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Fallujah, al-Qaeda, and American Sacrifice
Many Iraqis are alive today because of the Americans who died in Fallujah.

First Marine Division infantry in Fallujah, November, 2004. (Photo: Lance Corporal James J. Vooris)

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Amid chaos across the Middle East, the heir to al-Qaeda in Iraq has raised its flag over Fallujah.

At Business Insider, Paul Szoldra, a Marine, has written a powerful piece about the friend he lost during Operation Phantom Fury, the 2004 operation to clear insurgents from Fallujah. Szoldra argues that the current strife proves that his friends died only for one another, not for some greater cause. ‘‘I’ll never know why they died,” he writes. “It sure wasn’t for freedom, democracy, apple pie, or mom and dad back home.’’

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I would never claim to know Szoldra’s pain. As much as I’ve informed myself about the human toll that Iraq has taken on thousands of American families (David Finkel is a must-read), I haven’t lost friends in the fighting there.

But I do know this: Regardless of what Iraq becomes — whether a model of democracy for the region, or a flawed but semi-functioning democracy, or a failed state — those Americans who died in Iraq died for more than one another. Ultimately, only the historians will be able to answer the question of whether Iraq was worth it. Nevertheless, we must pay heed to what Americans like Lance Corporal Franklin Sweger achieved with their sacrifices.

They saved many Iraqi lives.

Prior to the Marines’ arrival, Fallujah provided the heart for the most brutal element of the insurgency. Put more simply, Fallujah was al-Zarqawi’s factory of death. It was the place from which car bombs were exported to rip apart markets, schools, and neighborhoods. It was the place to which kidnapped civilians were imported for torture and beheading.

These days the casual consensus is that Phantom Fury was an unconstrained attack on a city full of civilians. Far too often, critics entertain the myth that murderers who worked for Zarqawi were “resistance fighters” defending Iraq from an imperial aggressor. Of course, the opposite is true. Consider Bing West’s reporting in No True Glory on the Fallujah that existed under “resistance” authority.

This was the place where a police officer who dared to stand up for his city was whipped, boiled, and decapitated.

This was the place where normality meant a nameless woman “dumped on a street, arms and legs cut off, entrails eviscerated.”

The place where a house in which Zarqawi’s henchmen cut off people’s legs stood next to an amusement park.

One story sums it all up. West describes the beheading studio where Nicholas Berg lost his life. He begins by noting the array of video recorders, tapes, and computers arrayed for a basic purpose: to extract fear from agony. West then describes how the recording schedule “included what time a prisoner was to be brought out and washed up, when his confession had to be taped, when the execution should be done, how long it would take to digitize the video and make copies, and when to leave Fallujah in order to deliver the tape to the Al Jazeera studio in Baghdad to be shown on prime time.”

A place of emancipated evil.

But the Marines and others who fought in Fallujah didn’t just save lives by ending the carnage that Zarqawi’s Fallujah produced. They helped save a nation. Had Zarqawi retained his fortified base of operations, the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 would almost certainly have arrived much sooner, before the U.S. military had the ability to grapple with that challenge. Herein is the defining truth: Along with the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who served in Iraq, the Marines of Fallujah helped win extraordinary reductions in violence. In doing so, they brought hope where despair had reigned, giving Iraqis a chance to forge a future of their own making, rather than one shaped by tyrants and terrorists.

In 2004, Iraq’s government was utterly dysfunctional. Today, albeit deeply flawed, the Iraqi government is showing the military capacity and the hints of flexibility that it will need to survive.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the costs of Iraq were worth it. But it does mean that our public discourse on Iraq requires a little more honesty. Just as it was wrong to write off Iraq in late 2006, so too we should not deny the possibility that Iraq’s democracy will yet prosper.

Regardless, the legacies of men and women such as Franklin Sweger are proved every day. Not only by the friends for whom they gave lives, but by the countless Iraqis who live because of them, and live with the chance of a better life.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to the Guardian.



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