Watching President Obama address the nation from the Oval Office last night to formally end combat operations in Iraq was a deeply personal moment for me. The end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, after more than seven years of combat, unquestionably marks a turning point in the history of our country and our military. As a veteran of the Iraq war and as someone who spent a third of my life in the uniform of the US Navy, the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom has forced me to think deeply about what this war has meant to me as a person, as a citizen and as someone who was sent to fight in it.
It did not surprise me to turn on the television last night to find the usual talking heads dissecting the President's address (before he uttered a word of it). In their usually, um, impressive fashion, they had keenly focused on the most important issue of the speech--was President Obama going to "diss" President Bush? Seriously.
There was nothing original in their tired arguments over who deserved credit for the "surge" or the fight over whether it was a "tactical success" or a "strategic failure" (or is it vice-versa). There was even the shameless John Bolton, coming out of hiding to make the breathtaking claim that President Obama had "wrecked Iraq."
I did not find that one funny. I did not find it funny because I was only thinking of one thing last night. Actually, I was thinking of a few thousand things last night--the 4,416 brothers and sisters of mine who died fighting in the streets and sands of Iraq. And I was thinking about the 31,902 who had been wounded there. And I thought about how sad it was that with 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq for another year, we have yet to see the last American die there.
I think this war was wrong, and I mourn deeply the loss of these Americans.
I am not a pacifist, far from it. I understand quite clearly that there are bad guys out there who wish us and our way of life harm. I am a strong proponent of the US military and believe that our mission in Afghanistan should and must succeed.
But Iraq has taught me a lesson I will continue to take with me for the rest of my life--a lesson about the hubris of power; about the human cost of war; and about how we as citizens must hold our leaders firmly accountable when they decide to send our young men and women to fight and die.
As a student of history I have read so much about the wars of generations prior. But now this war is mine. The dead are my dead; the wounded, my friends. You cannot escape unchanged. You cannot look back on the past seven years and easily reconcile the human cost.
And so I come back to President Obama's speech to the nation. I watched our President--in words both humble and forceful--tell us that, finally, this war was coming to an end. As he spoke the phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom is over," I caught myself taking a deep breath and sitting back in my chair.
He went on to talk about Iraq's future, the need to refocus here at home and about fixing our troubled economy. He talked about the continuing fight in Afghanistan, and, so importantly, he talked about the "sacred trust" that is caring for our veterans as they come home.But as he ended his speech, President Obama came back, once again, to the members of the United States military, and reminded us of the cost they have had to bear. In his own words:
"Of course, the soldiers left much behind. Some were teenagers when the war began. Many have served multiple tours of duty, far from families who bore a heroic burden of their own, enduring the absence of a husband's embrace or a mother's kiss. Most painfully, since the war began, 55 members of the Fourth Stryker Brigade made the ultimate sacrifice -- part of over 4,400 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq. As one staff sergeant said, 'I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this day would probably mean a lot.'
Those Americans gave their lives for the values that have lived in the hearts of our people for over two centuries. Along with nearly 1.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq, they fought in a faraway place for people they never knew. They stared into the darkest of human creations -- war -- and helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace.
In an age without surrender ceremonies, we must earn victory through the success of our partners and the strength of our own nation. Every American who serves joins an unbroken line of heroes that stretches from Lexington to Gettysburg; from Iwo Jima to Inchon; from Khe Sanh to Kandahar -- Americans who have fought to see that the lives of our children are better than our own. Our troops are the steel in our ship of state. And though our nation may be traveling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead. Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America, and all who serve her."
President Obama has ended the war in Iraq. He has done so with strength, humility and courage. He has done so in a way that has protected the honor and dignity of each and every American who did not come back. Someday, somewhere, we will etch their names into granite. Till then, I say thank you Mr. President, for bringing the rest of them home.