The Sunday New York Times reported that Al Qaeda has taken control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, for the first time since the U.S. Marines hauled down the Stars and Stripes over the memory of the Second Battle of Fallujah at the end of 2004, having first spilled their blood earlier in the year in the indecisive First Battle of Fallujah in April. It was a nasty bit of business, taking Fallujah, and it inspired a famous song written by Billy Joel and performed by Cass Dillon.
Hearing this sad news from Fallujah in the first week of 2014 reminded Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John McCain (R-AZ) that they warned President Barack Obama back in 2011 not to carry out the plan that elected him, to remove combat troops from Iraq.
My memories drifted back to the early seventies. A young John Kerry, testifying for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, confronted with Congressional hawks in doves’ clothing, was famously asked "how" we could get out of Vietnam?
"Ships and planes, Senator, ships and planes."
Serving in the Senate on Oct. 11, 2002, the same Kerry voted to go to war in Iraq based on a pack of lies even more egregious than the lies that led him to earn three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. Still, he was back to wondering about the means of disengaging when I wrote to him in 2006 to advise him how to get out of Iraq, circling back his own words: “Ships and planes, Senator, ships and planes.”
The first battle of Fallujah ended in something of a stalemate and so we on the home front didn’t hear much until the second battle, the one that brought us that Billy Joel song and this citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lance Corporal Dominic Esquibel, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as Scout Sniper, Company B, First Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, FIRST Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central, in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 25 November 2004. After an enemy ambush on 3d Platoon nearby, Lance Corporal Esquibel quickly moved to an overwatch position and spotted five wounded Marines in a building courtyard. He courageously low-crawled close to the enemy stronghold to gain intelligence and then ran through the rooftops under intense enemy fire to relay the intelligence to the 3d Platoon Commander. With total disregard for his own safety, he re-occupied his position and threw a grenade, destroying several enemy insurgents and silencing one of the enemy's machine guns. After eliminating part of the threat, he low-crawled to another area and dropped a grenade through a hole in the roof, eliminating several more enemy personnel and silencing another enemy machine gun. As a tank breached the courtyard wall, 3d Platoon began suppressing the target building. He seized this opportunity and quickly moved to the courtyard while under enemy machine gun fire, dragging out a wounded Marine. He re-entered the courtyard to retrieve a second wounded Marine. Still under enemy fire, he moved through the open area a third time, extinguished a fire that had mortally wounded the third casualty, and swiftly carried out his body. Due to his heroic efforts, two Marines survived the devastating enemy ambush. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Lance Corporal Esquibel reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. Action Date: 25-Nov-04
Lance Corporal Dominic Esquibel, named in the Navy Cross citation above, fought on. The very next day, one of his brothers in arms from that battle, by accounts one of his best friends, was KIA.
Corporal Esquibel declined the Navy Cross, citing "personal reasons."
I'm not competent to speculate on his reasons, but today's news—particularly the urgings of Sens. Graham and McCain—brings two words booming out to me, the same words underlying my message to Sen. Kerry, "FOR WHAT?"
Leaving aside there never being a reason to invade Iraq in the first place, since the first Iraq War had fully pulled Saddam Hussein’s fangs, what would the U.S gain—what did we gain between 2002 and 2011, or 2004 and 2011.
The historical root of the fight over the unattractive real estate where Fallujah sits is the 1400 year old dispute over whom was the proper successor to the Prophet when he ascended without leaving clear instructions. Unlike Sunni and Shia, I am not informed of the Prophet's intent, but I am informed that the United States has no public policy on the question and cannot have one consistent with the First Amendment. The Kurds, not immediately fighting in Fallujah, are a different problem.
The Kurds are our oldest and most reliable allies within Iraq. They have a legitimate historical claim to a homeland, Kurdistan. If the past is any guide, their legitimate claim will disappear off our radar screen now that we do not need them. Another ally, the country that is supposed to answer the trivia question "Can Islam and democracy co-exist?", is opposed to an independent Kurdistan. Turkey's wishes will no doubt prevail, and the Kurds can hope at best for regional autonomy within the Iraqi state, something for which they appear to be willing to settle.
Proving, I suppose, that garden variety ethnic and economic interests yield more readily to the political process than theology does. After all, more Irish are willing to kill over whether one may approach God directly or only through the medium of the One True Church than are willing to kill over British imperialism.
If Iraq is to be a viable state, Sunni and Shia are going to have to agree on division of political power and therefore real estate and oil revenues. We cannot make that division, and there is no right or wrong division from North America. What matters is what the Iraqis think is fair or at least what they are willing to tolerate.
In the meantime, the third battle of Fallujah is heating up to be fought, over the objections of Sens. Graham and McCain, without US Marines. The dearth of American Devil Dogs brings me back to the Navy Cross citation above.
My son the Marine did two combat tours in Iraq and he'll never be the same again. For what? They still don’t agree who was the proper successor to The Prophet.
Commander in Chief George W. Bush ordered the Marines to take Fallujah. For what?
The Marines took Fallujah. For what?
No, I don't know why Corporal Esquibel declined the Navy Cross, any more than I know what he said to his friend's widow. It's not my place to know, but is my place–our place–to know why the United States Marine Corps needs to bleed over Fallujah for a third time.
Had the Iraqis been willing to sign the Status of Forces Agreement put in front of them, our troops would as we speak be lined up to bleed over Fallujah for a third time. Our troops are not in harm’s way because President Obama refused to keep soldiers in Iraq if they were to be subject to Iraqi law.
This is essentially the same SOF that Mr. Obama has put in front of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. It has the same issue that Mr. Karzai is so far resisting.
Our government announced that we expected the SOF agreement to be signed by the first of the year. It was not, but now we are slipping and sliding on the deadline.
Leaked portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan say that the Taliban will come back to power in Afghanistan if we leave, perhaps threatening Kabul as soon as 2015. We’ve been there 13 years, the longest war in US history.
We achieved the original goal of invading Afghanistan: the death or capture of Osama bin Laden. The mission has creeped to saving Afghanistan from the Afghans.
We did not save Vietnam from the Vietnamese. When Al Qaeda re-took Fallujah, they proved that we have not saved Iraq from the Iraqis.
We are not going to solve theological issues or over a thousand years of tribal conflicts in 10 or 50 or 100 years.
The entire Middle East is a great battlefield that appears from here to be about oil and gas but appears from within to be about the souls of men. The tip of the Shia spear is Iran, heir to the Persian Empire.
Until Ataturk lurched his land into secular modernization, the tip of the Sunni spear was Turkey, the Ottoman Empire. Now it’s Saudi Arabia, guardian of the Holy Land and the bankroll behind every radical Sunni jihad, including the one that felled the World Trade Center Towers erected by the sweat of Mohawk, Irish, Italian and African American iron workers.
From the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempted United Arab Republic until now, Egypt has aspired to leadership in the Islamic world. Honestly, it has some historic claim to leadership, representing the ancient civilization of the Nile Delta, but Egypt is in disarray and the major players are Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
In that grand struggle, the US is a bit player with comparatively trivial interests, and trivial those interests will remain no matter how much testosterone wafts into the Congressional roost of the chicken hawks.
Sens. Graham and McCain and their supporters have also faulted President Obama for failing to spend more American lives in Libya, in Syria, in Iran. I suppose we can overlook Sen. McCain’s urging to pick a fight with Russia over their incursion into Georgia (“We are all Georgians!”) because that was an election year, but how or if the longest war in American history, Afghanistan, is going to end is on the table right now and the re-taking of Fallujah by Al Qaeda is being touted as a reason why our troops should remain in Afghanistan. The SOF promises at least 10 more years, but the tribal warfare is not going to end in 10 more years.
In recognition of the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Graham and McCain and some others against withdrawing from Afghanistan without saving it from the Afghans, I offer some poetic lines from Rudyard Kipling written on the occasion of the British Empire failing that task, like the Mughal Empire before and the Soviet Empire after:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle an' blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
George W. Bush ordered the Marines to take Fallujah twice and they took it.
If, next year, Barack Obama orders Kabul or Kandahar taken for the same reason—none—the Marines will answer as they always do: OO-RAH, Mr. President. Semper Fi.
Devotion to duty is not agreement, Mr. President. It’s up to you to look at the devotion of the Devil Dogs and understand it’s not to be wasted or abused. To ask yourself “for what?” When you can answer that question publicly and truthfully, you will fully deserve what men and women in uniform give you freely, and you can reply to them, without a hint of irony: Semper Fidelis.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.