Recently a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle called me here in Baghdad and asked why the active duty military wasn’t opposing the war in Iraq in numbers similar to those that opposed the war in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, he didn’t print my answer.
He was asking my opinion as a co-founder of AppealForCourage.org, an ongoing effort to allow currently serving military personnel to send a message to Congress asking them to support victory in Iraq. I do not speak as a representative of the Defense Department or the Navy but simply as an individual and on behalf of the signers of the Appeal with respect to the wording of the Appeal. Nevertheless my answer was a military answer. It was a ‘root cause’; a term the military commonly uses to describe the source of an event, a foundation that must be identified before further action is taken. My answer was that the military overwhelmingly wants to win the war, and believes we can. Hence we don’t oppose it.
The primary reason we support the war is because we believe it is just and right, and we were given a mission to win it. The mission was clearly stated: overthrow Saddam and install an independent, stable, democratic government in Iraq. The military necessity was obvious after 9/11, the President said it was required and the Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. We were given a mission and the means to carry it out. The military is highly mission-oriented. It is ingrained in us during our training that excuses and rationalizing failure are not ‘the military way’. We must face reality and accomplish the mission within that framework.
Iraqi democracy is a mission we know we can accomplish, given time. The honest reality is that we are winning the war in Iraq. Both militarily and politically we are progressing at the pace expected, though not as well as the most idealistic hopes of a cakewalk nor as badly as the most dire predictions of quagmire. al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is terrified of a democratic country in their midst, and is still brutally attacking Iraqi civilians. But we are implementing a steady buildup of Iraqi military and police and seeing the rewards of having worked with the Iraqis in a cooperative way, often at increased risked to our soldiers. Simultaneously the extremists are learning the consequences of having bombed the Iraqi civilians for the past 4 years. Sunni Sheiks are joining together to fight them, proving AQI’s strategy is a short term one that is unsustainable during years of political progress.
It is a mentality of mission accomplishment that has spurred the Appeal for Courage effort. Just as victory in Iraq seems likely, defeat back home has begun to loom as a real possibility. Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Melvin Laird’s words in Foreign Affairs are a call to action for the modern military:
“The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973. In fact, we grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory two years later when Congress cut off the funding for South Vietnam that had allowed it to continue to fight on its own”.
Members of the military have a duty to ensure this mistake is not repeated. We have a responsibility to complete the mission. If that requires us to educate others on the reasons for staying in Iraq, so be it. Yes it’s outside our normal duties and professionally risky. Should we be unwilling to take professional risks while we ask junior soldiers to risk their lives?
The American public is not tired of the war; they are tired of believing that they are losing. They are tired of the daily drumbeat of pessimism and defeat promoted daily by our media and by some in our Congress. They don’t understand that building a democracy is a slow process that takes years, that victory in Iraq will be more like the fall of communism than like VE day in 1945. Like it or not, it is incumbent upon us in the military to correct this misrepresentation of our efforts. We have a duty to convince the American public why we must stay and finish the mission. Should we have to? Did we sign up to do that? The answers are no and yes, respectively. No we shouldn’t have to ask to be allowed to win a war, but yes we signed up to complete a mission. This is required to do it. No whining allowed.
The response to the Appeal For Courage seems to suggest that much of the military agrees. It is a large and growing number of service members with over 2,600 signatories, encompassing a broad cross section of the military; both officer and enlisted, deployed and at home. They have signed a message to Congress respectfully asking them to support our mission. There is much more that we can do. We must educate ourselves on why we’re winning and what victory — i.e. a stable, democratic Iraq — will look like. We must then tell our families and friends that victory is possible and what is required. From there we should do whatever is in our power to legally accomplish, within military regulations.
It is not enough that we are making progress here in Iraq. We must make progress at home as well to ensure we are given the funds, support and time needed to finish the job. There is no doubt that we can create a stable democracy in Iraq — if we have courage enough to do so.