After seven and a half years and more than 4,400 American casualties and upwards of 70,000 Iraqis dead, "'Operation Iraqi Freedom'" is over. President Obama said so, and thus it must be true.
I'm glad to hear that the war is "over," and that we as a nation are finally withdrawing ourselves from a mission that, at its heart, was always controversial. Even if, on the odd chance that former President George W. Bush had truly altruistic intentions in invading Iraq back in March 2003, and even if, by some bizarre miracle, our soldiers could bypass cultural and linguistic barriers to bestow the magic that is "freedom" upon a country with whom we have never had stellar relations, it would still seem naive to think that we could sprinkle liberty like fairy dust, and that after seven years of intense fighting and messy political reorganization, that would be that. I'm not sure what I find more depressing: the fact that we truly believed we could force our vision of freedom on another country by invading it, or the fact that, after expending so much energy and so many people, we are retreating and leaving the people we've invaded to pick up the leftover pieces.
I have respect for the military and all that our soldiers (and those in other countries) sacrifice in order to maintain a sense of patriotic idealism. I don't doubt that there are people out there, both alive and dead, whose efforts abroad were just that--an expression of real, honest, unselfish work--people who have accomplished things I'd never be capable of doing. I know that many of the soldiers who volunteered in this war began their service with a certain understanding of their mission and what they would later get for it, and for many of them, especially those serving in 2004 and 2005, their commitment to their country and to their job was tested by multiple deployments and several months away from their families and lives. I can't imagine making such an important and ultimately selfless decision. And because I can't imagine this, it makes it doubly hard to think of all those who left in 2003 thinking that they were out to achieve something truly great, and that our actions in Iraq would make the world better.
I have no idea what we accomplished and what we sacrificed, but I am relieved to hear that our remaining troops will be coming home over the next year. In my mind, the true measure of our success abroad won't be something as vague and ambiguous as how "free" people feel, but in how we decide to define freedom ourselves, and in what circumstances we are obligated or even permitted to enforce our ideas elsewhere.
I'll close with this image, taken February 15, 2003, in Rome. I remember the newspapers that week were filled with images of people protesting worldwide. I remember being a freshman in college and going to weekly protests in Santa Barbara for more than six months. We thought we were making a statement. I have to wonder, now, what kind of statement we have made.