Last week, five current Harvard Law School students who have served or are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces spoke to a packed audience about their experiences in Iraq. Panelists Robert Merrill ’08, Geoff Orazem ’09, Erik Swabb ’09, Hagan Scotten ’10, and Kurt White ’10 each drew upon their varied military posts during the invasion, the Second Battle of Fallujah, and counterinsurgency operations, to explain what it is like to serve as a junior officer in Iraq.

“I want to remind you about what is unique about this event,” said Professor Noah Feldman, who moderated the panel. “For better or worse, you can turn on the television or open the newspaper and hear any amount of high level theoretical discussion, some of it informed, most of it not so well informed, about what is going on in Iraq and what U.S. policy towards Iraq should be. What is almost never heard…are the on-the-ground perspectives of the people who have served in the recent past.”

The students spoke about working with the Iraqi people to secure towns, offer help to those whose homes were destroyed, maintain relationships with Islamic Clerics and other local political leaders, and taking captured prisoners to Abu Ghraib. In all of these varied tasks, the veterans agreed that their largest challenge was trying to have positive interactions with the Iraqi populace while also protecting themselves and their soldiers from danger.

“It was hard to teach soldiers who are always trained to fight to leave base with the expectation that you’re going to be shot at, because that’s kind of the mentality that they need to be in to stay safe, but then also to be able to interact with the populace in a way that brings about trust and makes them want to work with us as opposed to against us,” said White, who served as a Platoon leader in the Calvary and as a staff officer.. “I’m not sure I ever convinced my soldiers…that this was philosophically correct, but I think it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that if people were not treated well, then they would go get a gun and they would come back and shoot at us when we came back on their street the next time.”

Not surprisingly, the veterans also spoke about the difficulties in convincing the Iraqis that the Americans were trying to help and that it is not valuable to wage a civil war.

“We were trying to lead about 400 Iraqi soldiers, so our leadership challenge was Iraqis who had no military training,” said Scotten, who served in the Special Forces. “He [the Iraqi soldier] doesn’t accept the rules of the game that I accept. He thinks it’s offensive to human rights that he can’t go and shoot the people who he thinks are shooting his countrymen. I’m not going to convince him he’s morally wrong. I just have to convince him that it’s not in his interests.”

Scotten continued: “We used to say there are only two groups of true believers in Iraq: the Americans and al Qaeda. They are the only two groups who have an ideological goal.”

The event concluded with a standing ovation from the audience, thanking the soldiers for their service.

Watch a webcast of the event Serving in Iraq: HLS Student Veterans Share Their Experiences.