Casing the Colors in Iraq

Today the colors were cased in a ceremony at the US Airbase co-located at the Baghdad International Airport.  It really is hard to believe that this excursion in Mesopotamia is over.  The ceremony marked the formal end to the US military operation in Iraq although a few thousand troops are finishing the retrograde of equipment from the country.

The fact that we might not end up in Iraq again if the Iranians push their Iraq Arab Shia friends too hard. They may share a common strain of Islam but there really is no love lost between the Arabs and the Persians as many Iraqis will derisively call them.  The Iraqis are a proud people and remember Persian rule like it was yesterday. The Persians treated Arabs like dirt and though it was centuries ago the Arabs have not forgotten.  My Iraqi friends both Sunni and Shia recognized that Iran was a threat and hope that if Iran ever attempted to take Iraq over that we would help defend Iraq.

The current US involvement is over after 4484 American service members were killed in action and 32000 wounded.  318 coalition Allied troops died.  The Iraqi Security Forces have lost 8825 soldiers killed with a further 1300 killed during the initial invasion of the country.  Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians are believed to have been killed and some agencies have estimated far higher totals.  Of course the Iraqis are still taking casualties as extremist groups both Shia and Sunni continue their blood feud and the Shia majority tries to solidify its power over the minority former ruling party Sunni.  Over a trillion dollars was spent on the war by the United States and long term costs are expected to reach 2-3 Trillion dollars.  Of course Iraq is still reeling from all of the damage and its involvement in wars with Iran from 1980-1988, the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and the United States response Operation Desert Storm, the post war sanctions and the enforcement of an oil embargo and a no-fly zone to keep Saddam contained even as he butchered thousands of Iraqis who rose up against him after he was driven from Kuwait and the the current war which began in 2003.

But the numbers are not just numbers, behind every one is a family, wives, husbands, parents, siblings and children as well as friends.  Every one has a name and a face and all meant something to somebody and left a void when they died or were irreversibly changed by the war.  That pain and cost will go on for a long time and there are no words that adequately compensate for these losses. Faith and trust in God’s grace help some but others struggle, even believers.  That I know for a fact because I still do.

I remember flying into Baghdad in 2007 it was the height of the “surge” and I was going to provide Chaplain support to US Advisors to Iraqi Army, Border, Police and other Security Forces in Al Anbar Province.  At the time the base was shelled and when we exited the aircraft it was no peacetime drill we left in our full gear and were brief on what to do should we encountered incoming fire.  It was in Baghdad that I first experienced a rocket attack when one flew over my head.  But now the bases are empty, it must be surreal to be one of the last Americans leaving the country.

For me the end of our involvement is a strange experience.  It was hard to believe in 2007 that we would ever leave. The great edifices that we erected around country some of which were going up even when I was there are mostly empty except for some taken over by the Iraqi military.  Former military bases even in this country are a surreal site.  I have been to a number that were closed following the end of the Cold War.  Fort Wolters Texas near Fort Worth is an example. When I would go to a small section of the base used by the National Guard I would go past many mostly unused buildings including what had been a brand new hospital which opened just before the base was closed following Vietnam. The last time I flew through the former George Air Force Base  when going to and returning from Twenty-Nine Palms it was a ghost town except a few businesses and hundreds of former commercial jets parked on the tarmac. I remember going through recently closed American bases in Germany in the 1990s and saw installations empty. I was also the final Federal Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when it was transferred to the National Guard.  Built during World War II it was a throwback to a different era. The base has been revitalized as a sizable ground and aviation training center by the Guard with much new construction but the sight of all the World War II “temporary” wooden buildings was amazing. Vast areas of the base we unused and some complete areas were demolished. I helped in getting the main Post Chapel Renovated in order that the existing congregation would be able to continue with a contract Chaplain paid by the Guard and activated or drilling Guard Chaplains.  We had to decommission or convert some to other uses and saved one which was donated to a church 40 miles away who paid to have it deconstructed and rebuilt on their own land. But I digress…

When I was in Iraq in many places there were the remains of Saddam Hussein’s military.  The base that I operated from had a number of abandoned or damaged Iraqi bombers and fighter aircraft parked at it.  Of course most of the existing buildings were converted to American use.  The biggest of these were the Al Faw Palace complex at Camp Victory but Camp Fallujah was the site of one of the Baath Party resorts used by Uday and Qusay Hussein.  I stayed there couple of days while traveling from Baghdad to Taqaddum which was my base of operations because of the capability to get around by air to where I needed to go and proximity to many advisor teams supporting the Iraqi First and Seventh Divisions.

Back then all were major bases with a large American presence which was inflated by many of the contractors, American and from other countries that supported base operations from the chow hall, to the laundry, the fire department and even the cleaning of the shower trailers and countless porta-johns.

People will debate for many years whether the war was worth it and I can only say that I hope that history will show that it was despite the huge loss of life, the destruction of a country and the vast expenditure of the national treasury.  It is probably too early to make that judgement, we tend to be pretty bad in making those decisions in the moment.  That is one of the problems in this age of information overload.  We have lots of data but no historical context and we make decisions that we think are correct but find out years later were tragically erroneous.

At the same time we cannot go back in time and change the past. For good or for bad we have to go forward from now and hopefully in time Iraq and its people will recover from the effects of over 30 years of war and economic sanctions.  We will find out over the next 10 to 50 years what the real effect is.  But for now we are left with a weak Iraq, a strong and threatening Iran and our own diminished military capacity and weak economy as well as a war that is not going well in Afghanistan.

I doubt that that can give comfort to the families of those that died in Iraq or came back wounded in mind body or spirit.  I know that I came back different, PTSD has a way of doing that.

But I am proud of the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Iraqi officers that I served alongside in the badlands of Al Anbar Province mostly far away from the immediate help of any big units if they got in trouble.  I know how valiant and skilled they were fighting Al Qaida Iraq and other insurgents and even foreign fighters from places like Chechnya aided by Iran and others.  It was a brutal fight at times but the men of the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions and our advisors helped turn the tide during 2007 and 2008.  Without their diligence and toughness combined with the help of Iraqi civilians the war would have ended differently.

Tonight as I walked the dog to the beach I looked up at the sky. In our neighborhood there are not many street lights and most are clustered in one small area. Since many residents are not here in the winter many of the homes are dark as well and there are areas that have no houses but are lots covered in pine trees.  In the dark I was thinking about Iraq and I could hear the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.  I looked up at the sky and saw the most stars I have seen since being out on the Syrian border in December 2007.  I was reminded that I left part of me in Iraq and I pray for the Iraqis that I served with and those that provided us hospitality during our missions.

As I walked I thought of the words of Otto Von Bismarck one of the greatest statesmen that every lived.  Our war in Iraq was a preventive war.  Bismarck said that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”  I pray that in our case that he was not right and that we think long and hard before entering another preventive war with anyone.  Bismarck, who knew war commented that “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” Unfortunately the vast majority of our elected leaders have ever done that.  Bismarck was certainly no pacifist but warned us that “I consider even a victorious war as an evil, from which statesmanship must endeavor to spare nations.”

The world is not a safe place and our near about 140,000 US and NATO troops are still engaged against a stubborn enemy in Afghanistan that has been aided by wavering allies such as Pakistan and sworn enemies like Iran.  War seems to threaten on many fronts.  I pray that we will be prudent before entering another.

I have rambled a bit tonight because I have so many thoughts and images of the war.  I trust your indulgence.  But for now the colors have been cased and our military involvement in Iraq is over.  We can only pray that Iraq will recover and become a free and prosperous country that treats its citizens well and that we too will recover from this war.  But then Bismarck is sometimes quoted saying that “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” I do hope that if he did say this that he was right.

Peace and and as my Iraqi friends would say Inshallah (إن شاء الله)

Padre Steve+

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1 Comment

Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

One response to “Casing the Colors in Iraq

  1. John Erickson

    While there is a great deal of current support for our returning troops, and for those still serving in Afghanistan, I fear that the predictions of an economically troubled 2012 might lead to unwise cuts in spending on the VA and other Veterans’ benefits. I can only hope that our gratitude and our support will continue for the decades these brave warriors will require to live happy and healthy lives.
    On this, the night of the 67th Anniversary of the start of The Battle Of The Bulge, I join you in hoping that Bismarck’s comment about the US is both true and accurate.
    And you are ALWAYS forgiven for a ramble, sir. It makes the reading all that more personal. Ramble away! 🙂

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