The Ghost of Vietnam Haunts the Left and Right Over Iraq

Leaving Iraq

I don’t know about you, but for years, I’ve been secretly longing for that Time Life moment post World War II; the kiss of a returning soldier, the final exhale of an exhausted nation. I can’t say that I pictured a happy America, but I had imagined a unified America.

But we aren’t going to get that moment, because there was a war in between WWII and Iraq.

We’re dubious. Not only have we’ve been lied to rather recently (WMD), but we’re battling with the national scars from our defeat in Vietnam.

Touching on the open wound of American cynicism, one of the reporters covering a combat brigade’s return home actually used the words “Mission Accomplished”. He cringed as he said it, but noted it was true. The mission to train Iraqis to take over is winding down. In just a few more days, all of our combat troops will be home. It seems that post Vietnam and Bush, we can’t even feel good for a few minutes without waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This morning on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and CBS’ “Face the Nation”, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Commanding General in Iraq, said that any resumption of combat duties by American forces is unlikely. “We don’t see that happening. (The Iraqi security forces have been doing) “so well for so long now that we really believe we’re beyond that point.” He also pointed out that it will take years before we know if the war was a success. So, it’s over but it’s not cut and dried.

Americans have been waiting for years to hear those words: the war is over. But when it happened, it was an over-simplified media event that belied the complexities of our invasion of Iraq. It seemed the media and Pentagon had just picked a day to declare the war was over, when in reality, we had been drawing down for months and knew that the official day for having all of our combat troops out of Iraq was August 31.

So it was a show, but it was a true show. We are leaving. But it does make me nervous.

In the wake of this announcement, the Left claims the war has simply been rebranded and the Right is moaning that timelines don’t work. Neither accounts for the complexities involved in this war. While we are leaving 50,000 troops in Iraq, they are necessary to help the Iraqis maintain security in their country. The final draw down to zero is set for Dec. 31, 2011 and while I am not questioning our commitment to this, it should be noted that this will depend upon the IA’s ability to keep Iraq secure. It was good to hear General Odierno’s confidence this morning. Still, we can expect instability and attacks during the transition.

When the Left claims that we need to get out of Iraq now and that any troops left there is simply a rebranding of combat, they’re operating from a position which confirms their world view that war is a horrible thing (it is) and that we never should have been there (we shouldn’t have). They fear that any troops left are really combat troops and an invasion of a sovereign nation. This position is a classic anti-Vietnam position wherein any bodies left means we aren’t out. The Left is haunted by their fear that wars are never really over until all of the troops are out.

When the Right warns that timelines don’t work, they’re operating from their belief that we can “WIN” this war; that there will be a definitive moment, like Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” that will confirm their world view that America is exceptional. But while Bush eagerly declared “Mission Accomplished”, he made a costly error in underestimating the instability of Iraq post conflict. An instability which ballooned in 2005-2007 until Bush finally changed his approach. The Right’s position stems from their post Vietnam war fear of bailing out and leaving a country to fail, as south Vietnam collapsed when we left. A fear of defeat haunts the Right.

The Right’s disapproval of a so called timeline strategy seems to be selective, in light of the fact that this draw down strategy was implemented by Bush before Obama. What the Right refuses to accept is that we are never going to “win” this war. The terrorists aren’t going to surrender to us. Really.

“Winning” in this case looks quite different. And to be fair, winning in this case is relative. After all, winning would have been never invading Iraq. But it’s too late for that. After several botched strategies, Bush came up with the draw down coupled with a surge to train the IA and security forces that has been effective.

Obama continued this strategy with an additional emphasis on diplomacy, part of which included giving the Iraqis a sense of authority over their country again. The Left fails to comprehend the role of Obama’s foreign policy in bringing our troops home. They’re too busy branding him as a war-monger because they hate war.

Most of us do.

The truth is that this war wasn’t like World War II, in the sense that we weren’t fighting an enemy who would surrender. This war isn’t really ever going to be over because insurgents don’t surrender. We had to set a realistic date to return to the Iraqi’s authority over their country. As that date draws nearer, with just days left to go, the real question is whether Iraq will fall into a civil war when we leave.

So when the Left says we’re never leaving they may be correct. But when they say we are never leaving because Obama is a war-monger, they are incorrect. When the Right says we need to stay until we beat them, they are being simple-minded but when they suggest that timelines put us and the Iraqis at risk, they have a point.

But perhaps both sides can put aside their ideological loyalty for a moment. Perhaps the Left can allow themselves to feel relief about a change in our level of involvement in Iraq and perhaps the Right can stop using the timeline argument to undermine their President’s authority and judgment.

Americans are bruised and weary after years of being lied to by a cynical administration that used the war to justify taking away our freedoms. But instead of giving into these lower reactions, one wonders if Americans can rally our tremendous spirit to celebrate a President who kept his promise to draw down and did it responsibly, to support our returning troops and their families as they go through this very challenging transition, and in light of all that others have lost, be willing to give up a just a few ideological prejudices.

President Obama fulfilled his promise to end combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31. And he did it with a divided nation, in spite of a miserable Left and an angry Right disagreeing with his decisions at every turn. Both sides are struggling with the scar tissue from Vietnam. Iraq is another step in the battle of our national self-identification with militarism. Both sides are skeptical, since neither side can claim their position won.

Oh, America. Can’t we dust off our national scars and unite, rising to this occasion?

Sarah Jones

Listen to Sarah on the PoliticusUSA Pod on The Daily newsletter podcast here. Sarah has been credentialed to cover President Barack Obama, then VP Joe Biden, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and exclusively interviewed Speaker Nancy Pelosi multiple times and exclusively covered her first home appearance after the first impeachment of then President Donald Trump. Sarah is two-time Telly award winning video producer and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Connect with Sarah on Post,  Mastodon @PoliticusSarah@Journa.Host, & Twitter.

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