A Tale of Two Battles

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters enter the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, October 17, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)
Fallujah and Raqqa are a stark illustration of the difference between fighting sworn enemies of America with allies and fighting without allies.

I remember the Battle of Fallujah. It occurred almost 15 years ago. I don’t remember much at all about the Battle of Raqqa, even though it was bigger, more significant, and ended only two years ago next week.

There’s a simple reason. Americans fought the Battle of Fallujah. We mobilized more than 10,000 men to launch an all-out assault on an al-Qaeda-held city in the heart of Iraq. For days, American soldiers and (mainly) Marines fought vicious, bloody battles, house to house and room to room. Between November 7 and December 24, 2004, American casualties numbered 82 killed and 600 wounded. The small force of Iraqi allies that fought by our side lost six men.

The battle was one of the iconic moments of the Iraq War, but though American forces took the city and killed an estimated 2,000 enemy fighters, it was hardly decisive. Thousands more Americans died (and tens of thousands were wounded) before al-Qaeda was a spent force in Iraq, reduced to a few hundred largely impotent terrorists scattered across the countryside.

Yet these physical wounds don’t begin to account for the true toll of what’s now simply known as “Second Fallujah.” Those who participated in America’s most fierce urban battle since the Vietnam War carry with them searing memories and, in some cases, psychic wounds that simply refuse to heal. Remember this image? Of the so-called Marlboro Marine, the face of American resolve through exhaustion and fear?

That’s James Blake Miller, and when he came back home, his life came apart at the seams. He was afflicted with PTSD. He contemplated suicide. His family fell apart. Arguably only the direct intervention of the photographer who made him famous saved his life.

There are many thousands of James Blake Millers. That’s the cost of war.

So, what about Raqqa? Between June 6 and October 17, 2017, American and allied forces conducted an even larger urban campaign against an even more consequential target, the capital of the ISIS caliphate. By some counts as many as 40,000 allied troops (a small contingent of Americans and a mix of Sunni Arab and Kurdish militias) confronted between 10,000 and 20,000 ISIS militants, including roughly 5,000 in the city itself.

By the end of the Raqqa campaign, the city was in ruins, and more than 1,000 allied troops had lost their lives. American casualties were mercifully light. In fact, according to the Department of Defense, the American death toll during all of Operation Inherent Resolve (the military fight against ISIS) has been 88 — with 17 killed in action and 71 dying from “non-hostile” causes.” In other words, the entire campaign against ISIS has cost America roughly the same number of lives as a single battle of the Iraq War.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between fighting sworn enemies of America with allies and fighting them without allies. And this, in a nutshell, is why there could well be a profound and enduring cost to Donald Trump’s snap decision to betray the Kurds, pull American troops from positions along Syria’s border with Turkey, and permit Turkish forces to kill the very allies who fought so ferociously against the world’s most powerful and vicious jihadist army.

It is understandable that Americans are weary of war, but that war-weariness should not obscure the profound difference between the American conflicts of the recent past and the American conflicts in the years immediately after 9/11. For years, we deployed large numbers of troops to engage in direct ground combat against our terrorist enemies. And the death toll from the years when Americans were engaged at scale is more than 6,700. Since we’ve pulled back and relied more on local allies, that toll has plummeted to small fractions of the war at its height. We still have enemies. ISIS still seeks to strike Americans at home and abroad. It’s still every bit as vicious as it was in 2014 when its beheadings, burnings, and other macabre public executions captured international headlines. It’s still as vicious as it was when it was striking in Europe’s great cities and inspiring a wave of attacks and plots here in the United States.

I’ve heard defenders of the administration’s actions argue that we can’t be sentimental about the Kurds. Yes, they fought an American enemy, but they weren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. ISIS threatened them also. When it comes to international affairs, sometimes one has to do hard and terrible things. Nations don’t have “friends,” as the saying goes, they only have interests.

Yet it is extraordinarily valuable that there exists in the Middle East a group of men and women who have trusted us, who fought fiercely beside us, and who fought in terrible battles that America understandably doesn’t want to fight. And if we doubt how terrible those fights can be, remember the Battle of Fallujah. If you want to know what alliances can do, learn about the Battle of Raqqa. In the tale of those two battles we learn that it is in our nation’s best interests that we are loyal to our friends.


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