On Our Iraqi Departure: Essay for December 17, 2011

It began almost 9 years ago the American experience in Iraq. Our country was still in great pain and shock from the attacks of 911. Our focus became that of finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Did Saddam Hussein, remember him, have WMD’s? The President said he did, so did Colin Powell, our Secretary of State. Washington, having averted an attack by airplane, was under attack by mail. Anthrax nearly shut down Washington. Try sending a letter to Congress even today and you will be surprised how long it takes to get through security.

To say that our lives have inexorably changed since 911 and our war in Iraq is a gross understatement. In fact, our lives may never return to the same level of blissful ignorance we enjoyed before that fateful day. That is a pity. Our innocence is gone as a country. We have been bloodied and there is blood on our hands, as well. Retribution is an ugly thing. Loss of innocence is an ugly thing, too.

We do not commemorate the end of the War in Iraq so much as we celebrate the return of the last of the American troops this month. Who knows if peace will ever come to Iraq? I certainly hope that it does and that the sacrifice of so many Americans meant what it was intended to mean. Time will tell but if the Arab Spring showed us anything it was that an infant democracy will yield to Muslim autocracy.

Let’s consider some of the obvious costs of the war: four thousand five hundred dead Americans; 35,000 wounded Americans; 800 billion opportunities to invest an American dollar somewhere else; one and a half million American youth whose lives were directly altered by combat. That’s right: 1 ½ million Americans passed through the war zone over 9 years. Their lives can never be the same. Many have returned home with mental scars and torment that will last a lifetime through no fault of their own. They simply did what their country asked them to do.

And for those who have not passed though the war zone itself, they too have paid a price. They have lost their innocence, their childhood, to images of war. My children are children of America at war with terrorists, with Afghanistan, with Iraq and with radical Islam. They are a generation who do not remember when the headlines and the airwaves were not dominated by war. They are a generation who has never known the simple joys of unfettered access. They have never known the liberty of walking a city street un-surveilled. Airport security has become a gauntlet whose unintended consequence is to instill a consistent level of unease with any peaceful experience.

Is there victory in Iraq for America and the dwindled coalition of the willing? Mission Accomplished? Maybe it is but no one is claiming it as vociferously as did President Bush aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. What I do know is that one and a half million Americans answered the call of their nation. They did their duty with honor. And to our credit as a nation we have responded to their sacrifice with appropriate respect and admiration.

We still remain in Afghanistan today with an equally uncertain end game. There is no discernable path to victory in the land of Hamid Karzai. And history teaches us that any victory in Afghanistan is a temporary state. We have put another half million troops through Afghanistan in our ten years there. And another 1857 American deaths, 549 of them in this year alone.
If our troops are fighting for our freedom and safety this begs the obvious question, “Is America any freer or any safer now than it was ten years ago?” I think wistfully about the good old days before the advent of modern international terrorism. One could argue about whether those days ever existed at all but I would suggest that we concluded the pre-modern age of international terrorism with the end of the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. There were perhaps a few brief years of respite before Operation Desert Storm sparked the modern age of bombings aimed at the United States. Recall that the World Trade Center was first bombed in 1993.

Life certainly seemed simpler when you could delude yourself into thinking that nuclear attack was survivable as long as you could hide under your desk. As I’ve grown older, I guess I’ve lost my innocence, too.

Press on.

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