GREENWICH – In June 2007, Brad Boyer exchanged his business suit for U.S. military fatigues. An active reservist, the hedge-fund manager was deployed to Iraq at the height of then-President George W. Bush’s troop surge, leaving behind his wife and their three children two days after a family simcha. He returned six months later with a Bronze Star Medal and a lot of perspective.
Members of Temple Beth El in Stamford, the Boyers’ children attend Carmel Academy in Greenwich. Boyer is currently Commanding Officer of a Defense Intelligence Agency reserve unit in Miami, Fla.
On Sunday, Mar. 13 at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, he will discuss his experiences in a war zone and give an insider’s take on the current situation in the Arab world.
He spoke to the Ledger about his experiences in Baghdad.
How did you get involved in a military career?
A: I was a Navy ROTC student at Harvard, participating via a program at MIT. After I graduated in 1987, I was commissioned as a Navy ensign and served four years of active duty on a ship at Naval Base San Diego. I went back to Harvard for business school in 1995 and remained affiliated with the Navy Reserve. There are two types of reservists, active and inactive, and I was inactive for six years. But after 9/11, I told my wife that I wanted to get involved again because I had the skills and experience that could be put to use in helping to defend the country. I went back to active status in January 2002.
How were you deployed to Iraq?
A: Just after 9/11, the U.S. military had mobilized many thousands of reservists for Operation Noble Eagle, called Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. There are laws on the books stating that if Congress declares a national emergency – which it did after 9/11 – it authorizes the President to mobilize reservists and National Guardsmen for up to two years to go back on to active duty. When they do that, you as a reservist can wait until your number is up, as it were, and be involuntarily recalled. As an active reservist, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would be mobilized involuntarily, so I decided to volunteer. I didn’t have the chance to do so in spring 2007 because I’d been given two weeks notice that I would go to Baghdad in May, replacing another officer who had dropped out of the mission. I would have been mobilized just before my daughter’s bat mitzvah.
Technically, the government can mobilize an active reservist with 24 hours’ notice. I explained what a bat mitzvah was and how important it is to a family, and the day before the celebration, I got a 72-hour waiver from the Navy to mobilize the Monday after the ceremony instead of the Friday before.
I was put through a month’s worth of preparatory training and administrative processing in Washington, D.C., Naval Station Norfolk, and the U.S. Army Training Center at Ft. Jackson, S.C., then a week of desert training in Kuwait and another week at Baghdad International Airport before reaching my base in East Baghdad.
What did you do in Iraq?
A: My specialty is Intelligence and I was assigned as an Intelligence officer to a law-and-order task force created by General David Petraeus, who was then commander of the multi-national force in Iraq. Our group was a multi-service, multi-agency, multi-national task force including the Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force, and even the Coast Guard, as well as civilian agencies – the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency – and the British police and Australian military attorneys. We were supporting the Iraqi police and a branch of the Iraqi judiciary, the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, or CCCI.
Our mission was to help the Iraqis investigate and prosecute major war crimes, terrorism cases, and Iraqi government corruption. This all played into the counter-insurgency strategy established by Genl. Petraeus, which helped stabilize the country. We helped the Iraqi police who, along with Iraqi judges, were technically competent, but who didn’t have the support and protection to investigate these terrible crimes.
The judges and their families lived in a secure housing compound guarded by contract guards on an adjacent NATO base. We would have to go into Baghdad to visit the police and crime scenes in order to build cases according to Iraqi law. We were driven in convoys, which made us susceptible to ambush attacks and roadside bombs.
Our base in East Baghdad was next to Sadr City, one of the most heavily populated slum districts in the world, with two million people – the vast majority Shiite Arab and poor – in a four-square-mile area. They were predominantly followers of the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has his own militia group, the al-Mahdi Army. They were opposed to us being there and had attack cells that would ambush convoys and shoot rockets at our compound and over our heads to the Green Zone.
What did you learn in Baghdad that Americans might not understand about Iraqi society?
A: When the U.S. first went there in 2001, there was a degree of naiveté about the complexity of an Arab society like Iraq and the difficulty in rebuilding a civil society from a brutal dictatorship that was in power for 30 years. At one point in the 1970s, Iraq had one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East, apart from Israel and Lebanon. Under Saddam and the wars and oppression he inflicted, the country went into a lengthy decline. The older Iraqis we met were very proud of their country and remember things the way they used to be, and wanted to get back to that standard of living and that lifestyle.
Iraq was only created after World War I, carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the French and British. Sixty percent are Shiite Muslims, around 30 percent are Sunni Muslims, and the rest are a mix of ethnic minorities, the largest being the Kurds. We did not appreciate the complexity of what Iraq was or how Saddam – even though he was a brutal dictator – had kept the country together. So when I was in Iraq, whenever I was dealing with an Iraqi, I had to think about where he was coming from at that point in time: Was he an official representative of the Iraqi police or judiciary, a member of a particular tribe, a sectarian or religious affiliation, a member of a secular political party, or representing his own personal interests? You had to judge: who are you talking to? What combination of affiliations was influencing this person’s behavior?
It was that complexity that the U.S. generally didn’t understand, or how to work in that environment. But it came together while I was there, and I gained an appreciation for the unique aspects of Iraqi society and the general way societies tend to work. We could engage the Iraqis in a way to accomplish mutually effective results.
How do you interpret the current situation in the Arab world?
A: In the medium and long term, I see the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East to remove dictators as a positive phenomenon, from the standpoint of human rights and for U.S. and Israeli interests. But in the short term there will be turmoil, because it will be difficult to make the transition to democracy and put the right people into power. These societies, by virtue of not having independent civic institutions in place, could be overwhelmed by the most organized force – which are often radical Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in Libya.
From American and Israeli national security concerns, particularly regarding Egypt, I suspect that dictators who were previously friendly with or acquiesced to U.S. interests are likely to be replaced by populist groups who could be less inclined to support U.S. interests in the region.
But these countries will be primarily focused on rebuilding hollowed-out societies, and if they are building civic institutions and reviving their economies, that inward focus will be beneficial to Israel and may have a moderating influence on the new governments. I am cautiously optimistic, because I saw democracy being put into place in Iraq, and those outcomes tend to result in more peace and stability.
In the case of Iraq, it’s important to note that you already have a democracy there. It’s imperfect, and I saw a lot of the imperfections firsthand in Baghdad in 2007. But it’s unlikely that a society like that will be able to quickly adapt itself to the standard we in the U.S. or others in established democracies are used to. I did a poll in Baghdad at the height of the surge in 2007 when things were pretty bad, and asked people, “When you compare this to Saddam Hussein’s rule, what do you prefer?” One hundred percent of those I spoke to, across all sectarian and religious divisions, said, “We’d rather have the chaos now than suffer under Saddam.” I found that very compelling.
Is there anything you miss from your time in Baghdad?
A: I miss the camaraderie of my fellow servicemen and women, and the dedicated Iraqis supporting us in our mission, even at the risk of their own lives. A number of our translators had fled Iraq with their families during Saddam’s rule and came back by themselves because they believe in the cause and in the value of their country being liberated, and they wanted to make a contribution. These were highly educated men and women from all walks of life – a merchant, an HVAC engineer, the former national marksman champion under Saddam, a female mechanical engineer – all of whom had signed up to return to help us execute the mission. They were taking a big risk and had to be protected in the same way we were and live with us on base. We had reason to believe that their names were known to the bad guys, along with the names of judges, and that their extended families still living in Iraq were at risk. I have close friends whom I consider comrades in arms, with whom I still stay in touch. That closeness is difficult to replicate in the civilian world, and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through what I did in order to have that camaraderie – but it was a clarifying experience for me on a personal level.
L’Chaim Society Presents Brad Boyer: Sunday, Mar. 13, 9:45 a.m. (following Minyan) at Congregation Beth El, 109 East Ave., Norwalk. For information, call (203) 838-2710