The Iraq war may have never been declared lost. But the stunning surge in violence over the past year — and the return of al-Qaeda in the western province of Anbar this month — is forcing Americans who invested personally in the war’s success to grapple with haunting questions.It has to really hurt to come to grips with the idea that all your sacrifice, and all the suffering of your injured and dead colleagues may have been a total waste. Unfortunately, I am afraid our wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, were almost completely for naught.
“Could someone smart convince me that the black flag of al-Qaeda flying over Fallujah isn’t analogous to the fall of Saigon?” former Army captain Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter. “Because. Well.”....
Gallagher, who was part of the troop surge ordered by the George W. Bush administration, felt his stomach churn a couple of months ago when an alert prompted him to click on a video of a suicide bombing in his old battleground. He had the same reaction watching grainy footage of masked al-Qaeda militants raising the black flag of jihad in Fallujah.
He said he has gradually come to accept that the sustained peace he and fellow soldiers had fought for has not lasted.
“It’s a very disconcerting and ugly thing to reconcile as an individual,” said Gallagher, who kept a vivid and popular blog during his deployment.
This week, muddled accounts of fighting between al-Qaeda militants, tribesmen and Iraqi troops thrust Iraq back into the headlines. At Camp Lejeune, N.C., a 30-year-old Marine staff sergeant who served tours in Fallujah and Ramadi found himself seething. He thought about his mind-set on his first deployment, when he was fresh out of basic training.
“I was terrified half the time,” said Paul, who asked to be quoted only by his first name because he now serves in a Special Operations regiment. “The way my 20-year-old self envisioned it, I was fighting evil in the world, in a place where people are being treated terrible and getting murdered and have zero rights.”
In hindsight, that idealism seems absurd, and the memories painful.
“It brings back a lot of anger,” Paul said. “I feel like it’s been a big waste of time. It’s kind of like, why the hell did all my buddies die there for? There’s no purpose to it.”
I remember talking to an acquaintance from grade school back in 2006. He had already served one or two tours in Iraq as part of the National Guard (Tikrit, maybe?). He told me about how many friends he lost, and how tough it was over there, and how people here just didn't understand. I said that I thought we needed to pull out, because we weren't ever going to get to a point of permanently stabilizing the place. He just about lost it. He told me how we couldn't give up, because that would mean that all the people he knew who had died would have died in vain. I got quiet and just tried to let him talk it through a bit. He ended up going back over on another tour, and I ran into him a couple of years later. We never really talked about the war after that one night, but I always remembered what he said.
I think that the release of Robert Gates' book, along with the events this week in Fallujah, will raise those questions about the purpose and value of their sacrifice with a lot of veterans. Gates says that Obama went through with the surge in Afghanistan even though he had little or no faith that it would succeed, leading to thousands of unnecessary casualties. I can't disagree with Gates. I thought the surge in Iraq was a ploy to give us some breathing room to calm things down so we could get the Hell out before things melted down again, and if that was the plan, I would have to say, the plan worked. I thought at the time that Obama's Afghan surge looked to do the same thing, and while I thought it would lead to unnecessary casualties in a doomed mission, I figured it was the most likely way for us to decide to wrap up that war, as we could try to avoid admitting defeat while leaving without establishing a stable nation. Yes, the more honorable strategy would have been to admit our mistakes and get out without those additional losses, but that is against our nature as a nation. I hope that the nation finds a way to support all of the veterans of these wars, but especially the ones who come to feel that their sacrifices were for nothing. They will be amongst the most at risk of self-harm. However, I'm not confident that we will be able to support them. I remember how I felt ill-equipped and unable to help the guy from grade school as he looked into that abyss almost eight years ago.