In the year marking the 100th anniversary of The Great War, we find ourselves once again asking if a war has been fought in vain. In 1976, Scottish-Australian singer/songwriter Eric Bogle penned haunting lyrics about the futility of all wars in the last verse of his song “No Man’s Land,” reflecting on the grave of a young Scotsman killed in World War I.
“Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For, Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again and again and again and again.”
Now, in our generation’s long war, Al-Qaeda has taken back Al-Fallujah and Ar-Ramadi, and the pundits are pondering the same kinds of questions from generations past. “Who lost Iraq?” “Was it all in vain?” Two key cities in western Iraq, where thousands of Marines fought and hundreds were killed or wounded, have been re-taken.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have jointly stated, “Thousands of brave Americans who fought, shed their blood, and lost their friends to bring peace to Fallujah and Iraq are now left to wonder whether these sacrifices were in vain.”
Well, I don’t wonder.
On a personal level, as a Marine who fought in Ramadi, the loss of ground to the very enemies we defeated is galling, no question. At first I felt a wave of bitterness when I heard the news that Al-Qaeda fighters now controlled the ground I once stood on. Ground I bled for.
But on deeper reflection, we — the fighting men and women that defeated Al-Qaeda in western Iraq — succeeded. We won our battles. Our integrity is intact. Warriors like Marcus Luttrell have said as much in powerfully worded responses to media questions on this very point.
Yes, I am disheartened Al-Qaeda took back ground we took in battle and held under siege, but I didn’t fight for Ramadi or Iraq. I fought because I had made a decision to become a Marine, and to take orders. I fought because my nation told me to fight. And, ultimately, I fought because the Marines in my team needed me.
The American lives wasted in Iraq or some other Middle Eastern country will be the ones that will die in the future, re-securing what was already won.
Iraq wasn’t lost.
Opportunity was lost. Opportunity to deter Iranian regional hegemony. Opportunity to nurture a fractious, contentious, nascent secular state in the heart of the Middle East.
Imagine if Iran were unable to re-supply Syrian President Bashar Al Assad by air — might he have fallen two years ago? Tens of thousands killed, hundreds of thousands displaced need never have happened.
Imagine if we had supported the secular Shia Ayad Allawi when he won the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections instead of backing Maliki along with Iran — might Iraq have avoided the dramatic rise in sectarian violence? A Western-leaning government in Baghdad, instead of an Iranian client.
But are the geo-politics the fighting man’s problem? Of course not. It’s the duty of our political leaders to take advantage of opportunities, and when they fail to do so, it is the American people’s loss.
There is no war to end all wars.
I believe the next generation of politicians will at some point be forced to send the children and grandchildren of the Marines that fought in Fallujah and Ramadi back to the fight we once won. And I understand full well there are those who believe that would mean our fight was in vain. They’re entitled to their opinion. I feel righteous and justified in the battles I fought in Ramadi.
In “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” William Butler Yeats wrote beautifully about a man’s decision to commit himself to conflict and to be at peace with the outcome, whatever it may be. I think any Marine that fought in Fallujah and Ramadi would feel the same.
“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.”