Officer’s Death Brings New Attention to Iraq War Problems

A story on A3 of today’s WaPo by Jonathan Weisman and Ann Scott Tyson demonstrates the old adage that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic.

Just before Christmas, an Army captain named Brian Freeman cornered Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at a Baghdad helicopter landing zone. The war was going badly, he told them. Troops were stretched so thin they were doing tasks they never dreamed of, let alone trained for.

Freeman, 31, took a short holiday leave to see his 14-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son, returned to his base in Karbala, Iraq, and less than two weeks ago died in a hail of bullets and grenades. Insurgents, dressed in U.S. military uniforms, speaking English and driving black American SUVs, got through a checkpoint and attacked, kidnapped four soldiers and later shot them. Freeman died in the assault, the fifth casualty of the brazen attack.

The death of the West Point graduate — a star athlete from Temecula, Calif., who ran bobsleds and skeletons with Winter Olympians — has radicalized Dodd, energized Kerry and girded the ever-more confrontational stance of Democrats in the Senate. Freeman’s death has reverberated on the Senate floor, in committee deliberations and on television talk shows.

The death of a single man, who they just happened to meet, shouldn’t have much impact on the public policy decision-making of thoughtful men who have as much access to big picture impact as Dodd and Kerry. They’re only human, though.

Freeman’s case is especially tragic in its illustration of the caveat to the idea that only “volunteers” are fighting and dying in Iraq.

Freeman had served out his five-year active-duty tour well before he was sent to Iraq. He graduated from West Point in 1999, then in 2002 was accepted into the Army World Class Athlete Program, training with the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams in Lake Placid, N.Y. “It’s no exaggeration, he was definitely one of the nicest guys in the start house,” said Steve Peters, a team official.

In 2004, eager to get on with his career and family life, Freeman moved into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), a pool of trained soldiers not assigned to any unit, to serve out the rest of his eight-year mandatory obligation.

He was in California with a civilian job, a 1-year-old son named Gunnar and another baby on the way in the fall of 2005 when a shortage of officers prompted a large call-up by the IRR of West Point graduates from the classes of 1998 and later — many of whom had only a few months of service left.

“He was an augmentee, who happened to be called up to fill a slot,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Edmond, a full-time staff member at the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion in Whitehall, Ohio, which Freeman was called to join. “It’s almost to fill a void,” he said, commenting on the Army’s deepening manpower shortage, especially in the reserve, which requires it to cobble together units with people from across the country.

Charlotte Freeman, Freeman’s wife, recalled her husband’s shock upon receiving an Army telegram ordering him back to active duty. “He walked into the house and was totally white,” she said yesterday. “He had moved on” from the Army.

Freeman had received a world class education on the taxpayer and, like all who volunteer for military service, was on the hook for eight years. In most cases, though, that’s a mere technicality. I left active duty in 1992 and never put a uniform on again. Since 9/11, though, many have been involuntarily recalled.

Just after Christmas in 2005, he grew so concerned about his pending deployment — and his lack of qualifications to be a civil affairs officer — that he anxiously contacted a reporter for The Washington Post.

Maj. Tony Nichols, who commanded a tank company that Freeman served in during his active duty, said Freeman “would have gone with a tank crew . . . in a heartbeat” but felt uneasy going with an unfamiliar civil affairs team.

[…]

Late last year, Freeman approached the senators at Landing Zone Washington, in Baghdad’s Green Zone, “almost out of the shadows,” Dodd recalled. Even though he felt nervous, he told his wife later, he delivered his message with urgency. Soldiers were being deployed to do missions that they were utterly untrained to do; Freeman, for example, an armor officer, had been sent to help foster democracy and rebuild an Iraqi civil society. State Department personnel who could do those jobs were restricted in their travel off military bases by regional security officers who said it was unsafe for them to venture out. “Senator, it’s nuts over here,” Dodd quoted Freeman as saying.

Unfortunately, we have a Leviathan force being used as a SysAdmin force. Then again, we turned combat arms officers into de facto civil affairs officers with a reasonable degree of success in the aftermath of World War II, most without the benefit of a West Point education. Meeting the “needs of the Army” often means muddling through and Freeman was much better prepared for that than most.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    The death of a single man, who they just happened to meet, shouldn’t have much impact on the public policy decision-making of thoughtful men who have as much access to big picture impact as Dodd and Kerry.

    Gotta disagree with you there. Everyone who dies is “a single man” (or woman). Obliviousness to this fact makes it easier to dodge the real cost of the war (note Hitler’s refusal to visit the front or any wounded in hospitals). Such personal impressions shouldn’t solely determine our policy, but I wish everyone making policy on this war knew someone who’d been killed over there.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Everyone who dies is “a single man” (or woman). Obliviousness to this fact makes it easier to dodge the real cost of the war

    No argument there. That’s really my point from another direction: There had already been over 3000 soldiers killed in Iraq before Brian Freeman. His death is tragic but not singularly so. Either it’s worth risking the lives of men like Freeman to achieve our aims in Iraq or it’s not. That’s an a priori decision.

    I’m not criticizing Dodd or Kerry for being human. And, indeed, they’d long come to oppose the war before they even met Freeman. There’s just something a little out of kilter about personalizing the war at this stage of the game.

  3. The Senators’ radicalization has an unprincipled zen-like quality to it. Gosh, what if they’d been a week later and missed this guy entirely? Would they have been quite so radicalized? What if Capt. Freeman had instead had a gung ho attitude and made his displeasure with their political posturing clear in no uncertain terms? Would they have been quite so radicalized?

    Or was Capt. Freeman just a convenient prop for a story line they already had memorized? Alas, I am deply cycnical and find this kind of political profiteering off our war dead intensely distasteful. One thing’s for certain, our country would have never been founded, or survived our Civil War, WW I, or WW II with the mentality and leadership displayed by Senators Dodd and Kerry.

    War is still a terrible thing, but it is also still not the worst thing.

  4. Is it also worth noting that Capt. Freeman may have been killed by Iranians? Would that change the radicalization of our precious Senators?