THE BLOG

When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again

02/08/2012 03:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

On Dec. 15, 2011, one of the longest wars in our nation's history was officially over. There has been a grand total of one parade to mark the event and welcome our troops home.

Nine years of combat -- more than 4,400 Americans killed, 32,000 wounded, with a price tag of nearly $2 trillion, an estimated $1 trillion more to care for returning military veterans and billions to replace military equipment destroyed, ruined or left behind -- the U.S. mission in Iraq has formally ended. And there has been one parade.

It was and will always be one of the most opaque military adventures in American history. The United States invaded Iraq based on a new doctrine in modern American foreign policy: A preemptive war against a sovereign nation that had neither attacked nor threatened to attack the United States or any of its allies, had taken no American hostages nor was engaged in acts of mass murder or genocide.

It began as a television event. 'Shock and Awe' was televised live so Americans could watch as entire areas of Baghdad were reduced to rubble. U.S. forces quickly toppled Saddam Hussein. But in removing one of the bloodiest dictators on the planet, they also removed a critical check on Iran's regional ambitions, enabled the creation of a deadly Iraqi insurgency and ripped the scab off a Sunni-Shiite Muslim split that began about 660 A.D. and has never been resolved.

While the Iraq War was in most respects unique in U.S. military history, there are striking parallels with another war 40 years earlier that pitted generations of Americans against each other and their national government. Both eventually became unpopular. Both took a tragic toll in American lives.

And there was another striking parallel. When Vietnam veterans returned to "the world," there were no parades. It was like nobody but their families even noticed they'd been gone. Last December, when U.S. bases were handed over and the last combat units returned home, there were no parades. Life in America had gone on without them, like nobody but their families even noticed they'd been gone.

Vietnam was very different from Iraq. Nearly 3 million U.S. military personnel served in Nam. And for most, when their tour was up, they went home. In Iraq, less than half as many were deployed, but most of them more than once; some units, including National Guard and Reserve, performed four and five tours. During Vietnam, we had the draft, and during the Iraq war, we had a much smaller, all-volunteer, professional military. The Pentagon had no choice but to send the same units into combat again and again. There wasn't anyone else to send.

Vietnam affected millions of lives beyond those who served: families, friends, classmates, neighbors, whole communities -- everybody knew someone who'd been there. But, the war in Iraq directly touched about 1 percent of the American people -- our military personnel and their families.

Our society today is vastly different. We've created a "Warrior" ethos that celebrates those who serve in uniform. Military personnel are thanked for their service instead of being spat on or called 'baby killer.' And that's a wonderful change. But it's not enough. We cannot allow American men and women who have seen and experienced things that can never be easily described or forgotten to disappear back into their civilian lives or their military bases with just a "Thanks for your service."

It may seem awkward to celebrate the end of one war while another war continues. We still have thousands of troops in Afghanistan. And, we're still not sure what we've left behind in Iraq. Will the new republic implode in sectarian warfare? Will the national government become a satellite for Iran? Will the country become a hotbed for radical Islam or terrorists? Or, will it become a democratic model for the rest of the region? We cannot know. And, it's not up to us to decide. It's not our country.

In spite of that, America needs to celebrate that the war in Iraq is over. We need to celebrate our young men and women and show our appreciation for their sacrifice. And just as importantly, we need to mark the occasion for ourselves. Such pivotal points in our history should be painted in bold, indelible strokes. If they're not, we risk allowing the war to quickly recede into memory like a long, unpleasant movie. If we fail to confer the proper magnitude on ending a war, we risk diminishing the magnitude of beginning a war. We risk allowing war to become routine, and then the next war comes too easily.

War should always be detestable; too awful to consider as anything but a last desperate resort. But the end of any war should be celebrated and remembered.

When Johnny comes marching home again,
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!