Requiem for Failure—Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, a 15th Anniversary to Forget
The Iraq War, the war of my youth, broke my heart, damaged the republic and fractured the Middle East. So why do some in Washington insist it was a “victory”?
The war comes mostly in flashes now. A calendar date passes, and something jars my senses. At that moment, it is 2007 again; I am a young man; I have no idea what is to come.
December 14: Sergeant DJ—shot in the back, his spine pierced, my hands shaking as I hold the flashlight over his gaping exit wound. DJ sports a wheelchair now.
December 20: Private Ed Faulkner—shot by a sniper during a piss break; his forearm fractured; he asks me for a cigarette anyway. Ed later went to Afghanistan, was wounded again, and died of an overdose in North Carolina.
January 25: Private First Class Mike Balsley and newly minted Sergeant Alex Fuller—gone, in a flash. Seeing the explosion before hearing it; the smell of burnt flesh, of our boys. Fuller was my favorite soldier and my son, Alex, is named after him. It took me a decade to face his wife.
Other events carry no date at all and seem lost in time. There were the teenage bodies we found each morning, victims of the ongoing civil war unleashed following the U.S. invasion, a neat bullet through each skull. Then there’s the confusion, the disorienting, smoky haze in the aftermath of a car bomb in a Baghdad marketplace—the broken bodies and a child, a baby really, burnt beyond recognition.
The U.S. military crossed its tragic Rubicon and invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, titling its invasion Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). Since then, the military has never really left. The freshman cadets I taught at West Point were born in 1996—kindergarteners on 9/11—graduate this May, and some will head to Iraq. Just the way I did as a cadet more than a decade ago.
The war and occupation of Iraq were never pertinent—then or now—to the protection of vital U.S. national security interests. In fact, few of America’s countless interventions are anymore. Still, it is important to remember that OIF set a precedent for employing U.S. military power in futile democracy-spreading attempts to settle political problems in the Greater Middle East.
The results were and still remain, tragic. The war in Iraq—which is far from over—has made us all less safe. When a society comes apart, dark forces are unleashed, and the ensuing chaos respects no borders. Old ethnosectarian hatreds bubbled over, Iran gained influence over the Shia majority, and Sunni minority grievances proved a fertile breeding ground for Islamist ideologies. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (and ISIS) would not exist were it not for the ill-advised invasion. The Islamic State is the Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of regime change.
The U.S. was once admired in the Arab world, yet OIF has indefinitely tarnished the reputation of America on the “Arab street.” Sectarian hatred, pervasive fear, and radical ideologies spilled over into neighboring Syria. That civil war somehow surpassed even the Iraqi variant in its brutality and bloodletting. U.S. troops now patrol that land too, fighting ISIS remnants and precariously facing down Russians, Iranians, Syrians, and Turks along the Euphrates in one big Syria Trap. The sequel is scarier than the original—and the last act has yet to play out.
Perhaps the most lasting damage came at home. America’s citizenry learned to accept perpetual war, so long as nothing was asked of their bodies or wallets. Regardless of who holds power, Washington found it could wage open-ended war on the back of an all-volunteer military increasingly distant from the populace. The army bent but did not break, and life in the states hardly skipped a beat. Soldiers are thanked for their service and then seemingly forgotten. The media no longer bothers to cover endless war.
General Petraeus acolytes and regime change enthusiasts will continue to insist that President Bush’s 2007-2008 troop surge “worked,” and feckless Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That specious narrative ignores the true lesson, which is to avoid open-ended, nation-building crusades in the first place.
Iraq is fractured into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia statelets with a chauvinist Shia government in Baghdad, backed by Iran, holding the strongest hand. It remains unclear if Prime Minister Abadi can piece it back together, but that seems doubtful. The ISIS caliphate came and went, but ISIS ideals remain strong in the Sunni heartland. Hundreds of thousands are already dead, and Iraq’s regional neighbors are a mess. Saddam’s regime was dreadful, indeed, but post-Saddam, the entire neighborhood is ablaze.
In the years to come, Iraq may replace Vietnam as the pivotal foreign policy blunder of record. What, then, can one say about this war 15 years later? Perhaps this: Operation IRAQI FREEDOM brought neither freedom to the Arab World nor security for Americans, yet the war goes on.
This much is certain: The author, having aimlessly patrolled the streets of Baghdad, will never be the same; nor, I fear, will the American republic.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.