SALT LAKE CITY — Early Wednesday morning, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles toward American military targets in Iraq. Although I’ve been out of the service for six years — longer than I was on active duty — I couldn’t help but watch the attack unfold on television and imagine what it was like to be there.
This attack and the events leading up to it felt very different from the war I fought. That was the global war on terrorism encompassing engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and everywhere else the U.S. has pursued Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and related insurgencies since September, 2001. This conflict with Iran is harder to define.
In May 2011, I arrived at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, as a young U.S. Army lieutenant on my first and only deployment. Dressed in the new camouflage, I stepped off the colossal Air Force C-17 transport plane and felt ready to finally participate in the war I’d spent the past decade reading about in training manuals and headlines.
My stay at Kandahar Airfield was only a few days, a temporary layover on my way into Kandahar City. The airfield hiatus was a chance for soldiers new to Afghanistan to acclimate to the elevation and temperature (not too dissimilar to Salt Lake City), to drill on medical evacuations and to identify the latest advances in roadside bombs used by our enemies: the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, among others.
Each day, as we waited for the short helicopter flight into the city, I would walk from the tents for transients near the airfield to the USO and the Kandahar Airfield Boardwalk — famous among soldiers throughout the war on terror — for Green Beans Coffee.
A couple days after landing at Kandahar Airfield, during one of those walks to get coffee, I heard the whoosh of projectiles careening over the base’s walls, then explosions somewhere near the airfield.
“Rocket attack. Rocket attack,” a digital and monotoned woman’s voice with an English accent announced over a public address system. A seemingly casual warning from a faceless HAL 9000 meets Mary Poppins character that warned that rockets had been fired inbound toward the airfield and it was time to seek shelter at the nearest concrete bunker.
I immediately dove into a shallow ditch beside the road I was walking along with another young soldier. We were nervous, alert and, so far, completely fine. Our new uniforms covered in dirt, we quickly realized how exposed we were in our hasty foxhole, but we could see a concrete bunker a quick sprint away. We went for it.
“Welcome to Afghanistan,” a soldier already sheltered in the bunker calmly said between drags of a cigarette. With his faded uniform and Marlboro Man-like demeanor, he could have teased this green officer for trying to hide in what would have surely been a shallow grave had the rockets landed near the road, but he resisted.
We stayed in the bunker until the “all clear” was broadcasted over the PA. The young soldier and I dusted off our new uniforms while the Marlboro Man finished his cigarette.
Watching in Salt Lake City as surface-to-surface missiles rushed toward American forces in Iraq Wednesday morning around 1:30 a.m., I felt nervous again.
These strikes felt different and much more unsettling than the rocket attack I’d experienced first hand. But not different for the obvious reasons. Yes, I was now watching from the safety of an American newsroom. Yes, the tactical and geopolitical differences between small rockets fired by Taliban fighters and border-crossing ballistic missiles from an international superpower were colossal.
But Iran’s ballistic missile attack Wednesday, instigated by an American drone strike assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, felt different because the two countries were not at war. The two countries may be engaged in something that feels like a Cold War, but Iranian generals are not leaders of insurgencies nor are American troops the named antagonists to Iranian military forces.
During war, the exchange of rockets, drone strikes and ballistic missiles and the casualties created by those weapons (no matter how heartbreaking) are part of doing business. Casualties, on both sides of the battlefield, are expected. But, this was not war, so what should we expect? What are the rules?
In battle, rules of engagement tell service members when they can and cannot fire their weapons at a perceived threat. Taking a life, including the life of an enemy, is no simple task, but made easier when the rules are clear. For soldiers, these rules apply to their rifles and similar weapons used by their particular unit. The weapons systems used by generals and the commander in chief are not only more strategic, but exponentially more deadly.
What were America’s rules of engagement in this budding conflict with a sovereign nation? And what about its regional allies?
From the safety of the newsroom, I wondered what American and Iraqi military personnel would have been thinking as their own version of “rocket attack,” echoed across Al-Asad and Irbil air bases, and how would America respond.
Although American military installations in the region were already on alert, did they have enough warning to seek concrete shelters before the missiles exploded near their targets?
Would it have mattered anyway due to the destructive capabilities of ballistic missiles? In Afghanistan, I also saw first hand the damage that our own Hellfire missiles could do to the enemy. I worried what the battle damage assessment of much larger ballistic missiles might look on an American occupied air base.
Did I know anyone currently stationed in Iraq and were they OK? As the years passed since I left the Army, I’d fallen out of touch with many former brothers and sisters in arms. I began scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, wondering if my friends and former colleagues who are still in the service were safe? Did they get a chance to send out an “I’m OK and I love you” text to their spouses or partners from the safety of a concrete bunker?
In Afghanistan, when a soldier in our unit was killed, there would typically be a communications blackout until their family was notified of the loss. If this policy was in place, similar “I’m OK” messages may never make it to anxious loved ones.
What were the spouses, partners and parents of those serving in Iraq thinking while live television news reported few details during continuous coverage? Were families clutching their phones and refreshing email windows on their computers? Were they waiting for reassurance from our political leaders?
Most of these questions, and some of my own anxieties, were quelled after the dust was shaken off and the “all clear” was declared at the Iraqi air bases. On Wednesday the American president informed the nation that no soldiers were wounded or killed in the missile strikes, although Iranian media published a much more devastating assessment of the attack. Based on updated satellite imagery, several buildings on al-Asad appeared to have been destroyed in the attack, CNN reported Wednesday afternoon.
But the conflict was not yet over and there was no promise of ceasefire or amends. What the “all clear” didn’t clear up was an understanding — for the American public and those who serve — of what the rules of engagement would be moving forward in respect to Iran.