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After Iraq, Mullen wants to prevent future presidents from launching a war of choice

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has many people remembering. This day, in 2003, U.S. bombs and missiles struck Baghdad. An army soon followed and deposed Iraq's leader, only to find he did not have weapons of mass destruction, as the U.S. had claimed, and then to find they faced an insurgency. Recently, American veterans recalled fighting house-to-house in Fallujah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you needed to put a tank main gun round into a building, you put a tank main gun round into the building. You know, if we needed to blow down trees to clear our fields of fire, we blew down trees to clear our fields of fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Every day, it was kicking in doors, house-to-house, clearing operations. Sometimes...

INSKEEP: These voices are from a new NPR podcast, Taking Cover, in which a team, including our colleague Tom Bowman, investigate Americans who killed their own comrades in an act of friendly fire.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It's a story about mistakes, faulty assumptions, miscalculations, lies.

INSKEEP: When Tom came by my office last week, he said that sentence you just heard could sum up the war. We hear next from a man whose job was to clean up the mess. In 2006, as the war grew worse, President George W. Bush's party lost control of Congress. But rather than end the war as public support dropped, the president sent more troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home.

INSKEEP: Months later, a new officer took over as the president's top military adviser. Admiral Mike Mullen was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as fighting continued for several more years. And we began our talk at that moment of trying to recover from calamity.

Did anybody in the Pentagon think at that moment or argue at that moment the thing to do, actually, is to stop - this is not going well, stop digging the hole?

MIKE MULLEN: No. No, no. Not from my perspective. It was to try to turn it around because we were losing literally hundreds of our men and women a month, and we knew we had to turn that.

INSKEEP: What do you think you achieved, then?

MULLEN: Well, among other things, the killings slowed dramatically. The number of troops that we lost while the surge itself - and as we talk about this, the first thing that comes to my mind are the some, you know, 4,000 or so troops that we lost that were killed in Iraq over the course of that war, and lives changed forever. Families changed forever. And the brave young men and women who went off to serve nobly, I actually would say that given how poorly it had gone in the first several years, that surge set the stage for the transition, which actually is still going on, literally as we speak.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mention the human cost. Of course, there was a human cost in Iraqis that was even...

MULLEN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Far greater than Americans who were killed. When veterans have been asked in recent years, was this war worth it, majorities have said no, it was not. Majorities of Americans have said the war was not worth fighting for. What would you say to them?

MULLEN: I generally would agree with that, Steve. I think it was a mistake. The presidents - and I worked for two of them - and many more have said the most consequential decision they make in that office is to send young men and women off to war. And my worry is that we didn't have the debate and we didn't get the answer right.

INSKEEP: Some people who are in government with you, though, still argue, I suppose, that it is a kind of 60-40 result. They feel that despite all the problems, that there was some benefit. Let's hear one such perspective from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served under both Bush and Obama. He spoke last week to NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT GATES: From today's vantage point, you have an Iraq that has a democratically elected government, however flawed. It's really the only democratically elected government in the Arab world, for all of its flaws.

INSKEEP: Would you defend the Iraq war results even to that extent, to say that, well, there was some benefit?

MULLEN: Yeah, I would, Steve. I mean, I think there was some. And I think what Secretary Gates said is true. I think if one can back away from that and look at if we knew that today is where we'd be, whether the price that was paid would be worth it - and I'm not sure it would be.

INSKEEP: We told Admiral Mullen of a darker vision of the war. It comes from the city of Fallujah, that city where we heard about the house-to-house combat. Recently, our colleague Tom Bowman went there and spoke with Sheikh Nawwaf Jabbar Hussein Ali (ph).

NAWWAF JABBAR HUSSEIN ALI: (Through interpreter) The American, they ruined the whole country and specifically Fallujah. We've been displaced many, many times here. And then the Americans brought al-Qaida. Al-Qaida never exist in Iraq before.

INSKEEP: Doesn't that cast a different idea of the war - even the resolution of the war - that for Iraqis, it's not even resolved?

MULLEN: Steve, when you ask that question, I mean, one of the biggest lessons that I took away is to see the challenges from the people who are most affected. And certainly, I can't push back on how he sees that. My perspective is a little different. Certainly, that wasn't the intent, and obviously, that was the most intense fighting, I think, over the course of the many years that we fought there, you know, in Fallujah. So that perspective is something that we need to, I think, take into consideration. And it would have been much better to understand that ahead of time as opposed to ending up the way it did in terms of the damage that we - that the war generated with respect to that country and its future. And I think now we have to both hope and pray that they can see a future where they are unimpeded by ISIS and al-Qaida, et cetera. And to the degree that we can help them and support in that regard, I think we have an obligation to do that.

INSKEEP: What lessons did the military learn from this bitter experience?

MULLEN: Well, the biggest lesson for me, quite frankly, was to have the American people on side. I've argued in recent times that for the future, we need to reduce the size of our actually standing army. And so the next time we go to war or the president wants to go to war, he'll have to call up a half a million kids not to make the initial surge, if you will, or the initial deployment - these wars also have a way of lasting longer than we thought. That debate about a draft needs to take place at the dinner table of every family that's got a young son or daughter that's 18 or 19 years old that could get drafted to go fight the war. That's what's got to be fed up to our congressional leadership and voted on in terms of a decision to go or not.

INSKEEP: You're describing, Admiral, of course, the way that American wars - large wars - were fought up until modern times. There would be a relatively small army and navy and they would expand in times of war. And you're telling me you want that as a kind of deterrent against a needless war. You want the next president or a future president to be forced to take that step before going to war.

MULLEN: I want that debate to occur, Steve. I haven't been able to come up with a better mechanism to force that than to draft kids - you know, draft young men and women.

INSKEEP: Admiral Mike Mullen, it's a pleasure talking with you again. Thank you so much.

MULLEN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Obama during the later years of the war in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "UNDISCOVERED COLORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.