke to my Marines before the war began I found my voice, it was just quavering, cracking. I was filled with nothing short of sheer terror of not necessarily the actual mechanics of combat — that was something I was well-trained in — but just this huge unknown that you know of the 80 plus Marines in my company, only one had ever been in combat in the original Desert Storm. And it was this great unknown not just for me, but like everybody that I was serving with. And for me to have what I think of as an ordinarily confident voice speaking in front of people, was suddenly just shaking uncontrollably.”

On what he told his platoon before starting the mission

“The only thing that I could tell them in honesty was that it’s OK to be scared because we were all new to it, and we would all be there together. We could all just rely on our training. We were very very well-trained. That’s one of the beauties of the peacetime military is that you have plenty of time for training. And so the actual, as I call it, the mechanics of formations, of pulling the trigger or identifying targets, all that came naturally once we rolled across the border. But in the moments leading up to it, when you don’t have any actual action to do, your mind is filled with just all the possibilities in the world and things that you can’t even imagine.”

On if the Iraq War has been worth it

“Was it worth it? I mean, if you want to take a hard black-and-white look at it, no. I have good friends of those 4,500 [American soldiers who died in Iraq], good friends of mine are frozen in time at age 23, age 24. And I have gone on to live 15 very happy years and have had the joys of becoming married and raising children, and that’s a joy that my friends don’t get. And that is expanded, expand that by the thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives that have cost that. Now I can’t, I can’t look back and say, ‘Well, that wasn’t worth it,’ because that is … it’s too hard to say that this thing that I did that has lived so large in my life was just an utter waste. It’s too dark of an approach to life.

“And so I got an email from my old company commander after I wrote the piece in The New York Times. He’s in Baghdad now working with the Combined Joint Task Force there, and he says he told me that — you know, 10 years ago he was in Baghdad in 2007 as well — and he says it’s different now. That the Iraqis are fighting for themselves. They have a cause they believe in. They do it their way. We’re not trying to force them to do it our way. And he said that for the first time he’s hopeful. And that’s what I have taken away from this is that, you know, I can’t look at those 15 years and just wring my hands because I’d go crazy. But I can look forward and say that maybe we’re finally turning the corner.”

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