On March 20, 2003, Rep. Seth Moulton was a 24-year-old U.S. Marine in Kuwait, called into his commander’s tent at 3 a.m. to hear the news: The U.S. was invading Iraq.
Rumors had been circulating among troops in the run-up, with Moulton’s fellow lieutenants taking bets over whether then-President George W. Bush would order the invasion.
“I said, 'No, Bush isn't really going to do this,'” Moulton told GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel Monday. “I lost that bet. It's not the only bet in my life that I've lost.”
When Moulton’s commander called him into his tent in the middle of the night, he introduced him to two new troops that would be joining his platoon. Both of them were 17, right out of training, he said.
“It's just a reminder of just how amazingly young our troops are, so many of them, and we put so many burdens on their shoulders,” Moulton said. “That's what we do every time we go to war.”
Two decades later Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq before being elected to Congress, said he has many takeaways and complicated feelings about the invasion.
An estimated 275,000 to 306,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence related to the war between 2003 and 2019, according to data from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. More than 16,000 Iraqi troops and 4,431 US troops were also killed.
“I think there was some real flawed decision-making when it came to the decision to invade in the first place,” he said. “The Iraqis were thrilled that we had rid them of this tyrant of a dictator. But then in the next phase, we failed to dedicate the resources and the smart decision-making to actually reconstruct the country and build a democracy. There were bright moments of success, but also many a failure.”
"I think there was some real flawed decision-making when it came to the decision to invade in the first place."-US Rep. Seth Moulton
Moulton said he believes the initial military invasion went well, but that the U.S. military withdrew too quickly under former President Barack Obama.
“But on the other hand, the surge was actually successful at restoring order to the country. It was a good example of how counterinsurgencies can actually succeed,” he said. “It's a complicated history, and I think that's exactly what veterans today feel. We have complicated views of the war.”
Moulton did not go to Iraq planning a political career, he said.
“This was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “It wasn't something I studied in school. It wasn't something I was interested in. But over the course of those four tours, I felt like I had seen some of the consequences of failed leadership in Washington. And in fact, there was even a day when a corporal in my platoon came up to me — it was the end of a rather difficult day — and he said, ‘You know, sir, you ought to run for Congress someday so that this stuff doesn't happen again.’"
Two decades after the invasion, Moulton said the U.S. is not serving the veterans who have returned from Iraq.
“There are a lot of veterans who are homeless, who don't have opportunities back here, who literally risked their lives for the country but don't have the opportunities that many other Americans do,” he said. “There is a lot more that we need to do. But it's encouraging that the Congress is working in a bipartisan way to get this done. It's one of the few places where you see Democrats and Republicans coming together on both sides of the aisle.”
Decisions to send U.S. troops to war should be made with great care, Moulton said.
“I think the most important thing is we have to make these decisions very carefully, and they shouldn't be politicized,” he said. “There's a lot of people playing politics right now with the war in Ukraine. You got Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right extremists essentially spouting Kremlin talking points. You've got other people who are just flying their Ukrainian flags without much idea of what that means or what's going on on the ground.”
That brings him back to his 24-year-old self, and the two 17-year-olds who joined his platoon on the eve of the invasion.
“The point I bring this back to is that when you fight a war, a lot of people die and they're very young,” he said. “And I think that remembering the people who are involved in war is one of the most important things that we can do.”