When Vets for Freedom Met with Hillary Clinton

by Vincent G. Heintz

George Weigel is spot on in arguing that the foreign-policy perspectives of the Democratic party are hopelessly mired in the “lessons” of the Vietnam War. Here is a case in point.

The Place: A second-floor hallway in the U.S. Capitol.

The Time: Early 2007, during the Iraq Surge debate.

The Players: U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.); her staff; and a group of Iraq War veterans from Vets for Freedom.

The Lead-up: We had booked appointments with our respective elected officials in Congress to impress upon them the need for and feasibility of American military victory in Iraq. As a New Yorker, I had the lead with Senator Clinton. I hoped to share some of what I had seen commanding a light infantry company in the so-called Sunni Triangle in 2004.

The Meeting: After being fended off by interns who coyly asked if we were “the group looking for a picture with the senator,” and a military attaché who offered a smile and a promise to “relay our thoughts to the senator,” we made clear our expectation that the senator would make good on her agreement to speak with us. Soon, Senator Clinton appeared in the hallway outside her suite of offices, flanked by minders who told us upfront that she had “only a few moments” to listen. We were civil and respectful. Senator Clinton was gracious and sincere. What follows is my recollection of those “few moments.” The senator’s words appear nearly verbatim (to include her invocation of “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers).

VGH: Senator Clinton, during our time in Iraq, we saw numerous instances where victory at the tactical level was possible. Security at the local level produces the space and time for local security and governance to develop and attain credibility with the population, and to promote economic activity. Moreover, it produces the actionable intelligence necessary to target and kill or capture terrorists. To do that, we need sufficient ground forces to remain in their areas of operation long enough to protect the population from terrorists, help develop trust between the population and the government, and allow the intelligence information to begin to flow. I personally saw it happen. In my company’s area of operations, within months, tips on enemy activity began to roll in so fast that we and our buddies in the Iraqi security forces could hardly act on them all. The Ba’athists, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Muqtada Sadr’s militia have nothing to offer the people in the long run. The Iraqis with whom I worked know that very well. As you know, General Petraeus intends to implement a fully-resourced counterinsurgency —

HRC: Captain, Captain [though we appeared in civvies, in our personal, non-military capacities, the senator manifested her genuinely powerful memory in recognizing me from her participation a year before at an event at my reserve unit’s home station], that is enough. Thank you for coming to see us and for all you have done for the country. You have all done more than should have been asked of you.

VGH: Thank you, Senator. The point we had hoped to make, though, is that a genuine, theater-wide counterinsurgency campaign —

HRC: You know, Captain, listen to me. You may have spent some time in Iraq. But let me tell you something. I was around during the Vietnam War, when you were a child. I can tell you that what I am hearing now from these generals and from the Bush administration is the same line of nonsense that we heard in 1968 and 1969 and 1970. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em. It is my judgment that it is time for us to disengage from Iraq. Thank you all again for coming and for your service. Good luck to those of you returning overseas.

According to then-Senator Clinton, being “around” during the Vietnam War (at Wellesley College and Yale Law School) necessarily provides superior insights into the conduct of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism warfare in Iraq than could ever be possessed by a group of combat veterans fresh from Iraq’s battlefields.

— Vincent G. Heintz, a member of Vets for Freedom, served in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2008.

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