DID WE WIN? |
December 23, 2011
Name: Matt Gallagher
Returned from: Iraq
"Did we win?" That's what my Twitter feed wanted to know in the wake of President Obama's announcement that our troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year. I couldn't be more conflicted about the news.
It's all dust in the mind now, but I called the desert in Iraq home only three years ago. As a scout platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division, I'd deployed to a remote outpost north of Baghdad, a last-chance gambit for a country on the brink of civil war. We went as volunteers, and went with a messy, if coherent, mission statement -- buy the Iraqi government and security forces time to stabilize. We did the best we could, pouring blood, sweat and tears into a strange land. We left 15 months later, some of us swearing never to go back, others champing at the bit for just such an opportunity to do so. For better and for worse, it remains the preeminent experience of my life.
While there's no clear answer to the question of whether America "won" or not, some things are irrecoverably clear.
In the aftermath of 9/11, with two wars raging, less than one half of one percent of Americans served in uniform. And yet, despite our collective reluctance to fight, more than 4,400 American military personnel died during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. More than 32,000 more were wounded in action. At least 100,000 Iraqis have died, with another 1.3 million displaced.
Those numbers, as damning as they are, don't linger with me the way memories do. Upon hearing the President's remarks, I thought about the many people I met in Iraq who changed my life, like my platoon's interpreter, Suge, a loyal man who risked his life every day simply by being seen with American soldiers; and a rural sheik named Haydar who taught me the subtleties of Arabic culture; and the teenage bomber with American blood on his hands, captured but subsequently released because the jails were full; and the bleary-eyed Iraqi widow who felt she had no other means of income than to pimp out her eldest daughter
What started in 2003 as a quick invasion begat an insurgency and inflamed age-old sectarian battles in ways we clearly were unprepared for. The American military has spent the past eight years largely making up for the blunders of those initial months; history will likely savage the decision to ban members of the Ba'ath Party from the government, for example. Throughout this war, I've concurrently thought we shouldn't be there and that we need to stay until there's peace. Hence my internal conflict. What about Suge and his wife? What about Haydar and his children? What about the 17-year-old kid in basic training now, whose life will be spared because of the President's decision?
As T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1922 about his own Arab war, "This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought." Which, in a way, is a fancy version of "time will tell." Indeed, time will tell.
Just as the American exit from Iraq won't end the battles over there between extremists, this withdrawal won't end the war for the combat veterans who weren't able to shed their experiences before returning home. Post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and burns won't magically go away on Dec. 31.
An unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force was that many people were allowed opinions on the Iraq war, but very few experienced it firsthand. Some of those who did experience it will need help in practical, meaningful ways: finding a job, adjusting back to civilian life, talking with someone who cares. Until those things happen for every veteran, the Iraq war will live on in the minds and souls of the men and women who fought it.
The above piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News. Matt Gallagher is an Iraq veteran and senior writing manager at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is the author of the war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, and was a frequent contributor to The Sandbox during his deployment, posting as "Lt. G." His contributuions include DEAR JOHN, PICTURE US ROLLIN' and CRANK THAT IN IRAQ.
In this recent CNN interview, Gallagher discusses U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: