The Meaning Of The End Of Operation Iraqi Freedom

Guests

Ted Koppel, senior news analyst, NPR
Lt. Col. John Nagl, retired, U.S. Army, and president of the Center for a New American Security

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division has left Iraq, marking what President Obama has called the end of America's combat mission in Iraq. But some 50,000 U.S. troops remain in the country. It's unclear if and how their role will change as the mission shifts from combat to support.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

March 21, 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Department of Defense): On the president's order, coalition forces began the ground war to disarm Iraq and liberate the Iraqi people yesterday, and a few minutes ago the air war in Iraq began.

CONAN: Early this morning, more than seven years later, what's being described as the last American combat brigade rolled back across the border into Kuwait, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. But if that marks the formal end of one operation, it also denotes the beginning of another.

More than 50,000 U.S. troops remain. Most are assigned to train Iraqi forces, some Special Operations troops to continue the hunt for al-Qaida; the huge U.S. embassy in Baghdad; and thousands of private contractors are there as well. By agreement, all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of next year.

Today we want to hear from those of you who served in Iraq. Call and tell us your thoughts on this marker, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we wrap up our Summer Movie Festival. This week: best worst boyfriend. You can send your nominations in by email. The address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland. On March 21, 2003, he accompanied U.S. troops into Iraq on assignment for ABC News. And Ted, we back here were being told all of this would be over quickly, U.S. forces home relatively soon. Was that your impression on that day?

TED KOPPEL: Well, I think that was the expectation, but on that day it was just a matter of the extreme nervousness of the unknown. We had been sitting on the other side of the border in Kuwait for a couple of weeks, waiting for the crossing, and when we did, for the most part it was very, very light combat for the first day or two.

And then we began to encounter troops from the 3rd Infantry Division, began to encounter men on white pickup trucks, and many of them would have machine guns mounted on the backs of those trucks, and these were the first sort of irregular Iraqis that they confronted for so long thereafter, and to one extent or another are still confronting today.

CONAN: Indeed, the forces of the Republican Guard turned out to be considerably less difficult than those irregulars in pickup trucks who would learn to put IEDs in the road, improvised explosive devices, put snipers on rooftops and, well, bedevil U.S. forces to this day.

KOPPEL: That term, IED, is one we didn't even know seven years ago, Neal. That's the interesting thing. Unfortunately, our troops and many others have come to know that term and the reality of those explosive devices all too well.

But in the early days of the war, there was just simple admiration, I must say, and you know, one of the realities of my life as a foreign correspondent and a war correspondent is - I've covered 10 wars or more, depending on which ones you count as full-fledged wars - I had never seen ground troops and the Air Force operate together with greater unity, better coordination. And those Republican Guard units, as you were referencing a moment ago, they just sort of melted away. It was incredible.

The expectation was that they would put up a tremendous fight, and they didn't, in large measure because the U.S. military did such a brilliant job of using artillery and air power and helicopters and then the ground forces to just sort of wipe them out.

CONAN: Within a matter of days, U.S. forces were in Baghdad. While you were embedded with the troops, NPR's Anne Garrels was in Baghdad and was there the day that Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Firdos Square. And she went to cover that event, but went a little bit further.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

ANNE GARRELS: Dr. Saad Jawad(ph), an Iraqi political scientist, watched sadly as the Marines helped topple Saddam, calling the scene humiliating. No fan of Saddam Hussein, he nonetheless warned of wounded pride. He acknowledged now Americans are here, they must be in full control. But he said that control will quickly be resented.

Another Iraqi man in his 40s just wept. Though he too hated Saddam, he said seeing American troops in Baghdad was more than he could bear.

CONAN: And a foreshadowing. Ted, you mentioned you've covered a lot of wars. You've also seen a lot of statues pulled down.

KOPPEL: I have, in Eastern Europe and indeed in many parts of the world, and you know, we are a nation that loves its great symbolic moments, and I remember being on the air live with some of my colleagues back in the United States, and there really was this sense of euphoria because seeing Saddam's statue come down seemed to signal so much.

It suggested that, indeed, Saddam was finished, and he at least was, but it also suggested that the war was effectively over, and it suggested that the Iraqi people were welcoming the arrival of Americans with the enthusiasm that some had predicted.

I must tell you, Neal, when we first crossed the border, I remember the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division telling me, you know, tomorrow morning, Ted, we've gotten word from our CIA contacts in Nasiriyah, and we're going to be crossing a bridge into Nasiriyah and they're going to have marching bands waiting for us, and the mayor is going to be there with flowers. It's going to be a great, great moment.

Well, no flowers, no marching band, no mayor. Nasiriyah was full of snipers, and the war was really just beginning at that point. And the same, of course, could also be said of the toppling of the statue. That was not the end. That was simply the beginning.

CONAN: We want to hear today from those of you who have served in Iraq and your thoughts on this day, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Benjamin, Benjamin with us from Newark in Delaware.

BENJAMIN (Caller): Hey, my name is Benjamin Fisher(ph). I was pulled out of Afghan or Iraq about six months ago. And, you know, I just wanted to say that being pulled out and seeing all the troops coming home, it's a really good thing. I was against the war in the beginning. Every...

CONAN: Hello, Benjamin? I'm afraid we've lost him. Maybe his cell phone battery died on us. We'll go instead to Roger, Roger with us from San Antonio.

ROGER (Caller): Yeah, it's an honor to talk to all of y'all. Hello, Mr. Koppel?

KOPPEL: How are you?

ROGER: Pretty good. I was just happy last night to be watching on the news, you know, the last combat troops coming out. I was part of the -what was known as the (technical difficulties) and our unit was responsible for breaking the sand berms there when we first went in.

But I was just it was something else. We went to Iraq, and we drove all day and all night, and the night previous we had been up all night because there was reports of Scuds coming in, and so we had to don our gas mask all the time. So we hardly got any sleep.

But then the next morning around 4:00 a.m. we got in our trucks and just started driving, and we also got into we were support. So we weren't up in front. I could for a couple of weeks there hear all the bombs that were dropped into areas there in Iraq at the forward positions, and then later, when they said that Baghdad had fallen, we went ahead and drove in, and we were really cheered by a lot of people there, and everybody was, you know, giving us high fives, and we were given thumbs-up.

CONAN: When did you notice it start to change, Roger?

ROGER: Probably about - maybe about a month later we were - we went to a base known as Balad, and we were responsible for repairing the airfields there, and we started hearing about mortars landing on our base. And, you know, my first reaction, thought was: what are you all doing, you know? (Technical difficulties) liberated y'all. Why are we why are you all attacking us?

And, you know, it was a kind of an anger moment there, but that was just going to have to be the reality that, you know, that from there on, and...

CONAN: Did you ever think it would be seven years before the last combat brigade came out?

ROGER: No, not at all. I was there with some other troops that had been there in the first Iraq, and a lot of them were thinking, oh yeah, you know, we'll be out of here within six months.

And, you know, I was, like, okay, yeah, because I was married and I had children. And unfortunately, you know, we stayed there for obviously all this time.

CONAN: Well, Roger, thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Let me introduce John Nagl, who is with us here in Studio 3A, retired Army lieutenant colonel, served in Iraq in both Gulf wars and helped write the U.S. Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual and has trained teams to go into Iraq, currently president of the Center for a New American Security, a think-tank here in Washington that develops national security and defense policies. John Nagl, I wonder what your thoughts are on this day.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (Retired Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army): It's a good day, Neal. It's been a long time coming, but I'm afraid that this doesn't mark the end of our involvement in Iraq.

The relationship between the United States and Iraq has been troubled for many years. I fought in Desert Storm, and I would argue that the war has been going on ever since then.

And I think that it is going to continue for a number of years still, and I believe that although combat troops are gone, we'll still have advisers. We'll still have some Special Forces in there for the next year and a half. And my sense is that we're likely to be there for a lot longer than that as well.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, isn't there an agreement to pull out by the end of 2011?

KOPPEL: There is, and I think the expectation - and I might even say I think the hope among American policymakers, certainly in the high ranks of the military, is that the Iraqis will come to Washington and say we know we said you wanted a guarantee that you'd be out by the end of 2011, but you know something, we still need you.

I'm with John Nagl on this. I think we're going to be there for many years to come in some significant numbers, and I'm glad he was the first to do it because I was going to raise a warning flag and say I think the jubilation, the celebration is a little bit premature.

I'm as glad as anyone to see those troops coming out, but we've simply changed the name of the ones who remain behind. We don't call them combat troops anymore, but there'll be some combat.

CONAN: We're talking about what this milestone means to the 50,000-plus who will be remaining behind in Iraq. If you served in Iraq, call, give us your thoughts, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In the seven years since Shock and Awe launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 4,400 U.S. troops died, tens of thousands of Iraqis as well. Estimates vary on the economic costs, but they hover in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars.

The 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq have a new mission as of today, according to the Pentagon: support rather than combat. Today we want to hear from those of you who have served in Iraq. Call and tell us your thoughts on this marker, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Ted Koppel is with us, NPR's senior news analyst, who was embedded with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division as it marched toward Baghdad on the start of the 2003 Iraq War. Also with us, John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, who has served in both Iraq wars, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Let's hear from Keith, Keith calling us from Tacoma.

KEITH (Caller): Oh, hey. Hey, Neal. Hey, Ted. Good to talk to you guys. I actually just returned from Iraq yesterday. I was serving on Baghdad. And I just want to say that I think this mission is really going to hinge upon the Iraqi security forces' ability to provide security and stability to the local populace of Iraq and replacing United States forces' role in doing that.

And I think ultimately they're good enough at achieving that, and I think it is time to come home. I completely agree with a responsible drawn-down of forces. We are going to have a contingent force there that is an advise and assist mission.

But ultimately, I think the Iraqi security forces can provide security and stability on their own, and I honestly just think that things are good enough for us to be able to leave now in a responsible fashion.

CONAN: Colonel Nagl, I wonder if you agree with Keith's estimate.

Mr. NAGL: I certainly agree with Keith, that the key to our exit in Iraq and ultimately our exit in Afghanistan is building up host nation security forces.

The Iraqi army is, I think, largely capable of dealing with internal threats, but it doesn't yet have a modern fighter capability, fighter plane capability. It can't defend its own airspace. It lives in a very dangerous region, Iran arguably the most dangerous state in the world today, right next door to Iraq.

So I agree with Keith that Iraqi security forces can deal with most of the internal threats, but I think they're going to need some American help to deal with external powers in the region for I'm afraid at least a decade to come.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, it's there is no way to believe that - I think the number as of today, provided by the Pentagon, 4,415 Americans killed, that that's going to be the final number.

KOPPEL: I don't think it's going to be the final number, and also, Neal, 32,000 wounded, many, many tens of thousands who have suffered brain damage, concussions, and when you said tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, I think the accurate number is probably more in the hundreds of thousands, if not over a million Iraqis killed.

One point I do want to make that I think compliments what Colonel Nagl was just saying, and that is there is no question that getting rid of Saddam Hussein in terms of his standing as a human being was for the good of all mankind.

But remember, for many, many years the United States covertly assisted Saddam Hussein because he was seen as a counterbalance, and an Iraq led by Saddam Hussein was seen as an adequate counterbalance to the Iranians.

CONAN: The enemy of my enemy sort of...

KOPPEL: Exactly, and in getting rid of Saddam, the greatest favor that we did was to the government of Iran.

CONAN: Keith, we're glad you got back home safe.

KEITH: Hey, thanks, guys. Good to talk to you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Jamie(ph), Jamie calling from Tacoma.

JAMIE (Caller): Yes, hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JAMIE: I'm a military spouse. My husband is active-duty Army. And I don't feel that today is really a day to celebrate. My husband was one of the first soldiers to go to Afghanistan in 2003, and he's deploying again next month to Iraq, and he'll be one of the last 50,000 soldiers there.

I do really worry about his safety as well. There's still going to be a lot of fighting going on. There's still going to be a lot of combat. And it scares me. I will not feel safe and secure until everyone is home and until he is finally home and the deploying stops.

CONAN: Do you know what his assignment will be?

JAMIE: He's actually - he's a computer specialist. He's in signal. He's going to be doing he's a support unit. So he goes in and he sets up satellites. He sets up all the computers. And he'll be training he'll be training the Iraqi soldiers and just trying to set up all, making sure they know how to set up bases and communications.

And he's usually not right there in...

CONAN: Well, one of the things we learned in Iraq is there is no front. Something can happen almost anywhere.

JAMIE: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: And Colonel Nagl, one of the effects that we cannot avoid talking about today is the enormous strain that this has put not just on the U.S. Army but the U.S. Marine Corps as well.

Mr. NAGL: That's certainly true. The Marines really no longer in Iraq in a substantial way, but there's a very substantial Marine presence now in Afghanistan. So both the Army and the Marines are very much feeling the strain of almost a decade now of continuous war, and I'm afraid many more years in front of them.

I'd just like to say that what Jamie's husband is doing, helping the Iraqis learn how to use high technology, is another one of the skill sets that they're going to develop over a number of years. And so I'd like to be able to tell her that this is going to be her husband's last deployment, but I'd be surprised if that was the case.

JAMIE: I would be too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMIE: This is number four. So I wouldn't be surprised if there's more to come.

CONAN: Jamie, I'm sorry to hear that resignation in your voice. We wish your husband the best of luck.

JAMIE: Thank you so much. You have a wonderful day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Bill, Bill with us from Minneapolis.

BILL (Caller): Hi there, pleasure to be on the show.

CONAN: Thanks.

BILL: I served in Iraq with the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division from March '06 to July '07. We were the longest-serving brigade combat team. We were there for the surge. I'll always remember this day because it's actually the fourth birthday of my daughter, who was born while I was deployed.

But I just wanted to say, you know, it's a bittersweet day, having served there, because it's obviously exciting that we're getting our combat troops out, but the reason it's a little bit difficult is that I don't feel like our end state or the goal of the mission to know when we were finished was ever well-articulated by our leaders.

So though I think clearly pulling out combat troops was part of our plan and part of what success looks like, I just never felt that that end state was well-articulated. So it's hard to differentiate between success and just kind of stopping.

CONAN: John Nagl, you know a lot more about counterinsurgency than anyone else on this program. Success in a counterinsurgency sometimes a little nebulous.

Mr. NAGL: It certainly is. Bill's absolutely right, and it's not a war where you're going to see a surrender ceremony at the end on a battleship.

What success looks like in these kind of wars is a country that in the end is able to defend itself against internal threats, ultimately against external threats, probably with continued American assistance for a number of years, and a country that promotes stability in the region rather than instability.

And we do, we've paid a very high price to achieve that in Iraq, and I'm afraid we're going to be paying the tolls for a number of years. But it is important to understand that there is an enormous value to what has been done, both getting rid of Saddam and now in stabilizing that region, which is so important to the security of the whole world.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. One of the major factors in the later years of the conflict in Iraq was the so-called surge. Here we hear from Colonel Wayne Grigsby, a commander of the Sledgehammer Brigade who was stationed southeast of Baghdad in 2007.

Colonel WAYNE GRIGSBY (U.S. Army): The surge has allowed us to disrupt his butt. If he has to change his game and go to a different town, and we've got a relationship with some good people in that town, those good people come back and say, hey, there's about four, five, new guys came here with a bunch of trucks, never seen them before. Really? Go get them.

CONAN: And the surge credited with giving a new life to Iraq, with greatly reducing the violence. But Ted Koppel, the point of the surge was to give Iraqi politics some breathing room so that the Shias and the Sunnis and the Kurds and the other groups there could begin to develop a process of working together.

As we speak, as these(ph) last U.S. combat brigade comes out of Iraq, they are paralyzed at the moment, months after the last election, unable to form a government.

KOPPEL: Yeah, the election was three months ago, and it is, it is, as you say, in a paralytic state, and it doesn't look as though it's going to get much better, and it doesn't look as though they're going to be able to form a coalition government.

If they do, then the government is going to be weak. If they don't, it could very well lead to more internal fighting. You made passing reference to the Kurds. I'd be interested in hearing what Colonel Nagl thinks about the chance of a Kurdish state actually being declared at some point.

CONAN: I was there back in '91. I think they wanted to be the 51st state, but John Nagl?

Mr. NAGL: I think they still want to be the 51st state, and they certainly have done remarkable things and developed an economy that's moving very strongly in the right direction, levels of violence comparatively low. The - I do think that probably an autonomous region, which is what the Kurds have now, is likely to remain the state of affairs for a number of years to come.

The U.S. has an interest in Iraq remaining together. Turkey, our NATO ally, has a very strong interest in Iraq remaining one coherent whole, and I think it's likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to David(ph), David calling us from Rapid City in South Dakota.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, yeah. I actually want to make a point about the - I served in the United States Air Force in Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2004. And a major problem there then is still - but seems to be the major problem now, and it doesn't seem no matter how much U.S. involvement there is, until the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds can start working together to form a solid government. So we could be there for - I could see us being there for years because of that infighting.

CONAN: Kirkuk, the oil city in the north, the Kurds say it's Kurdistan. The Sunnis say no, it's not. And, Ted Koppel, that remains one of the deepest dividing points.

KOPPEL: It's a deep dividing point because there's an awful lot of money at stake. I mean, truly, hundreds of millions, billions of dollars at stake. And, you know, it's one of the possible explosion points in Iraq. I think the great danger is - Colonel Nagl made passing reference to it before when he talked about the fighter jets that the Iraqis are going to need to create an air force.

Creating an air force is not just as simple as looking in the catalog and saying I'll take five of these and six of those. It takes a long time to train the pilots, the support staff, the maintenance crews and a long time to create an air force that is actually capable of being both defensive and, if necessarily, offensive.

Again, I don't want to take the shine of the celebration, but I think the emphasis really needs to be on Americans coming to realize that in one form or another - and the number of civilians, civilian contractors, who will be taking over some of the jobs that were previously done by military men and women that number is going to go up. We are going to have tens of thousands of Americans in Iraq for years to come.

CONAN: We're talking about Iraq, the past and the present and the future with Ted Koppel, NPR senior news analyst, and retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, now president at the Center for a New American Security. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's see if we go next to Nathan(ph). Nathan with us from Cincinnati.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi. Yeah, my name is Nathan, like you said. I was with Fifth Special Forces Group. I was a Green Beret, and I served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think, for me, as I left there - my last rotation was in the summer of 2008 - and my biggest concern is after the surge, we started reconciling ourselves with a lot of insurgent groups, and a lot of these insurgent groups had consolidated power bases regionally. And the biggest concern I think is the inability for the government to actually assimilate them into leadership roles due to religious differences and personnel - you know, personal differences, even regional differences in Iraq. And until that happens, I don't think the possibility for another internal struggle within Iraq is completely out of the question.

CONAN: Let me ask Colonel Nagl. If the Sunni tribes in Anbar are not integrated somehow back within - given some reward for what they did in the uprising, is there going to be another conflict?

Mr. NAGL: The decision by the Sunni tribes to join what became known as the awakening, or the sahwa in Arabic, to stop fighting against the United States and ally with the United States against al-Qaida and the most violent of the insurgents was absolutely a turning point in the war. That started in 2006, continued through 2007.

And when I was there visiting Iraq in 2008, there was a lot of concern about whether the Shia majority were in fact going to bring the Sons of Iraq onboard, give them jobs in the security forces with the Iraqi police. Some of that has happened, not as much has happened as we would like it to fully develop. But the fundamental dynamic of the conflict has changed.

Ultimately, for Iraq to be - have any chance of being at peace, the Shia had to understand that they had won, and the Sunnis, who had been in power but were a minority, had to understand that they had lost the war. And ultimately, I think that has happened.

And interestingly, what we're seeing now is not a Sunni-Shia conflict. There is some Kurd-Arab disputes that we talked about, but the critical political struggle right now is between two different Shia groups.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAGL: And so Iraq is going to remain a contentious place, but the fundamental split between the Sunni and Shia that drove the insurgency and almost the civil war that it became in 2006, I think, that has fundamentally changed.

CONAN: And, Nathan, thanks very much for the call.

Could you clarify for us, Colonel Nagl, what Americans are going to be doing, obviously, contractors? Are they going to be replacing troops in any meaningful way? People are training, does that mean they're on bases, or do they go out with Iraqi soldiers, and obviously, the Special Forces who are going to be involved in presumably dangerous operations?

Mr. NAGL: The - all of those things are going to be happening. There are still a number of advise and assist brigades, AABs, who are paired with Iraqi units who help the Iraqi units, who train them on bases, sometimes accompany them outside the wire. That is increasingly not as necessary. The Iraqi units are increasingly capable of dealing with the remnants of the insurgency with providing security inside their country.

But there is also a move toward training an Iraqi military that can defend itself against external threats. So the Iraqis have purchased 140 M1A1 tanks, Abrams tanks - the same ones I used in two wars against Iraq - they're now buying. They're going to be delivered in April of 2011. And it's going to take a lot of contractors and a lot of Americans to teach them how to use those and maintain them over years to come.

CONAN: Colonel Nagl, thank you very much for your time today. Ted Koppel, as always, thank you.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel. Up next, our Summer Movie Festival continues with the worst boyfriends on film. One hint: never date a dark and brooding superhero.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dark Knight")

Ms. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (as Rachel Dawes) Bruce, this is Harvey Dent.

Mr. AARON ECKHART (Actor): (as Harvey Dent) Rachel's told me everything about you.

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (as Bruce Wayne) I certainly hope not.

CONAN: Tell us your nominee for best worst boyfriend in the movies: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Murray Horwitz joins us next. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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