Jean Geran is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. She served as the director for democracy and human rights on the National Security Council at the White House and as an abuse prevention officer on the US Disaster Assistance Response Team in southern Iraq. On a weekend when we have been remembering those who sacrificed their lives on D-Day in 1944, Jean takes the opportunity to show her appreciation to the British military, especially those who have served in Iraq over recent years.
To Members of the British Armed Services,
As an American now living in London who worked in Iraq, it was very poignant for me to watch the ceremony in March marking the end of your combat service there. It reminded me of those early days of the conflict in 2003 when I was serving as an Abuse Prevention Officer on the civilian U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART).
We were the first civilians to enter Iraq as secured areas became permissive, and we were charged with overseeing the provision of humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. On our first trip into the port of Um Qasr just over the border from Kuwait, we met then Lt Col Buster Howes of 42 Commando Royal Marines. Our small unarmed team had been escorted across the border by heavily armed U.S. Marines, but Lt Col Howes and his men had already put away their heavy armour and battle weapons to be more accessible and to build trust with the local population.
He welcomed us warmly, probably because he knew the importance of getting assistance and aid flowing to Iraqis as quickly as possible. Sadly, I fear he may have ended up frustrated with us as our civilian aid systems were not set up to move money quickly in places where no NGOs were functioning. Though progress has been made over the years, the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and civilian-military coordination continue to hinder our collective efforts in fragile states around the world. This is an area where we all must focus on collaborating more effectively and improving our support for Iraqis, Afghans and all those others struggling to rebuild their own countries.
Despite the immediate challenges, I was extremely impressed by Lt Col Howes (now a Brigadier) and indeed all the British servicemen and women I met with in Iraq. In addition to the Royal Marines, I interacted most with your 7th Armoured Brigade (the legendary ‘Desert Rats’) in Basra who also exhibited great professionalism, skill and creativity. From providing security, figuring out local governance issues to working with local lawyers and judges to restore some kind of justice system, British military personnel went beyond the call of duty to solve unexpected problems that arose by the minute.
Part of my duties on the DART was to cover human rights issues. Unfortunately, this included assessing some of the most horrific legacies of Saddam’s regime: mass graves. They were scattered across the South and contained the remains of the ‘disappeared’ from his long reign of terror. Though I did not support the initial decision to invade Iraq, I must say that this particular task made me very grateful we all were there. Of course mistakes were made, but criticism comes far too easily to those watching from afar.
War is always full of tragedy. But even with all the controversy and sharp divisions created over the last six years of conflict we must not forget that a vicious dictatorship was ended, and over 30 million people are now free to choose their own leaders and govern themselves. Democracy is messy and complicated everywhere, but it is always better than tyranny.
Just before leading his unit into battle in Iraq, Lt Col Howes was quoted by the BBC as saying ‘We, as serving Royal Marines, are custodians of a heroic tradition – a fighting legacy that stretches back over three centuries, through Trafalgar and two world wars.’ The British military indeed has a proud history. Participating in my first Remembrance Day here in London, I was struck by how much pride the British people take in their veterans and how much honour is rightly bestowed on them.
I hope that this letter may serve as a reminder of just how proud the United Kingdom can be of you, its active duty servicemen and women, fighting right now for freedom. Your courage, loyalty, valour and sacrifice are inspiring. From a grateful American who may even owe you her life, thank you.
May God’s blessing, protection and peace as promised in Psalm 91 always be with you.