IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Seth Moulton on the dangers of military advisory missions becoming combat missions

A four-tour veteran draws on lessons from Iraq to talk about U.S. strategy against ISIS


RACHEL MADDOW:  This week, a very rare thing happened.  A Democratic incumbent member of Congress lost his seat in a primary.  Long-time Massachusetts Democrat, John Tierney, was beaten in his primary this week by a young challenger named Seth Moulton. Seth Moulton is a United States Marine, he`s a veteran of the Iraq war, he served four tours of duty in Iraq over the course of five years.  He said in his campaign for Congress when he launched it that although he opposed the war in Iraq, he never regretted doing what he could to serve his country.  With more than 1,000 Americans now back in Iraq and an airstrike campaign there being expanded, and expanded not just there, but expanded potentially over the border into Syria, veterans of the Iraq war have perspective on this that was earned the hard way and ought to be listened to.

Joining us now for the interview tonight is Seth Moulton.  Mr. Moulton, congratulations on your primary win this week.  And thanks for being here.

SETH MOULTON, (D-MA), CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE:  Thanks very for having me, Rachel.

MADDOW:  So, I have to ask if you think that there is - if there is a sort of level of insight that we ought to be looking to Iraq veterans for when we consider these new decisions about war and what looks like war inside Iraq and potentially in Syria.  Do veterans have something special to add to the conversation?

MOULTON:  Look, I think, I think we do.  Actually, ten years ago last month, I was serving as a Marine and my mission was to be a military adviser in Iraq.  Now, I`ll tell you, when the Iraqi unit we were advising came under assault by the militia in Najaf, we went to their assistance and quickly became embroiled in the worst combat of the war until that time.  So, it showed that a military advisory mission can very quickly become ground combat.  And that`s one of the things I`m worried about with the president`s current strategy.  I mean let`s not forget, the Vietnam War started as a military advisory mission.

MADDOW:  In terms of the way this is being debated, there`s been a lot of discussion about this sort of red line, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, that there won`t be combat troops in Iraq, that it`s not combat.  That said, airstrikes are happening.  And it`s not just drones.  It`s manned aircraft as well.  As you say, there`s plenty of advisers there.  We`re at 1100 and probably going up to 1,500 very shortly with the president`s announcement last night.  Is it wrong to be drawing a bright line and saying those folks are there but they are not in combat, that this is not a combat mission, they are just there doing something else?

MOULTON:  Well, I think this is very hard.  I think that line quickly becomes blurred when you`re on the ground.  For one thing, it`s very difficult to accurately target an insurgent force, which is integrated among the population, if you don`t have troops on the ground directing the airstrikes.  Otherwise it`s very difficult to actually target the insurgents and not kill civilians.  So if you have advisers that are close enough to the frontlines to help direct those airstrikes, it`s very quick and very easy for them to get drawn into real combat. 

MADDOW:  Do you think that Congress ought to be voting on an authorization to use military force based on what the president sketched out last night?  If expansion of the campaign in Iraq and potentially an extension into Syria, Congress ought to be - should Congress be voting on that specifically?

MOULTON:  Absolutely.  And Congress should also be asking some very difficult questions about exactly how this campaign is going to be carried out.  I mean look, when ISIS went into Iraq, they swept over the Iraqi army.  But it`s not that they overwhelmed the Iraqi army.  The Iraqi army put their weapons down and went home because they had no faith in Prime Minister Maliki`s sectarian government.  The Iraqi army actually outnumbers ISIS by about 30 to 1.  The point is that the fundamental problem in Iraq today is a political problem, not a military problem.  The Iraqi army doesn`t have any trust in the government that they`re supposed to defend.  So I would rather see Congress and the president sending political advisers to Baghdad to help put together the Iraqi government, so the Iraqi army could do this job itself.  And I think ultimately at the end of the day, Iraq has to be able to defend its own borders. 

MADDOW:  Seth Moulton, Iraq war veteran running for Congress in Massachusetts.  Four tours of duty there, including one of the first platoons into Baghdad at the very start of the war.  Mr. Moulton, again, congratulations on your win this week.  Thanks for being here to help us understand this.

MOULTON:  Thanks very much.