12/23/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

Happy Xmas (But War Is Not Over)

The war in Iraq is now finally over -- at least for Americans. The beginning of that end was actually on the 31st of August 2010, when President Obama declared the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with much less fanfare than as his predecessor declared "mission accomplished" -- the end of major combat operations -- on the 1st of May in 2003. While I was not present in Iraq for the second declaration, I was for the first, then in command of the first U.S. Army Civil Affairs battalion to deploy in support of "OIF," witnessing what my Norwegian Army friend called "the tragedy on the ground."

As I reflect back on our involvement there, an avalanche of thoughts enter my mind. The first and foremost has to do with something some people are thinking about right now, with the death of Kim Jong-il, and the renewed specter of war on the Korean peninsula -- why you go there in the first place. The night before we went "over the berm" that March, I had said in an email to my family and friends:

This war is really not about weapons of mass destruction. It's also really not about oil or trying to get Iraqis to worry more about hanging chads than hanging each other. Yes, it's about making the world safe for America and what America stands for (or at least should)... We can argue about whether this is good; but it is most of all clear to us that we are here, as one of my sergeants has put it, 'to give these people their country back.'

That sounds high-minded, but what I was trying to do then was distill the all-important moral factor -- the "good cause" that Americans always seek whenever they go to war -- not for me as much as for my troops. But the troops had done a better job. Their explanation was both more pragmatic and achievable -- and certainly less ambitious than the hubris of the neocons. In a sense, we have achieved in 2011 what my troops said in 2003. For better or worse, the Iraqis have their country back.

Why you go to war is the single most important determinant before a nation decides to commit blood and treasure in pursuit of its national interests. Your reasons should be more than compelling. The truth is that, in most cases, the casus belli is a complexity of the ideal and the real. It is the job of political leaders to make this complexity understandable; it is the job of their constituents to make sure they understand.

In the Korea case, we would need to be damn sure we ask ourselves, in an open and honest discussion: What really are our vital interests in Korea? There may indeed be some, other than preserving South Korea's ability to sell us more Hyundais, KIA's and Samsungs. It had better not, however, simply be a recitation of dusty platitudes from the State and Defense Departments about "alliance obligations" and so on. And we need to know whether we can achieve those goals and commit to them. In the civil affairs and peace-building business, it's called "managing expectations."

In my own view, we should make sure that we place what we're about over what we fear when making those decisions -- because in emphasizing the moral imperative over the fear factor, we will more readily see that there are better options to pursue our interests than martial means, which of course should always be the last resort.

At the same time, we also need to be aware of the costs and consequences of those decisions, both short and long term. Only a tiny minority of Americans knows, up-close and personally, what those costs are. The most humbling experience I had in my life was sitting in the living room of the father of one our soldiers, killed just six days before Christmas and less than two weeks from our planned departure from Iraq, trying to help him gain perspective on his son's loss. As for consequences, when we opened up the Pandora's box in the Middle East by invading Iraq, how much did we really have the bigger picture and the longer term in mind, other than going off after 9/11 like cowboys looking for Indians?

By having a more conscientious consensus on cause, cost and consequence, we're more likely -- though not guaranteed -- to avoid other Vietnams and Iraqs.

We have left Iraq. We will also leave Afghanistan. No doubt, there will be a number of years of gun-shyness, especially as former Defense Secretary Gates admonished, when it comes to operations on the Asian landmass. In fact, we will be less able. And that is a very good thing.

But we need heed Plato's counsel that "only the dead have seen the end of war." The war in Iraq may be over, but war itself is not over. Sooner or later, the tocsin will again sound. We will send another generation of youth into harm's way.

When that happens, we all have a responsibility to making sure, at least, that ours is but to reason why.