We are in a process of ... shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.”
Senior administration official quoted in the Aug. 13, 2005, edition of The Washington Post, in a story by Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer
The war that started with shock and awe ended with a day of absence.
The New York Times captured the moment:
“As an indication of the country the United States is leaving behind, for security reasons the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents — or Iraqi security officers aligned with militias — interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone. ...
At 6:59 a.m. this morning, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed EXORD 1003, Victor, Mod 9, the cryptically-titled document officially ending the Iraq War.
After 4,487 Americans died, 32,226 were wounded and $900 billion were incinerated, that process of acknowledging reality — a kind of American Awakening — has finally gone down, two weeks ahead of schedule. The U.S. military MRAP vehicles rumbled toward the Kuwaiti-Iraq border this morning, back down the same road they came in on eight years, eight months and 28 days ago.
With the jaunty, upbeat pace of an exercise; with the jubilation of men and women who knew good and damn well that war is anything but an exercise, the last American forces exited from the Inchoate Emerging Democracy in the land of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
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The righteous vitriol and high dudgeon the United States began this conflict with on March 19, 2003, took its time in the depletion. The shock & awe light show that immediately dazzled the media led to a rush to the colors by that same media, and, however briefly, by the nation as a whole.
“That [patriotism] appears so long after the period of frenzied flag-waving following 9/11 suggests that it is settling in as a fixture of American perceptions,” said Roper Reports.
Some of that patriotism seemed to be driven by the fact of the Iraq conflict then unfolding, and by the memory of the nation’s experience in Vietnam. “This country had a huge reckoning with the days of Vietnam and attitudes toward our soldiers. Every baby boomer internally promises never to let something like that happen again,” Cary Silvers, NOP World vice president of consumer trends, told me in July 2005.
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We’re a patient lot, we Americans. That patriotic fervor continued, and it exists today, as the last of about 39,000 of our fellow citizens get back to lives that should never have been disrupted in the first place. But while our support for the troops is and should be unquestioned, this nation still reckons with the administration that sent them there and the one that pulled them out, with deliberation so slow it verged on the painful.
If the United States jumped into the Iraq war in a relative hurry — roughly 18 months elapsed between the horror of 9/11 and the invasion in March 2003 — getting out has been more of a timed-release affair.
In late June 2009, the United States began withdrawing its armed forces from 15 major cities and municipalities of Iraq, leaving the Iraqi army to shield the nation from the insurgents.
The drawdown Obama announced in August 2010 brought American force in Iraq down to 50,000 troops, well down from the 144,000 there when he took office in January 2009. The force levels have been winnowing down from there ever since.
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Obama told us what was coming when he met with troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Wednesday. "Our troops are now preparing to make their final march across the border and out of the country," Obama said. "Iraq's future will be in the hands of its own people."
"This is a moment for us to build a country that lives up to the ideals that so many of our bravest Americans have fought and even died for," Obama said. "That is our highest obligation as citizens. That is the welcome home that our troops deserve."
The focus now shifts to the tragically unfinished business in Afghanistan. Administration plans are for U.S. forces to begin exiting from that conflict sometime in 2012 or 2013, although the White House has requested scenarios for U.S. forces there as far out as 2014. What is apparently writ in stone are the administration’s plans to withdraw the 33,000 surge troops Obama deployed, sometime in the September 2012 time frame.
The United States spent about $93.8 billion in Afghanistan last year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Back in June of this year, The New York Times put the financial cost in a two-administration perspective: “Spending on the war in Afghanistan has skyrocketed since Mr. Obama took office, to $118.6 billion in 2011. It was $14.7 billion in 2003, when President George W. Bush turned his attention and American resources to the war in Iraq.”
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But beyond the human loss and the insane burn rate of money spent in the Afghan conflict, what’s even more unsettling is the sense among some analysts and military observers that the so-called “war of necessity” in Afghanistan may be every bit as unwinnable as the “war of choice” in Iraq.
"The fundamental problem is that we cannot accomplish the mission," said Peter Galbraith, former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, on MSNBC's "Hardball" in July 2010. "I think it is a waste of resources to put people in a mission that can't be achieved. And frankly, it's immoral to send young men and women on a mission that cannot succeed."
And then there were other matters that are likely to stay undone:
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, even proposed a commission with subpoena powers and the ability to grant immunity, to prosecute those in the Bush White House and their enablers for what many called nothing less than War Crimes.
By February 2009, less than two weeks after Barack Obama became president, ordinary citizens let their feelings be known on the Change.gov Web site. Millions of people said that addressing this matter was of top importance, even more important than some aspects of the evolving economic crisis.
President Obama seemed to agree. “Nobody is above the law," he said in February 2009, "and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. …”
Unfinished business indeed.
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With Christmas dead ahead, the country gets set to celebrate the return of Americans to America. The country greets their homecoming with a joy borne of exhaustion, a weariness with the war footing that has dominated our national mindset and infected our sense of order and well-being for way too long.
Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), “for each military loss, there are ten people, on average, significantly impacted.” That means more than 44,800 Americans for whom the damage is hardly collateral.
By TAPS calculations, 8,974 Americans lost a son or daughter in Iraq; 3,141 lost a parent; 2,468 lost a wife or a husband; 3,679 lost a brother or a sister; 13,461 grandparents lost a grandchild.
Their unfinished business eclipses the nation’s own. For them, the end of hostilities in Iraq is no moment for fracturing T.S. Eliot. The Iraq war doesn’t end with bang or whimper. For them, it hasn't ended. For them and the 32,226 wounded Americans coming home to a place they never should have departed from ... it almost certainly never will.
Image credits: U.S. soldier, Contingency Operating Base Adder: Mario Tama (pool). U.S. MRAP soldier celebrates, U.S. and Iraqis marking war's end: MSNBC. Obama at Dover AFB, October 2009: MSNBC. Dick Cheney: The White House. Iraq war casualties by U.S. state: The Guardian.