My grandfather served in World War I, my father in World War II. I was a Marine in Vietnam. The longest love affair of my life is with the United States Marine Corps. I believe in its values, its commitment, its ethic of sacrifice and excellence. In a soft world of self-indulgence, there’s no fat in the Marine Corps soul. I’m so proud of my service that forty years later tears still come to my eyes when I hear the first words of the Marine Corps hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”
Shortly after 9/11, my son David, who had just graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in English, enlisted with great idealism. He endured grueling training to become an Air Force pararescueman (which is like a Navy SEAL) and served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan with elite Special Operations troops. When he was in the war zone, I couldn’t answer the phone at night. I couldn’t watch the news. I couldn’t understand how the rest of the country was acting as if there weren’t a war on. And I was one of the lucky ones. My son came home.
With each tour in Iraq, my son’s idealism eroded. He no longer believed the war was crucial to America’s security. He still served with pride and dedication, but his dedication was no longer to the elusive goals of the war—it was to his own honor, to the men in his unit, and to its lifesaving mission. His team members were some of the finest Americans I’ve ever met. They did their duty and then some. But they deserved better. Everyone who has served and sacrificed in Iraq does.
When David finished his enlistment, he dedicated himself to helping wounded American veterans. He started a nonprofit and swam the Strait of Gibraltar with another military buddy to raise money. Matt Cook, whose story of his own service in Iraq appears in this issue (“Soldier”), produced Swim, a documentary about their effort. The film features real men and women who were terribly injured and disfigured. They are among thousands of Iraq war veterans whose faces look like melted wax, who can’t see or hear or walk, whose disability benefits were delayed or denied, whose spouses lost their jobs trying to take care of them, who’ve lost their homes and been forgotten. More than a thousand a month attempt suicide. Twenty percent are affected with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, including David’s best friend.
When you send men and women to war, you don’t just ask them to risk their lives. You ask them to do what every fiber of their being and every value tells them not to do: You ask them to kill. There’d better be a good reason. You’d better be willing to use overwhelming force, and you’d better have clear objectives and a sound exit strategy. You’d better not run the war with such incompetence that many of its former military leaders believe it’s been botched (Texas Monthly Talks). Because if you abuse the patriotism and the sacrifice of the men and women you send to war, you create a hole in their souls—and in the soul of America.
When I see friends from the National Guard or the Reserves called up, then called up again, then called up yet again; when I see former troops who served multiple tours in the war zone pulled out of civilian life and sent back to the war; when I see talk show hosts and politicians cheerleading for a war they wouldn’t dream of serving in themselves, I take it personally. When the remains of dead young Americans are brought home in secret and some are cremated in pet cemeteries; when we’ve created nearly 5 million refugees in Iraq and taken in just 692; when we cage people without trials for years and treat them like animals; when supporters of the war oppose a new GI Bill that would give enough money for veterans like my son to go to college—when they say the men and women who served three and four war tours deserve only enough to cover a fraction of their college education, even though they gave 100 percent of their service—that’s personal too.
I’ve had enough of this war. I’ve had enough of the pictures of good American families, the mom with her arms around her children and the caption saying she’d just celebrated her wedding anniversary when she was killed in Iraq. I’ve had enough of the pictures of wounded Americans trying to learn to walk or talk or eat again. I’ve had enough of the pictures they won’t let us see but which I can too vividly imagine. Of the Iraqi children dead in our bombings, their homes destroyed, their families blown away. Of the millions of Iraqi refugees without homes or jobs. Of the return of Islamic fundamentalism to Iraq in our wake, with women murdered for not being married or not wearing a head scarf.
I’ve had enough of throwing billions of our hard-earned dollars down a rat hole of corruption. Fifteen billion unaccounted for by the Pentagon. Nine billion unaccounted for by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Another $1.8 billion in seized Iraqi assets that simply disappeared. When I’d finished my year in Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to get on that freedom bird and go home, but they wouldn’t let me leave. You know why? Because I’d signed out a shovel and hadn’t returned it. A shovel! The supply sergeant told me the taxpayers had paid for that shovel and I’d better bring it back or he wouldn’t sign my departure papers. I had to buy one for five bucks on the black market and turn it in before I got my ticket home. That’s how America used to do things.
How much will this war cost, all in? Three trillion dollars? Four (the current long-term estimate)? Think of what we could do with that. We could provide universal health care, fix Social Security, rebuild America’s crumbling dams and bridges, fund an energy policy to free us from foreign oil, and on and on. We could truly invest in our security and prosperity before it’s too late. Instead, we’re squandering our precious blood and resources in Iraq, a country the size of California, trying to determine the destiny of 27 million people who are riven by tribal and religious differences we can’t fathom and who speak languages we don’t understand.
Our brave American troops can overthrow Saddam Hussein, they can “surge” to provide temporary security in selected areas, they can train and advise the Iraqis. They’ve done all that, and done it well. But they can’t control the destiny of Iraq. We’ve been fighting there longer than we fought in World War I and World War II put together. That’s long enough. It’s time for the Iraqis to step up and take over their own country. It’s time for us to get out and let them.
Every day we stay we spend lives and treasure we can’t afford to lose. Every day we stay we strengthen our adversaries. Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah are all far stronger today than when the war began. The president of Iran tours Baghdad and is greeted with the flowers Dick Cheney promised us. Our leaders visit in secret and seldom dare leave the Green Zone. The main Shiite leader forbids his millions of followers to sell Americans a single grain of rice. Our allies today are the same Sunni warlords we fought yesterday, who support us for the same reason Osama bin Laden once supported us against the Russians in Afghanistan—because it’s good for them, for now.
Once we’re gone, we won’t continue to fuel the hatred of the Muslim world. We won’t make more terrorists with each bomb we drop and each carful of civilians we blast apart, and we won’t alienate people around the world who used to look to us for moral leadership. The president warns that if we were to leave tomorrow, the terrorists would be emboldened, those bent on genocide would be empowered, and our prestige would plummet. But our presence has already done that. If we stay five or ten more years, the same things could happen the day we leave.
The truth is, no one can predict what’s going to happen when we get out. In 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon said he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. He changed his mind after he was elected. He said we couldn’t settle for defeat. We had to win. If we got out right away, he told us, our mortal enemies would win. The Soviet Union would be strengthened around the world, and Chinese Communists would establish a beachhead in Southeast Asia. America would be on the road to disaster. Sound familiar? Nixon kept the war going another five years. Some 22,000 more Americans died, and so did as many as a million more Vietnamese.
Was Nixon right? Was that terrible carnage worth it? Well, four years after the last American helicopter left Saigon, the Vietnamese went to war against . . . guess who? The Chinese Communists. And fourteen years after America pulled out, the Berlin Wall fell. It was the Soviet Union that collapsed, not America. Everything that Nixon had predicted was wrong. We were stronger after we got out of Vietnam, not weaker. The same could happen when we get out of Iraq.
Yes, everyone wants freedom. But they also want to be safe in their homes. They want their children to be safe in their schools. And they love their countries the same way we do. They don’t want foreigners telling them how to run their country, kicking down their doors, and dropping bombs on their villages any more than we would. Because even if we believe that we’re doing it for them, that we’re America and we’re the good guys, their children are still dead, their parents are still buried in the rubble, and they will still hate us—until the day we leave.
So let’s bring our troops home now. Let’s give them parades and take care of them and their families. They deserve it. Let’s give the Iraqis economic, technical, and diplomatic support to help them stand up for themselves. Let’s play the Marine Corps hymn and call a whole new generation of Americans to the honor of military service, and this time let’s give them the leadership they deserve.