Veterans Day is a holiday to celebrate the sacrifices and service of our soldiers. Yet a stunning one-third of all post-9/11 veterans say they do not think the war in Iraq has been worth fighting for. Their own sense of proud sacrifice and service has given way to seeping disillusionment.
This disillusionment stems from America’s inability to properly draw the Iraq war to an appropriate close.
President Barack Obama has announced that he plans to pull out the remaining 40,000 U.S. soldiers currently stationed in Iraq by year’s end. But Obama’s withdrawal decision only does injustice to the service members who have spent a decade fighting in Iraq. Simply walking away makes little sense. No wonder our youngest veterans are disillusioned with their service time.
Instead of leaving Iraq, Obama should maintain a small military presence in the country.
Such a military presence would help show that America is indeed committed to fulfilling the objectives it had sent so many soldiers to Iraq to achieve. Politically, this added presence would shore up the rickety Iraqi government. Strategically, it would maximize America’s reach in a vital region and help defend against unwanted overtures by states like Iran. Psychologically, holding what soldiers have fought dearly for in Iraq would show that America does, in fact, value these soldiers’ sacrifice.
The numbers are stark: 4,481 American soldiers have died in Iraq since combat first began, and more than $700 billion worth of taxpayer money has been spent, apparently for nothing. “Mission Accomplished,” of course, never really happened. There have been no grand ticker tape parades of congratulation, no sense of achievement. You can’t pour a decade’s worth of lives, money, infrastructure, and political clout into a country and just walk away. No wonder a third of America’s young vets are disillusioned with the mission they were fighting. There is no closure to the nightmare they were a part of.
Iraq was supposed to be different than Vietnam. After that war, veterans returned home with a “Rambo syndrome,” a sense of disillusionment with the war they were fighting, at a loss to describe why they had been shipped over to South Asia. That same disillusionment is being seen today.
Obama could have saved the mission, adding some sense to what has truly been a senseless war. Instead of fully pulling out of Iraq, American leadership could have demanded that a few thousand U.S. military personnel stay in Iraq, holding key military installations, like Balad Air Base. Further, American leaders could have announced a new plan for Iraq: Help maintain the stability of the fragile democracy and the security of the region.
Maintaining operational bases would help buttress the Iraqi government’s continued efforts to fight insurgents and terror groups within the country. An American presence in Iraq could help repel the advances of regimes like Iran. Leaving Iraq, on the other hand, could potentially embolden Iran to make a run for power in the region. There is already a growing call to preemptively strike Iran after the IAEA revealed this week the country was indeed seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Iran will only continue to be a threat. Keeping military properties on their doorstep makes strategic sense.
Staying in Iraq is hardly imperialism. There are more than 1,000 military bases dotting the globe, and keeping a few of the Iraq installations wouldn’t by any means make the U.S. look like colonizers. Iraq could be the new center of the American military presence in the region. A major air base in Balad would allow our air forces unparalleled reach. The U.S. could explore the option of moving the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, now stationed in Bahrain, to an Iraqi harbor. Forces in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and throughout MENA could be consolidated into this new regional centralized Iraq hub. The presence would further add a much-needed economic fold for the rebuilding Iraqi economy, much like bases in Germany and Japan did for those nations.
But most importantly, finishing through with the Iraq mission would be a psychological win. Our veterans would understand that the reason they went to Iraq in the first place– to help build and maintain a new democracy – was not a fleeting, half-assed mission put on them by American leaders. They would understand that they had fought for something and that there is indeed something to achieve.
Obama could have psychologically “won” the war for America. Instead, he opted to turn our young veterans into the next disillusioned Vietnam-generation.
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