In February of 2006, al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents bombed the al-Askari shrine (or “Golden mosque”) in the heart of Samarra — a dusty town in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. I awoke that morning to the explosion, and was one of four Americans in the mayor’s office that evening for a meeting with city leaders and tribal elders.
Critics of the war quickly seized on the shrine’s destruction — and the cycle of sectarian violence that ensued — as a metaphor for America’s failure in Iraq. Despite local successes in Samarra that arose after that terrible event, it was hard to disagree with the critics. The year I spent in Iraq, from 2005 to 2006, was undoubtedly a low point in the war, as it was clear our whack-a-mole strategy wasn’t working. Even the most steadfast supporters of mission were calling for a new course.
A year later, the momentum shifted in Iraq, as President Bush announced the bold and controversial “surge” strategy, deploying five additional combat brigades (including extending Marine deployments in Anbar Province), putting General David Petraeus in charge, and implementing a new counterinsurgency strategy. (A few years later, President Obama, an unyielding critic of the Iraq surge, would adopt a similar policy in Afghanistan — a tacit acknowledgment of the Iraq surge’s success.) Following Bush’s crucial decision and thanks to the bravery of our troops, the tide turned in Iraq, setting U.S. forces on a course for success and eventual withdrawal on our own terms.
As we mark the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War’s launch, it’s worth reflecting on the mixed history of that war. Mistakes were made in the conduct of the war, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of the war was a mistake. Those of us who fought the war — losing great men and women in the process — understand the scope of the task and the meaning of the mission. It was a controversial war, but it was our war, and its legacy remains important to America.
It’s worth remembering that the bipartisan view before the war — and the international view from the United Nations, hardly a den of warmongers — was that Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and must be stopped. Saddam Hussein was an undeniably dangerous dictator, with a history of belligerent behavior and a record of supporting jihadists in the region. While critics of the war have long preferred to gloss over Saddam’s record as if pre-invasion Iraq had been tranquil and misunderstood, surely no one wishes Saddam were still in power.
The origins of the war remain legitimately disputed, but there is little historical doubt that, by the time my unit arrived in 2005, al-Qaeda had decided to make Iraq their “central front.” Jihadists from throughout the world descended on the country, seeking a quick and strategically significant win against the American “paper tiger.” Instead, due to the courage and adaptability of our troops, the political resolve of a president, and the efforts of many on the home front, America turned the tide and won the war on the ground.
The U.S. paid heavy costs for this tactical victory, and our troops (alongside their families) steadfastly bore these costs with courage, grace and perseverance. More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, over 4,400 lost their lives, and nearly 33,000 were wounded. Over a thousand U.S. civilian contracts also gave their lives. This sacrifice, and that of our Iraqi allies, was not in vain, but instead is an example of valor, service, and sacrifice. They were given a mission, and executed it. End of story.
Today Iraq faces many challenges, including rising sectarianism, heated factionalism, and a growing Iranian influence. But this outcome wasn’t inevitable. The American fighting man left behind an elected government, backed by increasingly capable Iraqi security forces; together that represented an opportunity for a secure and stable, if imperfect, ally in the Middle East. As President Obama emphasized in a speech marking the end of the war in December 2011, that’s “an extraordinary achievement.” I agree.
But President Obama’s words don’t change the fact that, while America won the war in Iraq, we lost the peace. Despite the best efforts of our troops and diplomats, the president was eager to fulfill a campaign promise. As a result, our commander-in-chief ended the war before wobbly Iraqi institutions could mature, undermining the chance for a lasting peace, inviting chaos in the future, and making the world a more dangerous place.
Finishing the mission was never a rationale for endless nation-building, but just called for responsible follow-through. We ran our two-minute drill all the way to the red zone, and then took a knee. Unfortunately, nobody told the other team the game was over. For that, the will and commitment of America is questioned, and the future of Iraq remains in doubt. Think Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the vanishing football.
#more#That said, veterans of the Iraq War generation are not bitter, and we are not cynical. We learned, we adapted, and we dug deep. Ultimately, the core lesson of our war was resolve — we fought like hell over there, and then demanded political courage from our leaders at home. We never quit, even if some of our leaders did. We have neither illusions of utopia in Iraq, nor visions of future foreign endeavors. But we do understand the nature of the enemy we face, and the need to stand resolute. The threat is real, it’s still there, and we’ll need to fight it again someday.
Today most Iraq War veterans are back home, investing in their futures, families, and communities. Our mission of service and sacrifice continues on the home front, and we stand squarely behind our brethren in Afghanistan, still fighting a determined enemy in distant land. We will care for our wounded, remember our fallen, and fully appreciate the reception of a grateful nation.
While the Iraq War is behind us, we will never forget it. This war has changed us forever, and we will apply its lessons to America’s future challenges, at home and abroad. To those who fought, who persevered, who bled, and who led: Thank you, from a fellow veteran and on behalf of a grateful nation. For those who believed the destruction of a Shia mosque in a Sunni town in central Iraq was the nail in the coffin for our mission, I suggest you visit the shrine today — rebuilt, and Samarra reborn.
Talk is cheap, but a legacy of resolve is forever.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, and returned to Iraq twice in 2008 as an embedded reporter for National Review Online.