Were the Wars Worth It?
Asking questions of justice, responsibility, stewardship, and security ten years on.


I am asked all of the time — by people in my civilian profession, by media types, by other educated, well-read people — whether the nation’s response was “right.” The questions are typically loaded, compound, and elliptical:

“So, Vince, having been to Iraq, and to Afghanistan, how do you feel about all of this? I don’t mean to get political — but what about these wars? Do you feel that the country is any safer? In particular, do you agree with Bush’s decision to attack Iraq? I mean, when is this all going to end? People are so tired of the wars. You’re not going back, are you?”

Some pad their queries with a paradoxical caveat: “I don’t agree with the wars, by the way, especially Iraq, but I really respect your service, Vince.” So you think the wars are wrong, perhaps immoral, but you admire the way that my buddies and I have waged them? Oh, okay. Thanks.

The short answer I try to provide these well-meaning beneficiaries of American security is that (1) the nation’s homeland has generally been spared jihadist mass murder since September 11 (the pernicious Major Hassan’s attack on Fort Hood being the heart-searing, inexcusable exception), and (2) we now have a forward presence in those regions of the world from which the 9/11 operation was plotted, launched, and lauded. That presence provides the intelligence base and the operational platforms necessary to crush al-Qaeda’s murder machine, if and when the political will exists to give the green light. The SEALs’ bin Laden strike is the most notable example, but by no means the only one.

Over the last 32 months or so, our war footing has been on eggshells. We surged forces into Afghanistan, but curtailed their writ upfront with a draw-down schedule perfectly synchronized with the election cycle, and perfectly transparent to the enemy. We renamed the war in Iraq “Operation New Dawn,” as if nomenclature might neutralize the terrorism sponsored by al-Qaeda and Iran. We have witnessed policy back-flips concerning civilian trials for terrorists whose only connection to the nation is their intent to destroy it, and watched CIA officers endure threats of prosecution for following their lawyers’ guidance and protecting America. We have “led from behind” in toppling the despot Qaddafi, and now naïvely dismiss any possibility that the resulting vacuum might create sanctuary for global terrorists.

The impending tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks evokes official talking points that minimize al-Qaeda and global terrorism, and instead ask us to talk about . . . well, it is hard to understand exactly what it is we are supposed to talk about, if not the evils of terrorism and the sacrifices of those who have given all to stop it.

On that terrible morning, sometime after the North Tower fell, I heard someone in the street say that the Pentagon had been hit. It was then, at that moment, that I knew we were at war. That was my generation’s Dec. 7, 1941. Since then, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, the CIA, and their families, have been at war.

Yet, I can understand how it is that members of the suburbigentia ask me questions that flow from the predicate that there is no war, or that it is passé. I can even brook complaints from the protected that they are “tired” of the war. After all, in a campaign against terrorists who aim to strike mortal fear into the hearts of these very people, their ambivalence may be a sign that they feel protected, and thus, that we have succeeded at least to some degree.

When public officials with responsibility for national security spin talking points that encourage willful blindness, however, then we are left to wonder exactly where we are being led. In the coming months, it seems that we may be asked to call scripted draw-downs “victory” in favor of “nation-building at home.” On the current trajectory, soon we will be left to hope that firefighters, police officers, and soldiers will not be tasked again with looking for the remains of murdered Americans amid burning rubble in city streets.

Hope is nice. But hope is not a method.

 Vincent G. Heintz served with the Army National Guard at Ground Zero in September 2001, in Iraq in 2004, and in Afghanistan in 2008. He expects to return to Afghanistan in the future. He is a member of Vets for Freedom.