Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Final thoughts on a year in Iraq"

I was privileged to be copied on a message that was sent from a US Army Captain to his family few days prior to his departure from Iraq after spending a long time in Iraq. After requesting for his permission on it, I decided to publish this moving message and share it with you, here it is:

In the next 24 hours I will finally be boarding a plane for the long awaited flight back to Germany. I will do so with the knowledge in the back of my head that this may not be my last tour in Iraq. As I was walking back to work tonight to write this e-mail, I had a convincing reminder that despite the recent success of the elections, Iraq remains a very dangerous place.

I was reflecting on all of the events and experiences of the last year and thinking about what I was going to write when I heard a strange but now somewhat familiar whirling sound. I looked up to see the orange sparks from a rocket as it crossed in front of my eyes, disappeared out of sight, and fell to the ground and detonated with an explosion that shook the ground. The rocket had in fact fallen harmlessly into an open field a few hundred meters away, but it was still a reminder of the dangers that are ever present here. The conventional wisdom around here following a rocket or mortar attack is quite simple; if you are still alive and not severely bleeding, then you simply roll back over in you cot, finish your dinner, or otherwise continue going about your business. So here I am, back at my computer and I will get back to the things that I had wanted to share before I was distracted.

A year is a long time to spend in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, away from family, friends, and just about every aspect of life that we consider normal and so often take for granted. For the soldiers with families, it is even harder. Anniversaries are flowers sent via the e-mail. Their kids sporting events and activities are relegated to a two minute phone update over an awful connection. Birthdays and holidays are simply another day like any of the rest. When you consider all of this, you find yourself asking (as I have many times this past year) ‘Is it all worth it?’ Are the sacrifices that so many soldiers and families make on a daily basis worth the effort of being in Iraq? Is it worth the money we have spent destroying with one hand and rebuilding with another? How about the sacrifices of those men and women who will never return to their families? Is the mission here in Iraq worth what we have paid in blood sweat and tears? I think it is.

Last Sunday, the Iraqi people had an opportunity to express their own voices, their own opinions. In the months preceding the elections, skeptics would have led you to believe that a successful election in Iraq could not possibly take place given the current security situation. When you turned on the news, all you saw being reported on Iraq was the latest suicide bombing, the latest kidnapping, the latest body count. Is there anyone who can actually recall seeing a positive story that came out of Iraq? In the year that I have been here, the only positive story I can recall was the Iraqi National Soccer team’s gutsy performance in the Olympics. Can anyone remember a major news network that covered one of the hundreds of schools that have been built? How about the roads, hospitals, oil pipelines, or power plants? I for one can’t recall another single story that portrayed a remotely positive picture of what was happening in Iraq. Until last Sunday that is.

For the first time in a year the media seemed to focus their cameras on average Iraqis who for so long had remained silent. These were the millions of Iraqis that came out of their homes and defied the dangers and intimidation and went to the polls to cast their ballots for a new Iraqi future. Due to an apparent lack of burning vehicles and broken bodies, the media apparently had nothing left to report but the long lines of Iraqis as they peacefully cast their ballots. We saw men dancing in the streets and proud smiling faces that held up ink-stained fingers showing the sign for peace. Were the elections perfect? Certainly not. There were many Iraqis, especially among the Sunni minority, that exercised their right to withhold their vote; a newly given right by the way. Regardless, all Iraqis were given the opportunity to vote, and that is what is important. When America’s fledgling government first held elections, the only citizens eligible to vote were white male landowners. The United States has come a long way since our beginning. It is now Iraq’s turn for a new beginning. It isn’t going to be an easy road, but the Iraqi people are accustomed to greater hardships. The insurgency in Iraq won’t disappear over night, and will likely never disappear completely, but as an Iraqi government emerges we can only hope that the new government will be able to contend with the challenges posed by a determined minority.

Following the seemingly successful elections, I have already heard talk in the media about pulling our troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. This would be a great mistake. The withdrawal of coalition troops must be done gradually and only when the Iraqi government has the sufficient capacity to secure its own borders and police its interiors. To pull troops out too early and put the new government at risk of failure is to jeopardize everything that has been sacrificed and gained over the last couple years. We came here, right or wrong, to liberate Iraq from a ruthless dictator and to give them an opportunity at democratic self-rule. Our job in Iraq is only half done and we have the responsibility to see it through to the end.

Kevin M. Burns
Captain, U.S. Army

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