Former Reps. Arlen Erdahl (R-MN) and Beverly Byron (D-MD) spoke Tuesday at The University of South Dakota on Congress' role in the war on terror.
"I am not here with easy answers," Erdahl said. "I don't think there is one."
The United States needs to define the enemy, Byron said. "There is the war on terror, and there is the war in Iraq. Those are two separate and distinct issues," she said.
Erdahl agreed, saying the country was "misled and misinformed" that Iraqis attacked on 9/11. "There isn't an excuse for (Iraqi) excesses … but there was a deception and misunderstanding (about the Iraqi role on 9/11)," he said.
Both speakers brought military knowledge to Tuesday's forum. Erdahl served in the U.S. Army from 1954-56, and he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress from 1979-83. Byron, a member of the U.S. House from 1978-92, served as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. She was elected chairman of a sub-committee having oversight of 42 percent of the Defense Department's budget.
Erdahl called on the USD audience to realize the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, citizens of a U.S. ally. Americans also must realize the presence of home-grown terrorists and those who illegally stream into the country, he said.
"We live in troubled times. We have people penetrating our border without calling it an invasion," he said. "How do we deal with this and not live in terror?"
"With great power comes great responsibility. How do we live in a world where terrorism is real and not over-react?" he added.
Erdahl stressed the need for a well-funded, well-trained military. But while he comes from a military background, Erdahl said he does not support using only military force.
"When we fight violence with violence, it's a never-ending cycle," he said. "We have to consider using diplomatic means as well as military."
That means working not only with allies but with current enemies, particularly in the Muslim world, he said.
Each generation becomes defined by its war experiences, Byron said.
"People remember where they were (when Pearl Harbor was attacked) on Dec. 7, 1941, and when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated," she said. "Your generation (of college students) will remember for the rest of your life where you were on 9/11."
The attack on the World Trade Center affected citizens from more than 30 nations, forming an immediate coalition, Byron said. She narrowly missed the attack on Washington, DC, as she passed the Pentagon four minutes before the aircraft plowed into the building.
With the following month's anthrax attack possibly originating from her congressional district, Byron said she developed and has maintained a great interest in the threat of biological and chemical weapons.
"What is a terrorist act, and how do you address it before it is coming?" she said. "A large number (of threats) have been thwarted. But in my mind, there is no way to get 100 percent security."
A number of questions about Iraq came from the USD audience, which included veterans who recently served deployments.
One veteran asked for the speakers' thoughts on pulling out of Iraq.
Byron noted the U.S. military has been in Iraq four years, longer than World War II. The U.S. did not think through its objectives and exit strategy as well as it should have before entering Iraq, she said.
In contrast, Congress' resolution during Operation Desert Storm contained a specific timeline and limited the president's authority to freeing Kuwait, Byron said.
"If Bush 41 had gone one step further into Iraq, he would have been crucified," she said. "Some crucified him because he didn't go to Baghdad, but that is not what Congress authorized."
Many politicians define the goal in Iraq as total victory, "like a football game," Erdahl said.
"There are those who say we cannot get out of Iraq because it will mean admitting defeat. But we need a strategy to extricate ourselves out of Iraq," he said.
"The only thing more dangerous than withdrawing is to stay," he added.
The U.S. made a mistake when it disbanded the Iraqi military, Erdahl said. "We turned them loose with weapons. They were like bandit armies," he said.
Byron said she strongly supports the U.S. military. But in terms of Iraqi perception, she "got heartburn" watching American troops tear down the Baghdad statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"We will rue the day we did that and didn't let the Iraqis do it, rather than the U.S. military," she said.
Erdahl likened the Iraqi experience to his visit of Ukraine when that country held its first elections as an independent nation. He told the media that Ukrainians would learn democracy from neither the Soviet Union nor the United States – but from their own experiences.
And it's the same way with the Iraqis, Erdahl said.
"They need to get their government together," he said. "We have to leave. The sooner we leave, the sooner the Iraqis will realize it."
A number of USD questions also focused on the strain placed on National Guard members as their former two-week annual training has become 1 1/2-year deployments. Some Guard members are serving multiple deployments, they noted.
One veteran said South Dakota has more veterans per capita than any other state. He noted the ongoing needs when veterans return home from war.
Byron said she has worked with veterans' health care issues and that those needs are not being met. Today's veterans are returning not only with amputations but head trauma and other long-term needs, she said.
Because of advances in front-line medicine, soldiers are surviving injuries that would have killed soldiers in previous wars, Erdahl said.
While today's wounded soldiers may suffer ongoing pain, today's volunteer army means many Americans don't experience the war or its suffering first-hand, he said.
"If we shared the pain that some suffer, we would find a way to extricate ourselves (from Iraq)," he said.
The National Guard has shown its excellence in working alongside the active military in combat, Byron said. However, the Guards need adequate time not only for training before a deployment but for recovering when they return from war rather than facing another immediate mission, she said.
The current Middle East war carries the elements of a religious civil war and may be the worst conflict of all, Erdahl said.
"If it keeps going on, when do we end it?" he asked.