A wave of anxiety, doubt, regret and other emotions is passing through some of America’s military personnel who served in the Iraq War. Insurgent Al-Qaeda forces in Anbar province have at least partially retaken Fallujia and Ramadi. Many military personnel who fought to take those cities from Al-Qaeda and allied forces in intense, bloody, house to house fighting are asking questions. Some ask why America did not leave troops to help Iraq recover. Some question why America went to war there in the first place. Some even question if their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their fallen comrades was in vain.
The answers to those first two questions, and many others, will be debated by pundits claiming anything and everything. Books and Ph.D. dissertations will focus on finding and proclaiming answers to the questions. However, the answer to the third question, was it in vain, has a simple answer: It was not in vain. That is true for America’s ‘ambiguous’ wars and its ‘lost’ war, i.e., the Wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Iraq and Afghanistan. It is true regardless of how events ultimately played out or will play out, for better or worse. Even in Korea, after all these years, the story has not come to a clear end for the Korean war era. In Vietnam, the war era did end soon after America’s forces withdrew. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are still playing out their late war or post-war stories, with the outcomes being unpredictable by anyone except maybe ideologues who know all things past, present and future, at all times.
In reality, smashing post-war success, abject failure or muddled ambiguity makes little difference if the focus is on what American soldiers who fought did and did not do. In other words, there are two sources of accountability for American wars. Those two sources are separate and distinct. The first is what our fighting personnel did and how well they did their job. The second is what our civilian and policy-level military leadership did and how well they did their job. Very few or no U.S. fighters on the battlefield decide when to go to war and, for the most part, they do not determine military or civilian policy before, during or after any war. Our fighters do what they are trained to do, which is fight with honor and as much compassion and restraint as it is possible to show in the bloody chaos of guerrilla war.
When Americans who fought in Iraq or surviving family members and friends, look at setbacks in Iraq now and ask if the sacrifice was in vain, this commentator respectfully suggests that that is the wrong question. Their sacrifices were not in vain. Our soldiers fought, and sometimes died, with honor and compassion. They did their jobs as they were told to do them. The entire world knows how well American soldiers fight and no one questions their astonishing willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. American fighters acquitted themselves brilliantly in Iraq and all the other wars. These days, our enemies do not even try to challenge us in open battle. Instead, they resort to guerrilla war with hidden roadside bombs, deluded men, women and children carrying bombs strapped to themselves and savage, cowardly attacks on unprotected civilians, including innocent babies and children. If anything was in vain, it was American leadership that failed, not the sacrifices of the people who did the fighting and dying. Credit or blame for ultimate success or failure needs to be put where it properly belongs.
1. Despite the setbacks in Fallujia and Ramadi, the post-war story in Iraq could still turn out well. The transnational threat that Al-Qaeda and other extremist forces pose could very well lead to a long-lasting rapprochement between the U.S. and the rest of the West with not only Iraq but also maybe Iran, who is subject to severe economic pressure in addition to its concerns about what forces have been unleashed by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing chaos in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. It is easy to argue that, but for extremism and recent historic disputes, both Iran and Iraq are natural allies of the U.S. Despite a rather bleak current outlook, a similar positive outcome is possible in Afghanistan, which is a broken, primitive, dirt poor landlocked country surrounded by relatively hostile neighbors. It desperately needs friends.