President Obama spoke Wednesday afternoon in Fort Bragg, N.C., to a crowd of returning veterans from Iraq.
To loud applause, the president declared: "We’re here to mark a historic moment in the life of our country and our military. For nearly nine years, our nation has been at war in Iraq. … So as your commander in chief, on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm proud to finally say these two words – and I know your families agree: Welcome home.”
It’s a sentiment we all can share.
Obama acknowledged the huge human cost of the war. “We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded and those are only the wounds that show," the president said. "Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice … so today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family. We grieve with them.”
That is a prayer we all should join in. And we should also acknowledge the cost to Iraqis – an estimated 100,000 deaths – and all of those families who lost loved ones.
And while much of Obama's speech praised the bravery and sacrifice of the troops, the president also briefly reflected on what it has meant.
"We knew this day would come. We've known it for some time. But still there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long," he continued. "Our efforts in Iraq have taken many twists and turns. It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate.” And, said Obama. "It's harder to end a war than begin one.” Although he offered no analysis of his own, he added, “Policymakers and historians will continue to analyze the strategic lessons of Iraq — that’s important to do.”
As someone who has opposed the war since before it began, it was a significant day. All of the prayers and protests, rallies and arrests, letters and visits, were a major factor in ending the war. And it is not inconsistent to say that everything the president said about the bravery and sacrifice of the U.S. troops who served is true. Men and women placed in a war situation did respond with great courage, and their sacrifice should be honored and remembered, their wounds and their families’ needs cared for.
As far as the lessons of Iraq, we don’t need to wait for historians. We knew in 2002, and we know now, that this was a war that didn’t need to be, that never should have been, and that unless we now honestly learn from, we will repeat again. After the war in Vietnam, the lessons of overseas wars of choice had supposedly been learned, but all was forgotten in the mad rush to war in Iraq. Let us hope and pray that this time, it will be remembered.
For starters we should resolve, and the president should commit, that the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops now serving in Afghanistan will be home by Christmas next year. That war has now gone on for more than ten years, there are continuing deaths and injuries, and more grieving families.
Let us give thanks the war in Iraq has ended, and redouble our efforts to end the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners.