After nearly nine years of war, the last U.S. troops are leaving Iraq in time to be home for the holidays. The administration has planned a series of events this week to mark the departure.
Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki visited Washington to discuss the postwar relationship between the two countries, including security, trade, energy investment and educational exchanges. A military relationship will also continue. The prime minister, echoing President Obama, said that Iraq will rely on the U.S. for military equipment and training; including the pending sale of 18 F-16 fighter jets. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will continue to have one of the largest staffs, including security personnel, of any U.S. Embassy in the world.
Both leaders noted the lives sacrificed, and followed their White House meeting by laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. In the years of war, 4,484 American solidiers lost their lives. They will not be coming home for Christmas; those who loved them – their spouses and children, parents and siblings, extended families and communities – will continue to mourn the empty chair at the table.
Yet, neither leader was willing to offer a judgment on the war. President Obama said, when asked, “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” It was not the declaration in his campaign announcement speech nearly 5 years ago that “Most of you know I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake.”
He was right then. It does no dishonor to those who served to learn from the mistake that was made in starting an unnecessary war in Iraq. And, to realize that it is a mistake the U.S. continues to make. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor who is also a West Point graduate, Vietnam combat veteran and retired Army colonel; and whose son was an Army officer killed in Iraq put it best. "The final tragedy of a tragic enterprise is that the U.S. has learned next to nothing," he says. "The belief that war works remains strangely intact."
The men and women who lost their lives should be remembered, and we should learn from their deaths. As poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, while those who died do not speak, their voices are heard,
They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us. …
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners.