Lion 6 hauls down the battle flag in Iraq:
After nearly nine years of war, tens of thousands of casualties—including 4,500 dead—and more than $800 billion spent, the U.S. military on Thursday formally ended its mission in Iraq and prepared to leave the country.
For years, commanders in Iraq have handed off to their successors the top call sign, Lion 6, along with the American battle flag adorned with a Mesopotamian sphinx. But on Thursday, in a tradition-drenched ceremony with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta looking on, the current Lion 6, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, pulled down the colors and cased them for a return to the U.S…
At Thursday’s end-of-mission ceremony, Mr. Panetta evoked the most important battles of the war in Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City. He returned to a theme he has struck all week while visiting troops in Djibouti, Afghanistan and Iraq: American service members have given Iraqis the opportunity to make their own future. The hardships and losses endured by America’s military, he said, were not in vain because they led to a free Iraq.
The war in Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda was at first an unambiguous necessity and unqualified success. The FA-18 squadron I had the privilege to command helped to quickly consummate that early victory, but they did it without me: I had already transferred to duties as the operations officer on America’s Flagship. My war would be different, both in location and in kind. Not for me the laser guided bomb delivery on a hardened target, nor the close air support mission for troops in contact. Not for those of us who fought it the full support of a united people.
In the build up to Operation Iraqi Freedom – my war – we were aware of dissent at home, and among our traditional partners. Some very close to us declined to commit forces, there were mass protests in the streets of our best partners, while others who had never buckled on their armor alongside US infantry in modern times sent their most valuable soldiers. But those who went were volunteers, the soldiers of free peoples.
Blogging, this thing of ours, was still relatively new in 2003. But it was a vibrant way to get past the traditional gate-keepers of information, and see what real people were thinking back at home, outside the political spin machines and polished surfaces of media that were, if not openly biased, at least unaware of their cognitive lenses. Through a slow internet connection in off moments, I trolled through pages of commentary, some well-informed, some less so, some atrocious. I thought to myself that there were stories worth telling that I ought to share. The perceptions of those with some skin in the game.
Such a viewpoint is necessarily personal. I think I taught a little, and learned a lot in the give and take this format provides. Over time, my positions hardened on the war, just as they did for most American citizens.
At first it seemed so easy, as our air/land maneuver elements quickly crushed what was one of the world’s largest conventional armies. But we were unprepared for our “catastrophic success,” and the looting and pillaging quickly became endemic. We had no plans to machine gun a people we had just liberated, and furloughing the Iraqi army – the iron fist of the ancien regime – seemed to unleash all civilized restraints that once bound a long oppressed people. It also placed hundreds of thousands of military aged males, resentful at their loss of status, humiliated by their defeat and with no real work to do, at liberty to simmer and plot personal revenges. In retrospect, that might have been our first strategic mistake of the occupation. But it’s hard to believe that restoring order using a conquered Iraqi army would have been preferable.
We were introduced to tribal notions that never had any currency in our own society, blood grudges and solatia payments for non-combatant casualties. As brutalities from ethnic enmities heaped horror upon horror, we began to ask ourselves, “Who are these people?” A question we should have asked ourselves before committing to nation-building, and one that we still struggle with today.
Everyone was sickened by the revelations of abuse and torture represented by criminals wearing US uniforms at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, but people drew differing conclusions. Abu Ghraib certainly represented a public relations disaster, and undoubtedly stiffened the backs of the Iraqi resistance. Thousands more died, and many thousands more will forever bear the scars, because of the actions of a handful of morally degraded national guardsmen.
The national election in 2004 was a victory for George W. Bush and his partisans, but it came at the bitter cost of further entrenching political differences, contributing in no small measure to the current toxicity among the political classes. In 2006, the Samarra “Golden Mosque” was destroyed, and Iraq slipped ever deeper into sectarian chaos. We openly debated the cost of leaving Iraq in disorder, the world’s sole superpower skulking home in disgrace, versus the grinding slog it would take to leave the Iraqi people with at least a chance at self-improvement. President Bush committed surge forces in one desperate gamble, essentially committing all forces at his command while maintaining a grueling rotational relief capability. The surge was deeply unpopular at home, but arguably changed the calculus of the Sunni sheiks in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the Shia masses is Sadr City.
We have transformed Iraq. Theirs is now at least notionally a free society, they control the reins of their own destiny. It cost us 4500 lives taken, tens of thousands mutilated and close to a trillion dollars. It cost the Iraqi people the lives of least 100,000 who will not get the opportunity to enjoy that freedom. And Iraq transformed us.
An army that had prided itself on speed and precision, learned the virtues of restraint, patience and endurance. A Marine Corps designed to fight “from the sea”, became instead a counter-insurgency land force entrenched in the toughest deserts. A people that once chanted “USA” like they were watching some Olympic sports contest grew weary of the fighting long before the fighting was done. The army and Marine Corps went to war, over and over again. Sailors and airmen donned camouflage and bore rifles. We went back to the mall.
We leave the Iraqi people with a fighting chance at peace and prosperity. They leave us with a heightened sense of our own limitations.
Haul down the battle flags, and case the colors. Bring them home in honor, and lay them proudly by those from elder wars in Europe and Asia. Let us think more deeply, and plan more carefully, before we add to their number.
Bring the soldiers home too, and forgo the victory parade in lieu of quiet thanks for their sacrifices, and public support for their for their betterment. We do not deserve them, but we owe them nonetheless.
And we may have need of them again.