Most people have an opinion about what's happening in Iraq even if they have never been there. Dalon R. Powell was there. That means his opinions have more credibility than most. But this Milwaukee soldier's story might not be what you expect. He certainly surprised me.
Captain Powell recently received an honorable discharge from the Army; he spent 14 months in Iraq before returning to the United States last January. A graduate of Morehouse College, the 33-year-old African American moved to Milwaukee from his native Mississippi after college to pursue a career in corporate life, then later enlisted in the Army for greater opportunities.
After serving five years, he was recalled to active duty in Iraq, where he spent most of 2004 stationed at a base near Baghdad. That's where he saw what was happening on the ground and developed strong opinions about the war most of us have never seen. During his time in Iraq, Powell was in charge of logistics, which in Army parlance means getting things done when they have to get done. "Basically, I helped move people, places and things," he said.
At the same time he also tried to keep himself and his fellow soldiers alive, which wasn't always easy to do with daily attacks by insurgents and bombs going off around him. During several interviews last week, I talked with Powell about his military service and was impressed by his thoughtfulness. Speaking in a southern accent punctuated with "Yes, sirs," he surprised me with his pragmatic approach to his military service.
He didn't have much to say about weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi freedom or other rationales for the invasion. He was an officer with a commitment, which meant none of that mattered. "I didn't really want to go, but I knew I couldn't run to Canada," said Powell, who is married and has three children. "It was my responsibility (to serve in Iraq). There's my personal opinion. Then there's my opinion as a military officer. You keep those things separate."
What Powell did want to talk about was his belief that many Americans don't understand the economics behind what's happening in Iraq. Simply put, it's about the money.
Powell said he was amazed to see the large amount of private contractors : both from the United States and from other countries : making huge amounts of money to help with the reconstruction of Iraq, supplying equipment, products and even sorely needed food and water. He saw firsthand how U.S. companies like Halliburton and PWC Logistics benefited from the war, and how private contractors would show up to pitch deals to move heavy equipment or flatten buildings, some pocketing a quick $10,000 for a single day's work.
As an economics major, he never suspected so much money was changing hands. "That surprised me," said Powell, who discovered many sweet deals being handed to various private contractors in return for their work in Iraq. "What I thought about was 'These are my tax dollars.'"
The amount of money being spent in Iraq for things other than military operations influenced Powell's opinions about the status of the war. It's the reason he can't envision a quick pull-out of American troops, partly because war has become such an economic boon for so many companies. Also, his study of military history taught him a sobering lesson: "We've never left a country we invaded : not in Europe or Asia or anywhere else in the world."
Like most Americans, Powell has his own theories about why the U.S. invaded Iraq: "It's not just oil. It's not just liberation. It's a byproduct of Iraq being a strategic post for the United States, between Iran and Syria on the borders. The cost of operating bases in Germany is getting too expensive."
He faulted the government for not coming clean for the real reasons for the invasion; but in the same breath, he criticized the U. S. media for failing to cover most of what happens in Iraq. "You can't believe the government or the media. You don't get the real story." In yet another surprise, Powell told me that he actually voted for President Bush twice. "I thought (Senator John) Kerry was telling me what I wanted to hear. We had a saying in the military: 'Better to go with the devil you know than the devil you don't.'"
Talking to this thoughtful soldier with a Bronze Star for service in Iraq, I came to understand how hard it is for most people to comprehend what the U. S. troops are dealing with in that troubled area. Powell talked about working in temperatures that topped 140 degrees, not being able to identify dangerous insurgents from everyday Iraqis because "they all look alike," and being less than 50 yards from an explosion meant to end his life.
It's one soldier's story. But his words left me thinking: If our presence in Iraq really is all about money, that's even more troubling than false weapons of mass destruction.