The last convoy of U.S. combat troops crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait in the early morning of Dec. 18, 2011, bringing almost nine years of war to a muted and dusty finish. To hinder possible parting shots from Al Qaeda, comrades in arms in the Iraqi military were not informed as U.S. troops pulled out in the middle of the night. The silent exodus was in stark contrast to the war’s “shock and awe” beginning in March 2003.
U.S. soldiers were happy and relieved to be on their way home for Christmas, but concerned about what might follow in Iraq. It is hard to know what to feel about this war stateside. So many of us were invited to be no more than spectators to the carnage. Weren’t we told to carry on and go shopping?
A universal conscription never joined us in worrying over our young people; our taxes were never hiked to pay for the outlandish costs of Iraq. Our professional fighting men and women and the thousands of reservists pulled in from middle-class lifestyles and middle-aged parenting seemed to be the only ones called upon, repeatedly, to sacrifice. The poor may apparently now be asked to do their share as the federal government responds to Iraq’s unbudgeted tab by cutting social services.
The last U.S. casualty in Iraq was Army Specialist David Emanuel Hickman, 23, of Greensboro, N.C. He died in Baghdad on Nov. 14, killed, like so many of the other 4,487 U.S. service members lost in Iraq, by an improvised explosive device. Even as they attempted to withdraw in mid-December, U.S. forces were harassed by mortar and artillery fire.
When the American flag was lowered for the last time at the Baghdad airport, no Iraqi dignitaries bothered to show up. In Fallujah, where mansions built with generous “pacification” handouts stand not far from a bridge where the burned bodies of four U.S. contractors were hung, the U.S. withdrawal was brazenly celebrated with banners decorated with photos of burning American Humvees.
It should not come as a surprise that Iraqis are not especially grateful for America’s prolonged excursion along the Euphrates. More than 104,000 civilians died during the war. Its chaos unleashed unresolved sectarian tensions that had festered for generations and still menace the future.
A fatal rupture with the Kurds in the north seems as likely today as it did in 2003; Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has already begun to exhibit alarming authoritarian tendencies. The fate of Iraq’s Christians seems grim, though most have already left. Also left behind were thousands of Iraqis who worked closely with U.S. forces over the years as translators, aides or in more dangerous clandestine capacities. Can they expect to survive reprisals from Sunni or Shiite extremists now that their patrons and protectors are gone?
It does not seem likely that a ticker-tape parade along Wall Street will mark the end of this war. Perhaps we did our celebrating too early, during the false “Mission Accomplished” period. Maybe, given the many political, strategic and finally emotional ambiguities, there is no way to “celebrate” the end of the Iraq adventure, even as we strive not to confuse mixed emotions about this war of choice with our positive feelings toward the people who served there.
There might be some satisfaction to be found in saying that at the very least, the United States has learned a valuable, if costly, lesson in Iraq. But the drumbeating along the Potomac has already begun, as our war-mongering punditry primes the cannon for a new “intervention” in Iran. We may begin our next military misadventure long before the tab for this one has been paid in full, if it ever can be.