Conflict & Justice

Congressman and Iraq War vet Seth Moulton speaks out on war and Trump

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Seth Moulton leading his Marines in the Battle of Najaf in 2004

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Office of Congressman Seth Moulton

It's been a week to remind us that the war in Iraq is far from over.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

A massive suicide bombing on Sunday made that terribly clear.

And on Wednesday, Britain weighed in with a damning investigation into the origins and conduct of the war: the Chilcot inquiry.

Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman representing the 6th District of Massachusetts, always opposed the Iraq War.

But in 2003, he was a Marine Corps infantry officer, in the vanguard of the invasion. So he did his duty.

“You motivate yourself,” Moulton says, “by looking at the guys you’re serving with, and the young Marines you’re charged to lead.”

“You’re so devoted to them,” he adds, “that you realize how important it is to do a good job.”

Moulton eventually served four tours in Iraq, and was decorated for valor. But from his seat in the House of Representatives, he's still critical of the war and regrets its legacy of continued violence in Iraq and the region.

“We wanted to do a good job so that others wouldn’t have to,” Moulton says. “And so to see people still in Iraq today — Americans and our allies — over a decade after we first went in is pretty disappointing for someone who risked his life to make sure that wouldn’t have to happen.”    

In terms of the conduct of the war, Moulton says there was no real plan for dealing with the aftermath of toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and he faults the US for failing to leave a politically stable Iraq when US troops withdrew in 2011.

Moulton remains a vocal critic of the war, but that doesn't make him an ally of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, who has also consistently been critical.

“I don’t consider myself in the same company at all,” Moulton snaps at the suggestion. “Donald Trump just praised Saddam Hussein. I mean he just praised Kim Jong-un. He has praised Vladimir Putin. He basically wants to ally himself with some of the worst dictators of the past century. I’m not in that company at all. I risked my life to fight against people like that.”

Trump stirred controversy on Tuesday when he praised Hussein during a stump speech.

“Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, right?" Trump said. "He was a bad guy, really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights — they didn't talk, they were a terrorist, it was over.”

Trump had previously said the world would be “100 percent better” if Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi were still in power.

Moulton takes serious issue with Trump's claims about Hussein, and recalls how after the fall of Baghdad, his unit was sent south to a place called Hillah — there, he found Hussein's real victims.

“Shortly after we arrived there, we discovered the mass graves of tens of thousands, just north of the city," Moulton says. "When Saddam Hussein killed 'terrorists,' these are the kinds of people he killed. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians. Those are the practices of, quote, killing terrorists, unquote, that Donald Trump is praising today.”

“It just shows,” Moulton says, “that not only does he have no clue about history, no idea about basic principles of foreign policy or how to keep America safe — it also shows he’s completely unfit to be our commander-in-chief.”

The Massachusetts congressman says he was following lawful orders when he participated in the invasion of Iraq, but he says US military personnel won't hesitate to disobey an unlawful command. And in Moulton's view, Trump has already promised to issue orders that violate the US Constitution.

“There’s a difference between following a lawful order and an unlawful order. I think President Bush’s judgment was poor — disastrously poor — in sending us into Iraq. But it wasn’t fundamentally unlawful," he explains. "And what Donald Trump has already said on the campaign trail that he will ask our servicemen and women to do: to torture our enemies; to kill innocent civilians, just because they’re related to terrorists; to completely disregard the Constitution and discriminate against people based on their religion — one of the fundamental tenets that the Founding Fathers said we couldn‘t violate. These things are fundamentally unlawful.”

“Actually," he says, "I know that Marines and soldiers out there are already talking about what it would mean to disobey the orders of a Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump, because the orders that he gives are against our own Constitution.”  

The presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has been criticized from her opponents on the left and the right for initially supporting the invasion of Iraq, and then later opposing it.

Moulton says if he is ever asked to vote as a congressman on whether the US should go to war, he says he would want to understand what our mission is, meaning “what is the real intent behind what we are doing, and what is the end game, what goal are we trying to achieve. I don’t think that was very clear in 2003, and I’m afraid it’s still not clear today.”

“But I also think it’s important,” Moulton says, “that we recognize our mistakes of the past, but don’t necessarily try to pretend that 2016 is 2003 again. We’ve got to deal with the situation as it exists now, and we’ve got to make sure that we can fix it in a way that we don’t have to continue going back to Iraq year after year after year.”