Col Bryan Bearden, USAF, is an instructor of National Security, Joint Warfare and Leadership and Ethics at the Marine Corps War College.
A subdued but respectful ceremony marked the end of combat operations in Iraq. A flag was rolled and encased, and speeches respectful of the fallen and hopeful for the future were made. Signs of friendship between the two countries were left in the hearts of both peoples and policies are in place to continue non-military support to a continually developing democracy in Iraq. A joyous America will see her military members return celebrating a job well done and remembering those who paid the ultimate price.
This is in stark contrast to the images scared into the American psyche of a helicopter rising from the roof of the embassy in Saigon in April of 1975, an event that most recognize as the end of a terrible chapter in America’s history.
The Vietnam experience still reflects one of the worse times in our history. The failed political policies that resulted in only marginal military successes during this time period are only rivaled in grandeur by the incense of the American public for the war. The nightly reports on a budding television news medium of the American dead, eventually summing over 58,000, brought the graphic images of war to the American public for the first time.
This American public, already gushing with disdain for an unpopular war was further galvanized by events such as the My Lai Massacre and the shooting of students at Kent State University. The resulting wave of anti-war protest reflecting the overall feeling of the country produced not only a backlash against the politicians involved and their failed policies, but also contempt for the very soldiers that were fighting and dying in the war.
As the military returned home, their limited tactical successes were dwarfed in the public eye by the view of the military as a failure, albeit due to numerous factors beyond its control. Thousands of military members with lifelong mental or physical scars were practically discarded by a disinterested public. There were no ceremonies, no parades, only a country ready to bury this memory and forget all things associated with Vietnam. A single helicopter flying away from an overrun embassy seemed to be a fitting end.
As the Iraq war comes to a close, so much is different about this ending than the ending of the Vietnam experience. Some may question the policies and politicians that brought us into the war, but by in large no one questions the way the military has performed its duties.
This is not to say that the military has escaped this lengthy conflict unscathed by controversy. The events such as the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the killings in Haditha, friendly fire incidents and the recent controversy of the handling of the remains of the war dead all call into questions tactics used by military members, but never the overall conduct of the military during the conflict.
American public’s support has endured these controversies as well as other tough times throughout the war. It has endured a persistent conflict despite President Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished,” an Iraqi insurgency that expanded our involvement, a 2007 call for a troop surge, continued reports of Improvised Explosive Devices killing U.S service members and the reports of the bloody conflicts in places like Fallujah and Anbar. All of these were challenging times for the military, yet support for the troops remained.
There were, however, events along the way that highlighted the courage of our service members and produced recognition by Americans of the contributions the military was making to a free Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, are just two examples of the courage and valor of our military displayed every day during this conflict. One of the most poignant moments celebrated by our country was when an Iraqi woman stood from her seat in the U.S. Capitol during a State of the Union speech proudly displaying an ink stained finger having just voted in an Iraqi election for the first time. A proud moment made possible by the sacrifices of our military.
As military members have returned home from Southwest Asia over the years (sometimes after 2, 3 or more deployments) they arrive to a different reception from the members that served in Vietnam. Rousing applause by Americans on airplanes and in airports, a reception that moves most military members to tears, replaced being spat upon, harassed and jeered in airports when military members returned from service in Vietnam. Overwhelming support for our wounded warriors, as exemplified by enormous contributions to programs like the Wounded Warrior Project, is common place versus the neglect experienced by the wounded returning from Vietnam.
There will be no national victory parade recognizing the end of the Iraq War, like the one seen after Operation Desert Storm. However, there will be celebrations across America, much as we’ve seen over the past 10 years, to recognizing military men and women for their sacrifices as they return home. A free and independent Iraq exists today because of the valor displayed by the U.S. military and our allies, another reason to celebrate as we welcome our troops home.
A simple ceremony and a grateful nation mark the end of the Iraq War. The goodbye to the Iraq War is different in so many ways from the goodbye we said to the Vietnam War so many years ago. For the veterans who endured the sacrifices during any war, thank you. For an American public who persevered the Iraq War – job well done.