March 20, 2023, was the 20th anniversary of the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so this is a good opportunity to recognize the U.S. service members who served in the second Iraq War.
This author served some (brief) time inside Iraq as a new CIA officer, focused on counterterrorism. I had left the Navy SEAL teams and finished CIA training at The Farm and was excited to begin a new career directly hunting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan — those directly responsible for the 9/11/2001 attacks. Instead, I was assigned to the still relatively new counterterrorism effort in Iraq. I was disappointed, even complained to a supervisor, but then resigned myself and settled in to the job once I realized there was no convincing my bosses otherwise.
Most of my work was from CIA headquarters, working the al-Qaeda-in-Iraq target set. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was still alive and reigning terror on the country and U.S. forces there. It was ultimately satisfying work and it exposed me to some important allies in the Iraqi Kurds. After a stint working that target, I went on to be assigned to Afghanistan at a remote CIA base there.
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As I was redirected from the fight against core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to focus on Iraq, so were millions of U.S. military members over 20 years. In fact, some 2,500 still remain in Iraq today. That is what American military members do: They go where they are told, and they complete whatever mission they are assigned. This is deeply ingrained in every facet of American military culture, from flag officers on down, U.S. military members salute their leadership, accept their mission, and go do the best they can to win.
The mission was difficult and debates about its moral rightness still rage to some degree, and the long-term consequences of the Iraq invasion probably still remain to be fully seen. While those are all important considerations, and the policy debates are necessary, what is not debatable is that those young Americans who served in Iraq deserve our respect and gratitude. Whether you agree with their mission or not, these Americans deployed there willingly, did their best, and on the whole, they carried themselves as noble and brave American fighting men and women. As in every conflict, however, some of those we sent to war behaved themselves in ways no American can be proud of, yet that was the exception, not the rule.
As in every conflict to which we have sent our young to fight, the vast majority of American service members in Iraq simply did what they were ordered to do, in keeping with the best American values and traditions, and in upholding those same values to the best of their abilities. This author remains in awe of those American fighting forces, and what they can do. We should all be proud of their service, even if we cannot ultimately all bring ourselves to agree with their mission in this case.
Feature Image: U.S. Soldiers in Iraq during the Iraq War. (Photo by William Wold/Wikimedia Commons)
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