Radio Atlantic: ‘He Doesn’t Understand War’

A congressman and combat veteran talks about what happens when the commander in chief has no sense of what life on the front lines is like.

Matt York / AP

Ruben Gallego is an Iraq War veteran, a three-term congressman, and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Despite all that, he’s as confused as most Americans about what’s happening with Iran.

America isn’t at war, he told me in an interview Wednesday morning, but that “doesn’t mean that we’re not in conflict … and we don’t know how long it’s going to take.” As we spoke, Gallego was preparing to head to a classified briefing on the Iran situation, but he wasn’t confident about getting answers anytime soon. He kept using the word “scary” to describe what’s ahead. But the point he stressed repeatedly was how detached the politicized debate in Washington—as well as the chatter that erupted on social media about World War III after the strike killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani—can feel to the troops on the ground.

Gallego fought alongside many marines who were killed in Iraq, including his best friend, and at several points in our interview started to cry, remembering what happened to them. He said he wishes President Donald Trump could feel more immediately the fear of death, and the thoughts of revenge, that come with serving on the front lines. A lack of strategic clarity around a conflict, of the sort that exists in our current confusing stance toward Iran, makes things much worse. “If you’re a marine,” he said, “the first thing they teach you is mission objective.”

What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of an interview that can be heard in full on Radio Atlantic.

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Edward-Isaac Dovere: You served in Iraq. Were there times where you would see something that was being talked about, something like [the Iran situation]—a big [news] event that's going to affect your day to day experience?

Ruben Gallego: It's difficult to say. We were fairly shut off. We weren't on a base that had radio. Or any type of satellite TV. Most of the time [we spent] actually patrolling out in the towns. And we slept in people's houses or we slept in, like, abandoned buildings. I do remember one time, I was in a house, where we were clearing this town of insurgents. And what happens back in the day when you were done for the night, it's called going firm. You'd go take over a house, offer money to the occupants. Tell them they can stay or they can go—it's their call. And then you basically barricade yourself in. So that way you don't get infiltrated at night by the insurgents. And this one family had satellite TV. And so we turned it on. And, you know, we were watching, I can't remember what it was—like BBC or something like that. And I think it was [Donald] Rumsfeld was talking about how the war was going great. And I'm like surrounded by eight or 10 Iraqi National Guard dudes. And we had just had a hard day of fighting. And I literally  threw my shoe at the TV. It was just like, come on, could this be any crazier? And then we switched to The Amazing Race—you know, the contest? And I actually saw one of my frickin’ college friends on that show, and he was crying because he's having such a hard day. And then I threw my other shoe at the TV.

Dovere: There is a day that obviously stands out for the worst reasons when your best friend was killed. He was killed by an IED. How did you find out what happened?

Gallego: Well, I was right next to him. I was in a vehicle in front of him and my vehicle rolled over the IED. And by protocol, if you're the vehicle behind you, you're supposed to follow our tracks. And so for some reason, it was triggered—basically a landmine, huge landmine. For some reason, the IED didn't go off on me; it went off on him.

Dovere: What is that like to have had your friend killed when it could have been you?

Gallego: Two days earlier, we had just gotten through a full day of combat where we lost two other platoon members … And then we had a bunch of other injuries in a daylong battle along the Syrian border. And I was actually in a different part of town fighting insurgents. And over the radio, I had heard actually that [my friend] had died in that situation. And until I fought my way back to base, and I saw him—I was so happy to see he was alive, and two days later, he's dead. That's very difficult.

Dovere: You thought about revenge. How do you process that?

Gallego: First, you have to understand why we even think that way … Clearly these Iraqi villagers could have told us or they could have given us a warning. We had all these ways for them to actually call and anonymously give us tips. I remember when I met one of the first firefights I got into, I was going through this road along the river and all of a sudden everyone just disappeared, and as soon as that happened, they hit us with RPGs and machine-gun fire. And they had clearly set this up for quite a while, and they basically let us go into an ambush. So the way you think about this is, like, you know, they're not innocent. They're now part of the enemy, because they're helping out the enemy … And the way that I kind of got myself out of it is I try to give myself some rules, and the two rules was that I was going to survive. And when I didn't think I was going to survive, I was going to go honorably.

Dovere: Revenge is what escalation is. How do we get out of that?

Gallego: If you're a marine, the first thing they teach you is mission objective. And a war crime is, by nature, horrible, because you're targeting innocent civilians and basically going against the basic rules of humanity. But it also will endanger your mission, endanger your men. And I think if you're someone like the Iranians or President Trump, you really need to think about that. What is the mission here? The mission of Iran is pretty simple: get the United States out of Iraq, make Iraq a proxy state. So that way Iran can control from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean, a swath of land that they've always wanted to control. Our objective should be to have a stable, secular Iraq that is a buffer to Iran. Right now, if President Trump is smart—and we'll find out pretty soon—our goal is to make sure that we have an ally in Iraq and not seek revenge and not allow the Iranians to have their goals met. And if they keep that in mind, instead of the idea of revenge, I think we could—we as the United States could be in a better position.

Dovere: If you were in the field and were told to target civilians or cultural sites, what would happen?

Gallego: I would refuse. I think most would. We are trained to understand what war crimes are.

Dovere: As a veteran, are you disconcerted by a commander in chief who talks about committing war crimes?

Gallego: These men and women are going to do whatever they think is lawful for this president. The problem is that this president, I don't think [he] sees them as America's forces. He sees them as his forces. And he is going to use them for whatever he believes is best for him, not for this country.

Dovere: What would you say to those talking about World War III on social media?

Gallego: Eh, calm down. No. 1: A war with Iran will be a totally different war than we know. I mean, we could basically destroy their navy, destroy every piece of aircraft platform they have. And we would still be at war, right?

Dovere: What would make it war?

Gallego: Whenever your country tries to kill another country’s men, that's war.

Dovere: And so a base being fired on is not war?

Gallego: A base being fired on with no intent to kill anybody is probably an opportunity for us to de-escalate … I think what you have to figure out is … how to get out of it. So even if we can't define what war is, if you know that things are bad, let's get out of it. And the way to do that is through de-escalation. And so how does that occur? Well, you have the president through back channels convey to Iran, like, “Hey, we're all going back to our corners. No more funny business back and forth, and then we'll move from there.”

Dovere: Do you feel any less confused and uncertain than Americans at large feel at this point?

Gallego: I guess for me this is kind of normal. I mean, if you are ever in war like I was, like you just get so used to chaos and ambiguity.

Dovere: Chaos like this? Like when the U.S. military says it accidentally released what was meant to be a draft letter, saying that the U.S. was moving troops out of Iraq?

Gallego: Let me tell you, there were dumbasses in the war when I was there, too … We have some of the best minds that are in the Pentagon. We also have some of the dumbest minds at the Pentagon. And the question is, who's in charge that day?

Dovere: So between the best minds and the dumbest minds at the Pentagon, who seems to be in charge right now?

Gallego:  Well, at this point, that's the biggest problem. I can't tell you who's in charge. I don't know who the president's talking to. I don’t know from whom the president's getting advice.