WASHINGTON — For Representative Seth Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq, traveling to the war-torn country for the first time in more than six years this week was a bittersweet return.
“I spent three years of my life there,” said the Salem Democrat, who traveled to Baghdad on a fact-finding tour for the House Armed Services Committee. “I have a lot of Iraqi friends. In that sense, it was good to be back.”
But as the freshman lawmaker flew in a helicopter over the scarred landscape where he became a decorated Marine Corps officer — in a war he later said he disagreed with — he was on a very different mission: to decide whether to vote to possibly send more US troops back to fight there.
President Obama has asked Congress to formally authorize the five-month-old US-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The vote will be personally wrenching, Moulton said, especially with signs that the United States is sliding toward reinserting combat troops.
“These are very difficult decisions ... about putting young Americans in harm’s way,” Moulton said in an interview Friday after returning from a week-long trip that took him to Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other countries in the region.
“We are very close to sending Americans back into combat,’’ he said. “We have several thousand American troops in Iraq again. There are a lot of experts in Iraq who believe we can’t effectively fight ISIS unless those military advisers are allowed to accompany the Iraqi troops into combat.”
Moulton, 36, is one of two dozen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan serving in Congress from both parties. As this new generation of military veterans gains prominence, their views are being closely watched by voters and by their colleagues. A vote on Obama’s request for military authorization is expected in the coming weeks, after the House and Senate hold hearings.
Obama has insisted he has no plans to send large numbers of combat troops to fight ISIS. But skeptics like Moulton say the president’s proposal, as written, leaves open the door to do so, at least for a limited time.
“The fact that that is on the table right now shows just how bad the situation has become,” Moulton said.
The representative said that while he is open to giving Obama the authority to use military force, he won’t do so until he gets more details from the administration on the end game, particularly the strategy for empowering local allies to do more.
“What I really don’t want to have happen is for us to spend American lives and treasure fighting for a stable government so we don’t have terrorists in sanctuaries overseas and having to do that again every five years,” he said. “There’s got to be a political solution. If we just go and deal with the military problem we will be back there three or four years down the road and dealing with the next group that crops up in a vacuum.”
Moulton, a Harvard graduate, is the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation to have served in the military.
As the debate in Congress unfolds, he faces competing pressures from supporters back home.
Some who think the United States needs to take more robust action against security threats said they are counting on Moulton take a more hawkish stand on national security issues than the mostly anti-interventionist bent of his fellow Bay State Democrats.
“I have some high hopes for Seth that he just doesn’t become a rubber stamp along with the rest of the delegation, particularly on issues of national security,” said Paul Mawn, a Vietnam veteran who runs an alumni group of Harvard graduates who served in the armed forces. “There were a lot of people besides Democrats who voted for him — including many veterans.”
Mawn does not live in Moulton’s district so could not vote for him. But he did contribute to Moulton’s campaign and helped organize campaign events with veterans. Both men are also members of the Wardroom Club, a group of mostly Navy and Marine Corps veterans in the Boston area who meet monthly.
Moulton is also being scrutinized by voters with deep doubts about the current policy.
Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action, said he is concerned that even with his expressed concerns Moulton may favor a more robust US military presence.
“He has stated that while he opposed the Iraq War as a policy, once it started he saw more significant opportunities to work for good from within the war effort than outside,” Harrison said. “Moulton is a believer in US interventionism and he still thinks the US can effectively remake the Middle East by force if only it does it more carefully.”
“In other words,” Harrison added, “he is a hawk, though a thinking hawk rather than a knee-jerk one.”
Moulton has said the United States has to do something about the Islamic terrorist group, which has seized parts of both Iraq and Syria and beheaded several Americans.
“ISIS is a serious national security threat,” he said, adding his view was only reinforced by meeting with military and political leaders in Iraq, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates this week.
Moulton is conferring with fellow members of Congress who have also served in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
One fellow Harvard graduate and recent veteran who has compared notes with Moulton is Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona who was also elected in November. Unlike most veterans in Congress, he was not an officer but in the enlisted ranks.
“Having to carry out the orders meant realizing the true impact of it at the micro-level,” said Gallego, a former Marine Corps machine gunner who also served in Iraq. “A lot of people think it at a macro level. This is going to be carried out by mostly 18- to 22-year-olds who have to execute these grand ideas of politicians.”
What is clear is that Moulton is not going to follow the tradition of a freshman who remains in the background.
“I very much want to be a part of this debate,” Moulton said. “We need the perspective of recent veterans as we decide what to do about the president’s request ... and the world tries to figure out how to confront the threat. I think the experience in Iraq shows that we can make better decisions. My job is to do what’s right. Not to do what the left wants or the right wants.”