Wars usually end in one of two ways – victory or defeat.
World War II ended with a ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri, with Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signing a document of surrender, which U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted.
On the other hand, the war in Vietnam ended with a frantic two-day evacuation of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel from the Embassy in Saigon, culminating in the final helicopter leaving the roof with Vietnamese civilians hanging from the skids.
The “official end” of the war in Iraq was neither of these. It was low-key, marking the departure of all U.S. combat troops. During the nearly nine years of war, 1.5 million American troops served in Iraq, with the peak in the country at one time around 170,000. The final 4,000 troops will depart in the next day or two. Some 15,000 U.S. personnel remain in the country, including an estimated 8,000 armed private contractors.
The end occurred this morning, when the U.S. Forces Iraq flag that had flown over headquarters was lowered for the final time at the Baghdad airport. It was ceremonially “cased,” rolled up around its staff and placed in a casing for return to the U.S., never to be flown again.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who had flown to Iraq for the ceremony, said “After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real. To be sure, the cost was high — in blood and treasure for the United States, and for the Iraqi people.”
Following the ceremony, as the Washington Post put it, “That was it. No pronouncements of victory, no cheers or jubilation — only a profound sense that the war’s real reckoning is yet to come even as America’s part in it draws to a close.”
It is that “real reckoning” we now face – how will we care for those who fought? What will happen in Iraq? What are the lessons we will learn? We must now begin to find the answers.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Director for Sojourners.