Petraeus, Crocker and Mike Monsoor

This week I had the opportunity to attend two very important events: General David H. Petraeus’ testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Medal of Honor Ceremony for Navy SEAL MA2 Michael Monsoor. While both events were markedly different, I came away with the same thought: that honor lies not in leaving one’s comrades behind, but rather in staying to do the hard job in the face of great sacrifice.

The two events had one fundamental difference. The Congressional hearing was politics, not substance. Precisely the opposite is true for the ceremony honoring the fallen SEAL hero.  

The Petraeus hearings were uneventful: they played out pretty much as predicted. I could have written about them before they even happened. Petraeus gave an honest assessment of the conflict he has been tasked to manage while making the case for keeping U.S. force structure at pre-surge levels in order to consolidate the gains made over the past year.

Congress, for their part, behaved like… well, they behaved like Congress. ‘Nuff said.

To me the most memorable moment was when Representative Wexler (D-FL) passionately asked General Petraeus to define what victory means as it relates to the war in Iraq. This moment was important in that the sentence “what exactly is victory mean here? No one can seem to tell us what it means to win,” is uttered perhaps a million times a day here in DC by those who oppose our efforts in Iraq.

The exchange between Representative Wexler and General Petraeus went like this:

REP. WEXLER (D-FL): “What has all this been for? And please, respectfully; don’t tell us, as you told Senator Warner yesterday, to remove a brutal dictator. That’s not good enough. …

“For what did Stuart Wolfer and the other 4,024 sons and daughters die for? And how will we define victory so that we can bring this never-ending war to a close?

“And if I will, when Mr. Burton asks for a definition of what is failure, we get a litany of items! But when Mr. Ackerman asks ‘what’s the definition of victory,’ we get little. Please tell us, General: what is winning?”

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: “First of all, Congress, let me tell you that what we are fighting for is national interests. It is interests that, as I stated, have to do with al Qaeda, a sworn enemy of the United States and the free world.

“It has to do with the possible spread of sectarian conflict in Iraq, a conflict that had engulfed that country and had it on the brink of civil war.

“It has to do with regional stability of a region that is of critical importance to the global economy.

“And it has to do with certainly the influence of Iran, another obviously very important element in that region.

“In terms of what it is that we are trying to achieve, I think simply it is a country that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.

“It is a country that can defend itself.

“That has a government that is reasonably representative and broadly responsive to its citizens.

“And a country that is involved in, engaged in, again, the global economy.

“Ambassador Crocker and I, for what it’s worth, have typically seen ourselves as minimalists. We’re not after the Holy Grail in Iraq. We’re not after Jeffersonian democracy. We’re after conditions that would allow our soldiers to disengage. And that is in fact what we are doing as we achieve progress, as we have with the surge and that is what is indeed allowing us to withdraw the surge forces.

“Again, well over one quarter of our ground combat power, five of twenty brigade combat teams, plus two Marine battalions and the Marine expeditionary unit by the end of July.”

WEXLER: “Thank you.

OK: that was big stuff.

But definition of victory aside, my main takeaway from the hearing was this: to leave Iraq before we consolidate recent political, military and economic gains places the country on a probable path towards civil war, Iranian meddling, a massive humanitarian crisis, and perhaps even genocide.

And who wants any of that?

Certainly not the Democrats. After all, most Dems would argue that the U.S. is not doing enough to stop the humanitarian disaster in Dafur (and I would agree); and yet it seems to be OK to leave Iraq behind knowing that it would most likely descend on a fast moving train into chaos.

And certainly not the Republicans, who for the most part, believe that a “precipitous withdrawal” (new catch phrase in DC, by the way) would greatly damage U.S. prestige and lead to decreased ability to speak with moral, military and political authority.

Which brings me to the Medal of Honor ceremony for Navy SEAL MA2 Monsoor, a solemn and emotional event that paid respect to a young warrior who gave his life for his comrades. The ceremony was everything that one could expect from the Navy and SEAL communities: powerful, reverent, and yet humble – in a way that truly echoed the way these quiet Naval Special Forces warriors live and fight.

The ceremony was emotional for me, and I would be lying if I did not admit to tearing up more than once. It really was a fitting tribute to a young man who died doing something that he loved; and for those he loved.

MA2 Monsoor received our nation’s highest military honor for diving on a grenade to protect his fellow SEALs who would have undoubtedly been killed by the blast.  

What is most notable, however, is that when the grenade that took his life landed at his feet, MA2 Monsoor was standing right next to a door that would have allowed him to easily escape the explosion. Essentially, in a split second, MA2 Monsoor had to make the most important decision of his life: escape the blast by exiting through the door he was standing next to and leave his brother SEALs exposed to the effects of the grenade; or to drop onto the grenade and thus trade his life for those of his SEAL brothers.

In that split second when the choice between self-preservation and selfless sacrifice presented itself, MA2 Monsoor did not walk away.

And that brings me full circle to my takeaway from the hearings.

Not unlike MA2 Monsoor’s decision, I believe that we have to make a similar choice with regards to Iraq. We can walk away and leave the Iraqis to face the effects of our departure. Or we can stay, despite great sacrifice, and do the hard work necessary to gain victory (as defined by General Petraeus in his testimony) and prevent Iraq from spiraling into chaos.

I will be the first to admit that the analogy does not hold up entirely, as I believe that staying in Iraq does not equate to diving on a grenade. But the idea of sacrificing for a cause that is worthy and perhaps bigger than yourself — and doing so when the easy thing to do is to walk away — is the analogy that I offer.  And like MA2 Monsoor, I choose to stay.

MA2 Michael A. Monsoor, USN — official U.S. Navy Medal of Honor Website: