National Security & Defense

What if America Won a War and No One Cared?

American flag displayed in the cockpit of an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle over Iraq in September (Photo: Staff Sergeant Trevor T. McBride)
The momentous news of ISIS’s defeat was greeted, in large part, with silence. Why?

The announcement came on Saturday. Just three days before the Alabama special election that transfixed the nation, and on the same day that President Trump fact-checked the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, Iraq’s prime minister declared victory in the war against ISIS. Iraq — with indispensable American help — has regained control of its cities and its border with Syria. ISIS has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

The victory isn’t confined to Iraq. American-allied forces control ISIS’s former capital in Syria, and the world’s largest jihadist army is gone. Bands of insurgents still prowl the countryside, and ISIS cells exist across the world, but the war against the “caliphate” is over. It’s been won.

So why does no one seem to care?

It was exactly three years ago that the Middle East was in crisis. The ISIS blitzkrieg had brought Iraq to its knees. Jihadists controlled immense sections of Iraq and Syria. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke from Mosul’s Great Mosque, declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim,” and called on Muslims across the world to join him in his jihad.

They answered his call by the thousands. They flocked to Syria and Iraq from North Africa, Europe, and Asia. Britain was rocked by reports that more of its Muslim residents had joined ISIS than joined the British military. ISIS initiated genocide. It threatened the Kurds. It threatened Baghdad. Americans old enough to remember the fall of Saigon began to wonder: Was history repeating itself?

For veterans of the Iraq War like me, these were extraordinarily painful months. Friends died over there. Others lost limbs or suffered terrible wounds. Every man and woman who served in Iraq sacrificed something, even if it was “only” a year of their life. And now our nation looked like a bystander to a calamity. Through withdrawal, we’d squandered the military victory of the Surge. Through withdrawal, we’d empowered our enemies.

Even after the Obama administration intervened to stave off total defeat, ISIS still dominated the narrative. It helped unleash a wave of terror in Europe. Terror investigations and attempted terror attacks spiked in the U.S. Even while under American and allied aerial assault, ISIS still held territory. It still controlled major cities.

Remember how debates about ISIS dominated the presidential primaries? Remember how Donald Trump and Ted Cruz ratcheted up their rhetoric until they both seemed to promise that they’d commit war crimes like carpet bombing and torture to defeat the deadly threat? ISIS was often the most important and most prominent story in the world.

Now, however, the caliphate is a smoking ruin. It courted conflict with the great powers. It craved Armageddon, and it got its wish. No one knows ISIS’s exact casualty figures, but its fighters have died by the tens of thousands. I’ve spoken to men who were directly involved in the air campaign, and they have told me that the public doesn’t yet understand the sheer scale and ultimate effectiveness of the American attacks.

Yes, we withdrew from Iraq too soon. Yes, our counteroffensive against ISIS unfolded slowly. But we fought back, we trained and equipped allies, and we won.

This is one of the best stories of the young Trump administration. While many of the battles were fought under Obama, Trump pursued the enemy relentlessly. He delegated decision-making to commanders in the field, they fought within the laws of war, and they prevailed. Trump promised to defeat ISIS, and he has delivered a tremendous victory.

Part of the blame still rests with us. Let’s be honest: Panic and fear make for a better story than victory and peace.

So why isn’t this bigger news?

Part of the blame, of course, rests with Trump himself. Peruse his Twitter feed for a moment. Aside from the occasional boast about the economy, Trump uses his favorite instrument to wage war on “fake news” and to pursue personal vendettas. It’s hard to blame the press for not reporting more extensively on the war when the president himself is directing its attention elsewhere. He’s the first president in my lifetime who somehow seems determined to distract the public from good news by creating his own bad news.

We’re also understandably wary of “mission accomplished” moments. Jihadists, including ISIS jihadists, are still out there seeking to kill Americans. And we shouldn’t minimize that reality in acknowledging the momentous accomplishment of the Caliphate’s defeat.

But part of the blame still rests with us. Let’s be honest: Panic and fear make for a better story than victory and peace. I hear all the time from friends who ask me to “write more about good news.” Yet I write about good news all the time, and those pieces are often among my least-read articles. Perhaps I’m simply bad at writing about good things. Or perhaps the public has less appetite for the positive.

Either way, it’s time for this to change. Americans died in the fight against ISIS. They restored American military victory in Iraq, preserving the gains of the men and women who fought there years before. In the process, they defeated one of most vicious and evil enemies our nation has ever faced. They helped retake cities and liberate the oppressed. They won a war. It’s a victory worth a celebration.


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