Sometime before the end of the month, probably by Christmas, the last American troops will leave Iraq and the U.S. military venture in Iraq will come to a close with a whimper, not a bang. The war will not end, only the American participation that began with an invasion and occupation, struggled through an insurgency and near civil war and found a way out with a surge and strategic redirection will conclude.
What to say about the Iraq experience?
First, an objective evaluation awaits the verdict of a history yet to be written. It is not possible now and not for at least a decade or more when the Iraqis have written the next chapters. In the long term, how that country meets the demands of a representative and responsible government including the rule of law and respect for human rights will determine the judgment of history on America's decision to invade.
This is not to say that things might not turn badly in the short run. Sectarian violence could once again erupt and threaten civil war. Or the current government could take a hard authoritarian turn. Or Iraq could be drawn closer to their fellow Shiites in Iran, as appears to be happening in the case of the current crisis in Syria. Any of these or similar events might well raise an ugly and divisive "who lost Iraq" debate.
Second, the war is only half over for American taxpayers and, tragically, for too many who served there. Taxpayers will need to pay off the cost of the war funded only by debt and will face an impending tsunami of veterans costs. There are thousands of severely wounded soldiers blinded, with missing limbs, traumatic brain injury and other physical wounds that will need long-term care and support. When the quarter of a million or more mental injuries, such as post-traumatic stress are added, the task is even more daunting. To meet this need -- no, this obligation -- Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) budgets will likely need to be increased significantly and for a long time. Historically, the peak spending needed on the veterans of our wars comes fifteen or more years after the end of the war. Will those who supported the war support the revenues needed to pay for veterans care? Will those who opposed the war but said they supported the troops support the needy veterans? The answer to these questions will tell us what the character of the nation is or is not.
Then there is the politics. We have witnessed how Vietnam played a role in presidential and congressional politics long after the war ended, including the 2008 presidential campaign. Vietnam is unlikely to play a major role in 2012 or beyond but Iraq (and Afghanistan) certainly could, especially if things turn bad before the election.
Already Republican candidates are criticizing President Obama for pulling the last American units out of Iraq and viewing this as a sign of weakness. Yet the end of 2011 withdrawal is in the "Strategic Framework" agreement signed by President Bush. U.S. troops could only remain by amending this agreement. The Iraqi government would not agree unless remaining U.S. personnel were subject to Iraqi law, not given immunity under s status of forces agreement (SOFA). To say that the generals' wanted a residual force in Iraq is true but none advocated paying the price of a SOFA that did not guarantee U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. Anyone who criticizes the withdrawal need to state clearly whether they would be willing to pay that price.
So, as the Iraq conflict winds down many lessons learned will be proffered. Many will be politically tinged. The tactical military lessons should be examined thoroughly so that professional military institutions do not forget them as was done after Vietnam. The grand strategic lessons should be examined thoroughly with the coming Pentagon budget battles as the context.
But the one lesson we should never forget is this: if we do not care for the veterans, the less than one percent of the American population and their families who bore the brunt of these wars, we will not only dishonor our nation, we will never be able to raise such a professional and heroic volunteer military again. And that would put this nation in great peril.