PINEHURST, N.C. — It has now been almost a year since President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier positioned off the coast of California and declared "major combat" over in Iraq. We can remember the "Mission Accomplished" sign awaiting the president.
In this past year since "major combat" ended, we have suffered 569 (as of April 23) American men and women killed in Iraq, 400 were killed in action and the other 169 were non-hostile deaths such as accidents. Another 3,000 or so have been injured.
Every day we hear, see or read about these casualties. We hear of a larger percentage of Americans becoming disenchanted with Operation Iraqi Freedom. We have witnessed a few bring the troops home demonstrations. We learn that a few nations, such as Spain, are pulling their troops out of the coalition of forces in Iraq. I am troubled by those who selfishly believe that we should not help restore a sense of independence, freedom and sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
It is important to put this past year into perspective. The "Mission Accomplished" sign hanging proudly on the carrier was placed there by the sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Their mission in the major combat stage of this long conflict had been accomplished. They were returning home to America, to their families, and to prepare for another mission as may be required by their nation.
It is much too frequent that I hear of the casualties, costs and setbacks since the President declared combat over last May. The President didn't say "combat" was over, he said "major combat" was over. The ground assault from Kuwait north to Baghdad and beyond; the airborne assault in the north; the special operators throughout Iraq; the air assault from land and sea. These represent the "major combat" operations. And they were over.
But combat certainly was
over. Many leading figures in the Bush administration and in both parties of Congress, as well as key military leaders, such as General Dick Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have frequently cautioned that this will be a long and protracted conflict. And that means combat, casualties and setbacks. It will not be easy.
In this past year Saddam Hussein has been captured and his sons killed. About 85 percent of those most wanted on the infamous deck of cards have been killed or captured. Torture, rape rooms and mass graves of the past tyranny are no more. An interim constitution and provisional Iraqi government have been achieved. More complete sovereignty will follow in several weeks. Much of the infrastructure has been repaired or rebuilt. Oil production is exceeding pre-conflict levels. Much good has come to Iraq in the past year.
There are still many troubling issues. Foreign fighters have infiltrated the country to join with Saddam loyalists and Baath Party holdovers unwilling to see a free and democratic Iraq. These groups aided by thousands of criminals released from Iraqi prisons before the conflict started are determined to undermine the efforts of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the military forces aligned to bring democracy to this long tortured nation.
These insurgents are using guerilla tactics against the coalition military forces to achieve their goals. And they are killing and maiming Iraqis as they pursue their objectives. They want to dominate the new Iraq. Simply stated that won't happen. That is, it won't happen if the United States led coalition doesn't "go wobbly" as Great Britain's former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, might say.
Although we as a nation may have misjudged the difficulties we would encounter in Iraq following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, we should not misjudge the difficulties that lie ahead. One of our failures as a people is to understand the culture of other nations and other religions. We tend to think that all people everywhere are just like us -- but they are not.
The tribal, family and religious loyalties in nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan are difficult for the average American to comprehend. It is equally difficult for us to understand why people who have never witnessed freedom, but rather have lived under tyranny and oppression, simply do not trust any one in authority.
It will take a considerable period of time for the Iraqi citizens to understand and appreciate their national identity as a complement to their family, tribal and religious identity. But if they are to reach their full potential as a major Arab nation, and if they are to return to their former era of grandeur in the Middle East, understand it they must.
As Americans we may not appreciate fully the cultures of other nations; but we should be able to appreciate that we have a special national strength unavailable to any other nation. We have the economic and military strength that marks us as the world's only superpower.
We also have a sense of compassion for others that insures we do not use this incredible power to seize and control the territory and resources of other nations. Consider our treatment of Germany and Japan following WW II as examples. Instead of raping these countries of their economic potential and their considerable resources, we spent billions helping them recover from the terrible tragedy of a world war. So are we committed today to restore Iraq to its rightful place as a free and democratic nation. The Iraqi people deserve no less.
We need to see this mission through. It is not time to "go wobbly."