We Remember Iraq: The Next Chapter
By Mad Medic
Whatever you might call it—Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Iraq War, Operation New Dawn, The Gulf War part two or names it will be given in the future—Iraq is over. It’s left to us to try to write some legacy; to tell our tales. We may not know for a long time what history will view Iraq as—will it be considered a great victory, a moderate victory, a moderate defeat, or just another chapter that our country seems to forget? Ultimately it will be for historians not yet born to decide exactly what the Iraq War was to the larger picture of our nation’s history.
And what of the cost? We fought the Iraq War longer than most wars in our history and yet our casualties were much fewer; our soldiers surviving things that even 20 years ago would’ve been unthinkable. Our body armor and our vehicles were letting people walk away from things that should have killed them and we’ve seen people deploy again and again and again in deployment after deployment. All of this challenging what we thought an all-volunteer army could do; challenging preconceived notions about how long a Republic could withstand an unpopular war and challenging a lot of the notions that we had about warfare itself.
But for a lot of people the war is not over. In a number of ways a war never really ends until its last veteran is laid to rest. We’ve learned that the scars don’t always have to be physical. A shot fired many years before may end a life further down the road and many miles from an actual engagement. As with all conflicts post-World War II, we’re left with no clear victory; no great parades down the avenues, no great celebration of victory; only a quiet acknowledgment that perhaps we won (though getting some to admit that is like pulling teeth).
The Iraq War was nothing if not a roller coaster in a microcosm of the 21st-century from the apparent victory in an unbelievably easy 21 day march to Baghdad in the initial phase of the war; the certainty with the election in 2005 that victory was around the corner; to the prolonged, protracted, and losing struggle of insurgency; the moderate gains and victories of security forces of the Surge, to the quiet exit of operation New Dawn; it seemed we won and lost too many times to count. It wasn’t one won with massive battalions moving against a large entrenched enemy front; it wasn’t won by flying tank columns or long Air Assault missions or Airborne landings deep into enemy territory; it was won by the company and the platoon that went out on the streets day after day after day.
So here we sit and the war is still fresh in so many people’s memory. We may not know for perhaps a decade or more whether or not a stable Iraq has been truly achieved and yet that was the goal that we were given with no more than nebulous commands of improved security. We went forth and pulled the rabbit out of our collective hats, cobbling together ad hoc solutions that War Colleges and policy centers spend years trying to devise—the sergeant and the lieutenant on the ground figured out by doing.
We learned that in the 21st-century there is no real rear area. That any place you are in the combat zone is a threat area. We learned that the days of armies facing armies may well be over, but we also learned that the same skills that make us successful against a large army can make us successful against a small insurgent force. We learned that the backbone of our army has always been the soldier—that the individual soldier from the private all the way up to the general are the people that always deliver us victories. We learned that we can get all the toys in the fancy equipment that we want but at the end of the day it’s going to be that 18-year-old private who has to go out there and find a way to make it work when all that equipment fails.
We are left with many questions about Iraq. Many on the political spectrum have feelings about it one way or another. Was it an illegal war? Was it justified? Talk about weapons of mass destruction. No doubt these debates will go on long after we are all dead. There will be policy wonks from both sides of the aisle that will chime in until we are all sick and tired of hearing about it. Whenever the next war comes along the specter of the quagmire in Iraq will be raised and we will have to yet again remind the world about the resiliency of the American soldier.
I wish I had answers for you. I wish I could tell you that every single battle buddy you lost was lost in a good cause. I wish I could tell the family of every suicide something they might take solace in. I wish I could tell you that history will be kind to our war. But to be honest I don’t know the answers and that’s probably the greatest legacy of Iraq. We marched into the unknown and we are still marching into the unknown. The days of clear victories and clear defeats may well be over. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who engaged in battles in places such as Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Al Anbar, Najaf, Fallujah, and many others, fought like lions and secured some sense of stability through blood, sweat, and tears shed on thousands of fields in thousands of wadis in the thousands of little towns and hamlets on thousands of streets.
Policy wonks call this a low intensity conflict and yet anyone who survived an IED blast, anyone who survives a complex ambush, anyone who was constantly watching for snipers, and yes, anyone who is hit by any of those knows that “low intensity” somehow just doesn’t measure up to the reality. Low intensity belies the fear that we felt every time we put on our increasingly heavy armor every time we got into vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that seemed doomed to fail against $25 bombs.
Veterans of Iraq are left with an understanding of just how fragile the freedoms they enjoy are. They are left with an understanding of just how easily lives are ended and torn apart. Veterans of the Iraq War are left with hollowness in their eyes as they look forward—toward a hopeful future, all the while glancing behind them at the ones they left behind in a hellish place and a hellish time. We are left with a responsibility to share the stories so that our battle buddies are not forgotten.
The sounds of battle have long since faded. The full story is not yet written. The cost was great—far too many good men and women are no longer here to share drinks at the VFW, many more are left with crippling injuries. Yet, despite this—or maybe because of this—we never gave up. When hope seemed lost and all we saw was defeat, we never gave up. Perhaps that is the best legacy we can leave. When the politicians declared it a lost cause, we held the line. When we were tired and hurting, we grabbed our weapons and kept fighting. Perhaps the best legacy we can leave is a class of Americans that truly knows what it means to be a Warrior. A few million Americans now know just how fragile and priceless their freedoms are and can pass that lesson on to their country.
There will be many questions we will not receive answers to in our lifetime, but at least we can take solace in knowing that the Veterans of the war gave it their all. In a bad time, in a bad place, we tried to do a good thing, and that is just about the only thing we can easily say about our war. Perhaps the best epitaph for the Iraq war would be the simple words “they did their best.”