The President and the Pentagon say the U.S. war in Iraq is officially over
- except that approximately 4,000 American men and women in our armed forces
won't be home for a while, and another 4,500 or more will never come home.
The most patriotic American and most ardent supporter of former Pres. George
W. Bush would have to temper his satisfaction with the "end" of the war with
questions that linger and haunt, or just one: Why was our national treasure
- our finest young people - there in the first place?
Lessons unlearned from Gulf War I were unlearned in the planning of Gulf
War II - if you could call it "planning".
At the weekly breakfast meeting of The Woodlands, Tex., Kiwanis Club, a 17-year
Navy veteran serving as a recruiter in the nation's largest recruiting district
was in attendance. Men in suits and casual wear, all with gray or thinned
hair, saluted the flag and observed the weekly prayer. One noted, "About
35 percent of the entire force of American servicemen comes from Texas."
My own mind wandered to the other 65 percent. I recalled the close, valued
friends and colleagues, many with professional degrees and designations,
who have told me point-blank in years past that if a mandatory draft is ever
reinstated in these United States, they would relocate their family to Canada
I tried to remember a doctor or lawyer or Member of Congress, or even a
stockbroker or CPA in my travels of the last decade who had an active-duty
kid in the military. Outside of my recent sojourn in the Lone Star State,
I could not remember even one.
Personally, my family was blessed by the deployment and service, and safe
return, of two sons in this war. Whether the people of Iraq ever remember
them or their commitment to a decent life for their kids and grandkids will
be left to historians.
We also suffered with our neighbors through the death of a child, grown to
academic and civic excellence, cut down in his prime. Thus, the parents of
Marine Lt. Mike Felsberg might not have much to celebrate today, as they
remember their only child, doing what he was sent to do, and doing it well.
They say that old men sitting in Washington send young men to fight. Fewer
and fewer of these old men have ever served a day in uniform.
Those who have, or still do, such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham are
discounted as possible presidential nominees if they dare to compromise with
the other party, or seek serious bipartisan solutions to critical issues
The week Gulf War II was about to start in its "shock and awe" manner, I
was summarily detained by a large, menacing, plainclothes immigration agent
after landing in Paris.
He looked at my passport and asked, "Are you for or against George and his
Taken aback and remembering all the sharp jokes of my late father and his
Normandy Invasion buddies about how this guy might be speaking German if
not for America, I bit my lip, and paused. Finally, glancing at my wife who
- was steaming from what she felt was an inappropriate and insulting question
- I replied: "I might be conflicted at times in what I choose to support
politically, but since I am a proud father of a U.S. soldier, and President
Bush is our commander-in-chief, I would say when final decisions are made,
I support them."
He scowled and waved me into France.
Biographies of both Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., taught
me that unless there is some comprehensive game plan on withdrawals and exit
strategy, and a plan for wide domestic support, it is probably better to
keep the troops home.
A half-generation earlier the most decorated soldier of our day, Col. David
Hackworth - the often-controversial military writer for Newsweek - warned
of "perfumed princes" at the Pentagon setting policies which isolated themselves
from the facts.
The best analyses thus far show that a strong U.S. response to the Sept.
11, 2001, terror murders in the United States was probably fruitful and justified
against targets in Afghanistan. Except for vague and unproven allegations
of second- and third-party links to the terrorists and Saddam Hussein, attacking
Iraq was probably more a public-relations statement than a justifiable act
of war. It pains many of us to admit that on this call the French were probably
correct and maybe we were overreacting when we started telling the kid at
the drive-through window we wanted "Freedom" fries with that burger.
It is tempting to paint criticism of the war with some macro brush of great
wisdom. Look elsewhere for that analysis. The lessons I learned, and I hope
others learn, are at the other end of the spectrum - the micro level of families
There are the vet in a wheelchair selling poppies, the visits to a VA hospital
with a dad or an uncle, and the limbless friend or acquaintance who fought
in WWII or Korea or Vietnam. Virtually everyone in my circle of friends had
a relative who had served or been killed or wounded in one of these wars.
Tens of thousands of service members were wounded in Iraq. Many of them have
the kind of brain injuries that over a foreshortened lifetime will cost families
and taxpayers millions of dollars and oceans of tears.
Medical science and the finest combat medics in the history of warfare preserved
these men and women for some semblance of normal life. Sometimes the "normal"
means glimpses of happiness through the mirrors of pain, psychological trauma,
homelessness or even an eventual appointment with suicide.
Yet, today, in my unscientific personal survey, less than one in 60 Americans
have personal contact with any close family member in uniform. Like the
attorneys, undertakers, investment bankers, and former lobbyists in Congress,
they really never had a personal stake in the day-to-day war.
Lessons of deployment, human resources, and human relations need to be learned.
When one of the tech wizards in my office who serves in the Marine reserves
was abruptly deployed to Iraq with his missile unit, it was SNAFU City from
day one. He spent a few days in Kuwait figuring out where to go and what
to do, and then, weeks that evolved into months in the Iraqi desert, with
no real shelter and few amenities - sleeping in makeshift lean-tos under
their Humvees; showering with bottles of water; sporadic mail; little or
no "R & R," and days and weeks in areas devoid of "the enemy." Too often,
that experience was the norm. So much for detailed invasion plans.
Stateside, units in Alaska that were supposed to be the last line of defense
against North Korea spent two years perfecting all-purpose combat machinery
which had been winterized, but now needed to be adapted back to a desert.
Men and machines shipped back and forth from Fairbanks to El Paso without
regard for cost or efficiency. Sometimes equipment was shipped back to Alaska
just days before being re-shipped to Iraq.
All of this means that lessons were not taught or learned because it is simply
impossible for fewer than 2 million Americans in uniform at the front and
in the supply chain to serve 330 million Americans in the Mall or watching
A typical "deployment" of seven months became a year, or perhaps 17 months
- weddings, births, or Christmas be damned.
Two or three deployments were normal; four or five tours of duty were common.
Men and women returning to Iraq and Afghanistan six or more times were no
longer unusual. A decorated combat veteran returning home, or, sadly, a local
soldier being wounded or killed in action after eight or nine tours of duty,
away from family and friends, no longer made the evening news. Welcome to
the age of the new Centurions.
America never sought a colony in Iraq. Oil-conspiracy buffs aside, the men
and women who do the fighting are doing it for their brothers in combat,
the safety and honor of their unit, and their nation. Once their boots hit
the ground they mostly wanted to do the righteous thing - because it was
right, plain and simple.
Political pundits have loftier views of things, but Americans should have
nothing but pride for the young people who volunteer to serve. Jaundiced
criticism about our economy and fractured families that helps lure some kids
into uniform has nothing to do with the incredible commitment and professionalism
with which most serve their nation.
Physically and mentally, this tiny cadre carries the nation on its shoulders.
I continue to be impressed.
The entire nation, for justifiable reasons, is careful not to say "Mission
Accomplished" about Iraq. Corruption, violence, raw sexism, discrimination,
and religious civil war might remain or grow in a U.S. vacuum.
As far as a "Coalition of the Willing," this time around one should not even
pretend that the cobbled coalition which fractured warm alliances diplomatically
was anything like the comprehensive coalition of Desert Storm and Desert
So, back to the "micro" view of the return of troops from Iraq this holiday
season. How about doing one little thing for the rest of your life?
Disregard your hurting finances or the looks of your spouse, but just do
this one thing: Make sure, in a restaurant, a tavern, or even a fast-food
line at the airport or a mall's food court, that a uniformed member of the
active-duty military, the reserves or National Guard, and their family or
dinner party, never picks up the tab for their order.
If you really have guts do it anonymously then give the server an extra-big
tip for simply saying, "Some customer just wanted to thank you for your service."