Three flickers of light

tattered_usa_flagWhat America Learned in Iraq

By John A. Nagl, March 19, 2013


The costs of the second Iraq war, which began 10 years ago this week, are staggering: nearly 4,500 Americans killed and more than 30,000 wounded, many grievously; tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis wounded or killed; more than $2 trillion in direct government expenditures; and the significant weakening of the major regional counterweight to Iran and consequent strengthening of that country’s position and ambitions. Great powers rarely make national decisions that explode so quickly and completely in their face.

It may seem folly to seek a silver lining among these thunderclouds. But there are three flickers of light that offer some hope that the enormous price was not paid entirely in vain. These coins offer a meager return on our enormous investment, but not collecting them would be an insult to the memory of all that we have lost.

The first lesson is for America’s politicians, from both parties, who pushed our country into a war that we did not need to fight for dubious reasons that were eventually proved false.

Iraq was not, as we were repeatedly told, developing weapons of mass destruction; even if it had been, there was no reason deterrence, which prevented war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, could not have worked against a nuclear Iraq. There was no link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and no Qaeda presence in Iraq until the American invasion, which caused social order to collapse and provided the terrorist group with a powerful recruiting message and a dangerous new base from which to attack.

The invasion of Iraq and its bitter aftermath should remind politicians for generations of the high cost and unpredictable results for those who roll what Otto von Bismarck called “the iron dice” and should forever discredit the notion of “preventive war.” The first Iraq war, in which I led a tank platoon, was necessary; this one was not.

Reluctance to send American ground troops to intervene in Libya and Syria, while providing different levels of political and military support, gives some hope that the country will think more than twice before fighting another unnecessary war. Good intentions do not always lead to favorable outcomes.

The second lesson is for the American military, justly proud of its renaissance after the debacle of Vietnam and subsequent triumph in the cold war but grievously unprepared for the wars of this century.

The British historian Michael Howard noted that it was impossible to perfectly prepare military forces for the next war; what is important is to make sure that you have not gotten the preparations so wrong that the military cannot quickly adapt when it is next needed.

The Department of Defense failed that test. It ignored preparations for counterinsurgency operations and neglected the need for a deep understanding of languages and cultures, which played a critical role in the Sunni Awakening that eventually changed the course of the Iraq conflict.

These are old lessons — they were in fact codified in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940 and had to be painfully relearned over the past decade. They cannot be forgotten now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally drawing down. Recognizing that post-invasion stability operations, including counterinsurgency, are core military tasks for which the Pentagon must prepare is an important first step.

It would also be wise to make further investments in remotely piloted vehicles, Special Operations Forces and the capacity to train and advise foreign militaries, all of which will bear much of the burden of the most likely conflicts of this century. Of course, given the spending constraints now being imposed by Congress and the subsequent painful trade-offs those constraints bring, it remains to be seen whether these lessons have really been learned.

Finally, the experience of the Iraq war offers a breath of hope for the American people at large. In the wake of Vietnam, the United States began its grand experiment of an all-volunteer military. And it was most certainly an experiment: there was no expectation that the system would hold together in a major war, and for two generations young men have been required to register with the Selective Service in case general conflict erupted.

But there have been two such wars over the past decade, and the all-volunteer force has come through these crucibles of blood and fire with enormous distinction.

Tempered by the Great Depression, the Greatest Generation of World War II fame helped defeat fascism on two continents and save civilization. As loudly as their contributions resound in history, two-thirds of them were drafted. This new greatest generation has fought longer if not harder than its grandparents did, and all have been volunteers.

My own tank task force lost 22 fine young men during the second Iraq war, including a West Point captain and five lieutenants, and earned well over 100 Purple Hearts. The nation owes such service members a depth of gratitude it can never fully repay.

But it can begin by ensuring that we care for those who have borne the battle, and for their spouses and their orphans, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest wartime president. The traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder that are the signature wounds of these wars are invisible and hard to heal; as many as a fourth of those who fought in Iraq will suffer the ravages of these injuries for decades to come.

This is not a compelling list of gains when balanced against the unbearable losses America has endured in Iraq. But it would devalue the sacrifices of the many who have suffered if we were not to read these lessons written in blood, if our politicians did not approach future interventions with greater humility, if our military did not prepare for all possible wars rather than only the ones that it wants to fight.

We must hope that from such peril and toil this great young generation, tempered by war and hardened by what its members have seen and done, will build a better future for a wiser and chastened America.

John A. Nagl, a retired Army officer and a research professor at the United States Naval Academy, served in both Iraq wars and is the author of “Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.” or


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