Slate's War Stories: Volunteering for Duty in Iraq

Attorney, Slate military affairs writer and Army Capt. Phillip Carter has volunteered for a tour of duty in Iraq. Alex Chadwick speaks to Carter from Las Vegas, where he's spending his last few days in America before joining the 101st Airborne Division.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

It's a slow afternoon in a casino on the Vegas Strip. I'm watching the careful, controlled expression on the face of a 30-year-old man whose next destination is Iraq.

Captain PHILLIP CARTER (Army Reserve): I think if there's ever a moment to be hedonistic in life, it's when you're going to war. You can't put out of your mind the thought that you might not come back. And when you do come back, you're going to come back a little bit changed. No matter how tough you are, you're going to be different when you come back.

CHADWICK: That's Phillip Carter, a captain in the Army Reserve, now activated and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, which is deploying to the war zone. He's also Phillip Carter, attorney at law and Phillip Carter, military and legal affairs writer for Slate and other publications. He's here in Las Vegas just before shipping out. He'll soon be part of a small detachment helping to train police in Iraq, these days, some of the most dangerous duty there is.

Capt. CARTER: I joined the Army in college on an ROTC scholarship to pay for school and then spent four years on active duty as a military police officer between college and law school.

CHADWICK: For part of DAY TO DAY's series of conversations on Iraq, we invited ourselves to join Phillip at the start of his farewell weekend, which he chose to spend in this city devoted to losing time. In his hotel room, Phillip Carter talked about the military and Iraq and why he decided to volunteer for combat duty.

Capt. CARTER: I made a decision in May or June that I should volunteer to be mobilized as a Reservist from the inactive reserves. My branch manager told me I was likely to go in the next year or so, but he couldn't give me any predictions as to where or with what unit. So I chose to go with a very good unit that had gone before because I decided that if I was going to go, I wanted to go with the best.

CHADWICK: This is the 101st Airborne Division that you're going with.

Capt. CARTER: Correct.

CHADWICK: That's a serious combat unit.

Capt. CARTER: It is, but it's also a unit that has shown themselves to be thinking warriors. When they occupied Mosul last year, they did a very good job of working with the civilian population and the local government agencies up there to pacify the area and make it as liveable as any place in Iraq.

CHADWICK: When you think about going to Iraq now, how does it seem to you?

Capt. CARTER: There's a mix of excitement, anxiety and probably a little bit of fear of the unknown. It's really in a lot of ways a big test for me. I've trained with the Army for almost 10 years now. I've done a lot of things in the Army, but I've yet to see combat, and in a lot of ways, this is an opportunity to prove myself and also for my unit to prove itself.

CHADWICK: But it's also--well, it's dangerous.

Capt. CARTER: It is, and you try to mitigate that by training as much as possible, but the risk of what could happen is always in the back of your mind, and it has to be because that's what keeps you on edge and keeps you focused on staying alive.

CHADWICK: In the last month, we've seen polling reports that look as though Americans are less committed than they were to Iraq. People say we should pay for the Gulf Coast problems by not spending money in Iraq.

Capt. CARTER: I think that is a false choice in some respects. Both missions have a lot of import. You know, the US government, above all else, stands for the protection of its citizens, and we should do as much as possible to help the people in the Gulf Coast. But at the same time, we have to succeed in Iraq. We have to win there. A defeat there would mean a lot of bad things for the country down the road. And so I don't think you can simply say we shouldn't spend money in Iraq or we shouldn't spend lives in Iraq and we should do that all on the Gulf Coast. I think we really have to do both, but the trick is to find the balance. What I've told my guys is that we have a lane of our own, which is to train and advise Iraqi police. And if we can do a good job in our lane and achieve small victories along the way, then we can contribute to the effort. And if it all adds up to a total victory at the end of the day is really something more for political leaders and historians to debate down the road. But at our level, we're just focused on little victories.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, here you are, on your way to Iraq. You're a captain in the Army Reserve, called up to active duty. You're an attorney working in Los Angeles. You're at least a semi-journalist, writing regularly for Slate magazine. How do you think of yourself going over there?

Capt. CARTER: That's a good question. My dad usually compares me to Ernest Hemingway, but I think that's entirely too overwrought, and I don't drink nearly enough for that. But I tend to see myself and some of my friends sort of as scholar soldiers, you know, the kinds of people that maybe once were part of the Greek or Roman army that spent a good part of their life studying the world and war and then, when their nation needed them, they went. I don't know how much writing I'll be able to do from over there, but I think that the training I've gotten as a writer and as a lawyer will certainly help me as an Army officer.

CHADWICK: The place where you're from, the West Side of Los Angeles, has a reputation for being very liberal. What do people say when you say, `I'm in the Army and I'm on my way to Iraq'?

Capt. CARTER: You know, it's amazing. Almost everyone has been really supportive, especially including my friends that are very opposed to the war. I think because the military is something that they don't have a lot of personal experience with or personal connection to, they really admire those people that do have that. And they have offered to send me care packages. They've offered to baby-sit my dog. They've offered to check on my apartment. And it's just been overwhelming to me to get all this support. And at the same time, they've also chided me about the war effort itself. It's a weird sort of duplicity where they really support me going over there, but then lament the fact that their friend has to go over there for an effort they don't really agree with. But I think it's going to be very interesting when I come back to have a lot of dinner-table conversations with these people and talk to them about the actual mechanics of what's going on over there. And maybe I can, you know, teach them a little bit about it, or they can teach me about why they're opposed and so in a year or so, we can come to some conclusions about how we might think about this.

CHADWICK: Your last weekend before you go, where are you?

Capt. CARTER: Las Vegas. I do--I wanted to have fun, and I wanted to really indulge myself in some of the best food and wine and a little gambling and go see a show and do all those things that I wouldn't get to do for a year.

CHADWICK: Phillip Carter, good luck this weekend. Good luck this next year.

Capt. CARTER: Thanks, Alex.

CHADWICK: This has been another in the series of DAY TO DAY conversations on the war in Iraq. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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