For every veteran of the Iraq War, this is a rough time. I know it is for me, and a lot of my buddies who also served there.
Stories about ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Sunni-backed terrorist group, dominate the media. These cowards are grinding Iraq into the sand: raping women, killing children, and beheading men as they go.
This is fresh meat for the media. Out come the dogs in talking head form, fighting for scraps on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc. It’s former president George W. Bush’s fault. It’s President Barack Obama’s fault. We should go back. We shouldn’t go back. It was all for nothing. Those poor, poor veterans fought and died for nothing.
What a crock of shit. All of it.
For every combat veteran out there, let me tell you something. Whatever you sacrificed, whatever you saw, whoever you lost (in theater or back home), that has nothing to do with the stuff going on today in Iraq. So far as we are concerned, the fate of the Iraqi people is in their own hands.
When you raised your right hand to serve the United States of America, did you say anything about running around in the deserts, swamps, or mountains of the world? Did you promise to save Iraq from Saddam Hussein? What about wearing MOPP gear for weeks at a time?
I don’t think so. The words you spoke were about protecting and defending the Constitution. That’s the point; it’s an ideal we serve, not an outcome.
We don’t pick and choose our wars any more than we pick and choose the guys in our platoon. Those larger questions are not meant for the eager 18-year-olds who fill the ranks of our combat units, nor should they be considered by the grizzled war vet after he returns home.
The personal and the international certainly seem to be intertwined, but that is a surface connection. Foreign affairs do not have the power to undermine, or reinforce, your service unless you let them.
And yet these questions arise, unbidden, from the back of our minds. How can they not? Don’t your fists clench when you see the reports of the violence tearing across a country we worked so hard to set right? Mine do, and I’m the one writing this damn article.
We want to know what it all meant, however we define “it.” We want a happy ending to the story of our service.
This is wishful thinking at its worst. Marine Gen. James Mattis makes a good argument that every war since the Civil War has been a strategic failure in some significant way. World War I set the stage for World War II. World War II — supposedly about defeating totalitarian regimes — left the Soviet Union in an even stronger position. The Korean War left a shattered nation split in half. And, of course, we all know about the Vietnam War.
In the long run, no war ever accomplishes its goals. Nations rise and fall — nothing lasts forever. A combat veterans knows that better than anyone else. We have seen life carved out of a young man in bloody chunks. Death and decay shadows us all.
Sometimes we forget this after we come home. Sometimes the hard-earned lessons of war fade as we sag into the couch. After that we are ready to believe all this crap in the media, these convenient lies that try to take away our sense of self, of service, and of sacrifice.
Don’t let the lies take hold. Don’t give up control of your self worth. Remember the truth that is both liberating and frustrating, like many of the best things in life. Challenge yourself to make the most of this opportunity to reflect on your life.
For the dead, this ultimate sacrifice is justified by the people who loved them. What matters are the lives of friends and family since that moment, not the sadistic actions of people who never even knew their name.
For the living, we have to build a life greater than the guilt that haunts us. A life well-lived is a testament to the fallen, and to the military values we clutch after service. Duty, love, courage: These are jewels set in “a crown of iron and blood.”
There is a scene at the end of “Saving Private Ryan” when Captain Miller tells Ryan, “Earn this.” Retired Special Forces Col. Joe Felter recently used this to illustrate the importance of Memorial Day. He floored me, mostly because it was so obviously true. Just because it’s Hollywood does not mean the sentiment isn’t real.
Hold on to that every time you see something terrible about Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter. Your service is yours, for better or worse. You belong to the legacy of sacrifice and warrior love, and you are alive. That is the truth.
William Treseder works for BMNT Partners, a government-focused technology incubator in Silicon Valley. He served in the Marines between 2001 and 2011, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan.