"In vain" is a phrase a lot of politicians have used since we invaded Iraq in 2003, always to reassure us that soldiers had not died that way. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used it Thursday as he declared the war officially over: "We spilled a lot of blood there. But all of that has not been in vain." Not quite the stirring tribute to nearly a decade of war, and it makes it hard for the rest of us to know how to celebrate.
"Let me be clear: Iraq will be tested in the days ahead -- by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself,” Panetta said. “Challenges remain, but the U.S. will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.” What Panetta meant was said better by Sgt. Greg Franz, who served in Iraq with my husband, in a Gchat I had with in September 2009 while he was deployed Diyala Province. Franz was on his second deployment, and he was responding to a question of whether compared to the first -- 15 months in Baghdad from the summer of 2006 through the fall of 2007, the tail end being the beginning of of the surge -- that this one was "almost boring."
Franz: almost all the action tapered in late spring we'd (well, the Air Force and Army Aviation) killed any of them who'd been seeding landmines by then they occasionally uncover an old IED now and again but nothing new really ER: so what... they, like, gave up? [on landmines, etc] Franz: no, they're all dead, haha you've heard the adage, "we've killed all the stupid ones," etc ER: but I thought new ones would pop up, you know? Franz: out here? It's hardly worthy of even being called farmland. It's dirt and canals ER: oh, right Franz: here's my new saying. I'm trying it out, I like it kinda there will always be drive-bys in Detroit and there will always be car bombs in Baghdad there is such thing as "secure enough" and thus, we can go home now
In addition to "in vain," another phrase we heard a lot over the last decade: "He died doing what he loved." It's in the obituaries of many, many soldiers. It is a nice thing to tell ourselves when we don't want to imagine someone being blown into a million pieces, their body fat literally cooked by the heat. In the Iraq war, 4,487 Americans died -- including Sgt. 1st Class Kristoffer B. Domeij, who died on his 14th deployment in October -- and 32,226 were wounded. The suicide rate among soldiers spiked, and in 2010, more killed themselves than died in combat.
That's the blood part of the "blood and treasure" public officials are always talking about. The treasure? The war will cost a trillion or four. We bought a lot with that. The most memorable moments of the Iraq war are: the shockingly fast fall of Baghdad, President Bush's mission accomplished speech, Geraldo Rivera giving away troop movements by literally drawing a line in the sand, Donald Rumsfeld saying "you go to war with the Army you have" when a soldier asked why he had to up-armor his Humvee with scrap metal, capturing Saddam Hussein, seeing Saddam Hussein looking like a homeless person and getting a dental exam, the hanging of the burnt bodies of American contractors over a bridge in Fallujah, the battle for Fallujah, the second battle for Fallujah, the beheading of Nick Berg, Abu Ghraib, the medical journal The Lancet using solid methodology to estimate 600,000 Iraqis died, the author of the study stupidly saying he hoped his numbers would help influence the 2004 election, the capture of three soldiers in the Sunni Triangle, the surge, the Sunni Awakening, the sharp drop in violence, the end of combat, and the withdrawal.
That's how it looked to us. How did it look to soldiers? Franz's former first sergeant, John E. Hatley, became, in April 2009, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier to be convicted of premeditated murder. (Franz, a gun nut and avid reader military history, did not make the military his career when he found out it didn't always play by its own rules.) At Hatley's court martial, former company medic Michael Leahy, who pled guilty to the same crimes, testified that Hatley had shot an injured detainee. Where did they take the body? To the Iraqi police station, he said, where he dumped it on "the pile of dead bodies." No one blinked an eye. I later asked another sergeant, Was there really a pile of dead bodies in the police station? "I mean, it's not like bodies were littering the streets or anything, but we'd pick up a lot of them and took them to the IP station, before they decided to start killing us more, instead of each other.” Did it smell? “It smelled like all of Iraq smelled.”
Maybe World War II would have felt this much of mixed bag if we'd had the same communications technology. On the other hand, the best things to come out of the war were soldier-generated YouTubes and photos and emails that let civilians see how funny a bunch of young guys can be when they spend their days mostly bored out of their minds and occasionally in mortal terror. Having nothing left to prove gives you the confidence to dance to Lady Gaga.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.