I hate talking about it, but I will because people are doing a terrible job interpreting Iraq’s collapse.
The first time I tasted iron in the air, it was from all the blood on the floor.
I was at Taqaddum Surgical in Anbar province, second half of 2006. A Marine lance corporal, I had been at the air base for only a week or so and was in the hospital to interview some surgeons who were rotating back to the States after seven months in-country.
As a public affairs guy, the job was routine. As a human, the war was not.
Beside me, a corpsman with all the wherewithal of a high school janitor mopped a puddle of dark red slop. I stepped outside to get some air and realized I wasn’t nauseous. It was more like an emotional shortness of breath: Here I am, by God.
Another corpsman noticed me and approached with this: “Guy came in late last night, a pilot,” he said. “He’d taken a sniper shot right to bridge of his nose, 7.62, and get this, he lived. You should have heard the sound he was making as he tried to breath.” The corpsman stuck his tongue out and inhaled sharply three times, imitating the man’s wet gasps. “He was all panicky until I inserted a breathing tube.”
Then he giggled, as if it were actually funny. (Reserve judgment, though: The corpsman probably saved that man’s life.)
Later, back inside the surgical center, a seasoned Navy surgeon, a lieutenant commander, sat in front of my video camera and suffered what looked like a complete breakdown. As he wept into his hands, he just muttered the same phrase again and again: “The Marines ... just kids.” I didn’t know what to do but look at him; clearly he hadn’t mentally compartmentalized quite like the corpsman outside. At some point, a full-bird walked in and just stopped, mouth hanging open. He eventually walked over and consoled the commander and then asked that I not include his interview in my the story.
Today, Taqaddum, along with other key territory throughout Iraq, has fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — an outfit so violent even al-Qaida wants nothing to do with them. And when news broke of the ISIL blitzkrieg toward Baghdad, pundits mounted an assault of their own. I’m not talking about the Obama bashers; I’m talking about those — veterans included — who were so quick to throw around the words failure, and frame the debate around return on investment.
John Nagl, an Iraq war veteran and respected military scholar, recently wrote in the Washington Post that “this is not what my friends fought and died for.” It’s hard not to fall into that trap. There was a lot of trauma in Iraq, and a lot of sacrifice, and it hurt. It still does for a lot of us. Some of my closest friends still get that inexorable look in their eyes.
I don’t want to think that our sacrifices will fall into the entropy of Iraq’s collapse, but war should not be thought of in transactionary terms. It is not a purchase. While we may get a bill, no one is guaranteed a polished end product. War is about exerting political will through violence, and quite often permanent, physical change. One can only achieve the upper hand.
Though secondary to the nature of war, let’s be honest, too, about our ideology. It is twofold. One, America does not accept a centralized and inefficient energy system in an oil-rich region when oil is integral to our national security and stability. Two, we simply will not tolerate the type of extremist agenda and governance offered up by radical Islam. Whether you agree or disagree, these ideologies are legitimate because they are largely recognized by the American government, which represents Americans and controls the military.
It is fallacious to imply that Iraq’s collapse has any bearing on personal sacrifice and success. Consider, specifically, the division fallacy, which reasons that what’s true for the whole is also true for its parts. Certainly, Navy Cross recipient Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal is no failure. During the battle for Fallujah in 2004, he rushed into a house to save his Marines from an ambush and came out the other end broken and full of holes, barely alive. He stands tall today, recovered from his injuries, and in a hurry to credit the young Marines around him for his success.
We should measure his success in the lives he saved that day, and the lives he influences still, rather than against Iraq, which is in fragments and weak, which may never recover.
So when vets like Nagl say “this isn’t what we fought and died for,” I think about guys like Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham, a squad leader who used to stop his patrols in Anbar province and set up security so he could play a quick round of soccer with the local kids. And then I wonder what were his final thoughts as he jumped on a hand grenade to save the lives of his fellow Marines in Karabilah? “I hope the Iraqi government doesn’t dissolve in a few years?” Certainly not. He was thinking of his Marines, and then his friends and family. And his sacrifice is not lost because America didn’t get the outcome it wanted.
A friend and fellow vet recently said to me that it is our personal conduct, not strategic success, which defines our sacrifices. Some who went to Iraq did so for God, others for country, but mostly we did it for the Corps. At the risk of sounding cliché, we did it for each other.
And while you could call it all a waste, as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki runs his country into the ground, and say all of our sacrifice was for naught, I bet many others think otherwise. Those Anbari kids now under the rule of ISIL; I bet they’d think differently. I bet that wounded pilot’s family thinks differently. I hope Jason Dunham’s family does.
Geoff Ingersoll is Marine Corps Times’ managing editor.