This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 26 October 2011.
As a veteran of the Iraq War, I am in a reflective mood since it was announced that all American troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by Christmas. Having spent three Christmases in the region, I can appreciate what that means. I think often of the friends I know that served or are still serving there, and especially those that didn’t come back.
I look back over the entire 68-year span of military service in my family reaching back to my grandfathers. I try to think about what they would think. In the nature of war, some things will always be the same. But some things have certainly changed. We have to recognize that winning in modern conflict is just as much about international development as it is about military victory. To succeed, both tools must be applied together.
If we had known then what we know now, and had been willing to apply it from the beginning, the U.S. and its allies could have been more successful in Iraq. Hindsight is always 20/20. There was no plan in place to deal with what followed the initial successful military campaign. Relations between a thankful ‘liberated’ populace and their ‘liberators’ broke down quickly. Washington envisioned throngs of grateful citizens as when my grandfather arrived in liberated Italy, but instead my generation of soldiers received quiet suspicion and then resistance akin to my father’s Vietnam.
It took us a while to learn the lesson that building a school or fixing sewage lines was just as valuable to us militarily as taking a would-be jihadist off the street. The people often rewarded us with actionable intelligence when they felt we were improving their conditions sooner than they would when we locked down their neighborhoods and homes searching for insurgents. As we came to understand this, our efforts began to feel more like diplomatic missions than combat patrols. As military advisors to an Iraqi army unit, we measured success in our sector by the number of shops opening up just as much as by the number of terrorists captured or killed.
It took us many years of hard fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to learn these lessons. Yet, now it seems that some in Congress are ready to forget them. Those who send our troops off to war never learn the lessons of the people who had boots on the ground. They should at least listen to those who know firsthand. If military and international development spending are put on the cutting board, we will be forgetting the lessons we have paid so dearly in lives and money to learn.
Our troops have been brave enough to volunteer to fight for America come what may. Our Congress needs to respect that by being brave enough to find solutions to our fiscal problems that don’t put our security or our troops at risk. I think our veterans of Iraq and throughout the past 70 years would agree with that.
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