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The Good We Did
Reflecting on Diyala, five years later.

Soldiers with 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment on patrol in Diyala, 2008. (Photo: Spc. Opal Vaughn)

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David French

March and April of 2008 were the worst two months of my life. My unit in Iraq, the 2d Squadron (“Sabre Squadron”), 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Caldwell, a small base a mere 15 miles from the Iranian border. Astride smuggling routes that helped sustain the al-Qaeda insurgency (who says Sunnis and Shiites can’t work together?), we were responsible not just for securing the border, but also for reclaiming thousands of square miles of territory that was firmly in al-Qaeda’s grasp.

No one will write any history books about our small corner of the war, but for us, in March and April particularly, the fight felt historic. It felt worse than that.

In a six-week span, our unit of fewer than 1,000 troopers — a tiny fraction of the Surge — suffered almost 20 percent of the total American casualties in Iraq. The IEDs were so overwhelming that we even briefly closed our main supply route — which largely cut us off from ground resupply — leading to grim jokes about the Alamo, Dien Bien Phu, and other famous massacres. We were never in that level of danger, of course, but our losses were shocking, and when I think of them today (as I do every day), they shock me still.

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Let’s be clear: Isolating an American base meant terrible consequences for the people of Diyala. Al-Qaeda could run rampant, and it did. A female suicide-bombing ring sprang up — terrorists raped women to shame them into becoming living bombs. An entire village was massacred when terrorists suspected its men of sympathizing with the Iraqi government. Civilian casualties skyrocketed, not as “collateral damage” from American attacks but as the intentional targets of al-Qaeda’s reign of terror.

Our entire mission hung in the balance.

So we fought back. Hard. A troop commander launched “Operation Payback” (he was swiftly scolded for coming up with such an un-PC name), which culminated in a 36-hour firefight that broke the back of al-Qaeda’s main IED cell to our north. To our south, Grim Troop launched a daring raid that netted the deputy commander of the local Iraqi police force, a cop by day and IED-cell leader by night. Days of hard fighting turned to weeks, and by July I was walking freely and without any real fear through a group of villages that once represented the center of al-Qaeda’s power.

Why bring this up now? After all, isn’t the conventional wisdom set? Didn’t we have our Iraq War debate last month, on the ten-year anniversary?

I bring it up for a simple reason — a reason that lies in the heart of many soldiers who went “down-range,” met the enemy, defeated him, and left behind an Iraq far, far better off than they found it: We did some real good over there, and we want people to know.

After a recent Corner post discussing the war, I got a Facebook message from a Sabre Squadron friend. His message was simple: “I have trouble telling people all the good we did. They just don’t understand.”

No, they don’t understand, and they may never fully understand, but we have to keep trying — keep communicating. After all, the history is not yet fully written. 

So, how about this: Before Sabre Squadron arrived in our part of Diyala, it was so deeply in the control of al-Qaeda that they named that part of the world the “Islamic Caliphate of Iraq.” They implemented the most draconian form of sharia law imaginable, they placed bombs in children’s backpacks to kill their enemies, they sawed the heads off of women and children (shrieking “Allahu Akhbar!” the entire time), and they filmed the killings for posterity. They shot infants in the face, then killed the mothers as they cradled the remains of their children, they raped, they plundered, and they blew up restaurants and killed first responders. 

In short, al-Qaeda was savage beyond the comprehension of Americans.

And we beat them. By the time we left, bombings were few and far between. Markets were open, the rhythms of daily life had returned, and we were driving and walking over ground that we once could only fly over.

One of the reasons so many Iraq vets remain proud of our service, and are often resentful of the crowing of the war’s opponents, is that we know the extent of the horror of both Saddam’s tyranny and the tyranny of those who tried to replace Saddam. We have no illusions about our nation’s mistakes and tactical failures, but we actually met the enemy and know that its defeat was an unmitigated good.

It’s rare, quite frankly, to meet a member of the antiwar coalition who really understands the situation we faced in 2007 and 2008, during the year of our deployment. We’d invaded, the war was on, and the enemy that would replace us if we withdrew was horrific. The war’s critics rested on the laurels bestowed on them for taking the “right” stance and remained in their cocoon of self-vindication, while we grappled with what would happen if we left too soon. “The war was a mistake; withdraw now,” they said. “And what would happen then?” we responded.

We knew the answer, and so we fought, we won, and only then did we leave. So let the war’s critics congratulate each other for their presumed prescience. Ultimately, history will not be their friend. Those of us who were there will always remember this critical truth: The world would be much more savage, much more dangerous, absent those terrible sacrifices five years ago.

— David French is senior counsel and director of digital advocacy at the American Center for Law and Justice. He is a veteran of the Iraq War. His opinions are his own.



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