WASHINGTON – At VFW halls, kitchen tables and rehabilitation clinics around the country, this week’s stunning insurgent advance through Iraq left many U.S. veterans reflecting with bitterness and sadness on the sacrifices of a war that lasted for more than eight years and killed nearly 4,500 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
“In many ways, it just feels like a waste – a waste of many lives, a waste of many years,” retired Army Col. Barry Johnson said from his home in Potlatch, Idaho.
On the broad stage of Middle East affairs, the unraveling highlights the resilience of extremists and the risks of weakened central authority. It also raises wider questions about the future of Afghanistan after international forces withdraw later this year and about the growing influence of militant Islamic factions among Syrian rebels.
Johnson stood on Iraq’s border with Kuwait as the last U.S. military convoy left in late 2011. Even then, he said, it was evident that Iraq’s military and security forces were not up to the challenges at hand.
Those tests included trying to confront strongholds of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has managed to drive back better-armed Iraqi forces. Iraq’s Shiite-led government – allied with both Washington and Tehran – is also increasingly estranged from Iraq’s Sunni minority, which claims the Shiite leadership runs roughshod over their rights and concerns.
“It was clear that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military were not going to be able to sustain themselves and keep the situation from deteriorating,” Johnson said.
Because the cities loom so large on the roll call of Iraq battlefields, their loss sharpens the sting.
Fallujah, a mostly Sunni city west of Baghdad, was the scene in 2004 of some of the heaviest U.S. urban combat since Vietnam. It later became a centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to recruit Sunni militias as allies against insurgents.
“Losing Fallujah, when I heard that the first time a few months back, I really just honestly wanted to throw chairs across the room, because what I’ve done there has basically just been undone,” said former Marine Sgt. Ben Colin at VFW Post No. 6776 in Albany. “We just basically went there and did nothing, in my opinion.”
In Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, U.S. forces battled block by block against insurgents in 2009 before the deadline for American troops to leave major urban centers.
Martin Schaefer, an Army reservist who did two tours in Iraq and now lives in Darien, Ill., groped for the right word to define his emotions. Not mad or upset, he said.
“Sad,” he decided. “Sad to see that the work that had been accomplished by the U.S. and Iraqi forces is being undone by an insurgency.”
In the Boston suburb of Arlington, veteran Jeffrey Chunglo winced at reports of insurgents seizing U.S. military equipment, including armored vehicles and weapons that had been left with Iraqi forces to defend Mosul.
“I think we were in a hurry for an exit strategy,” said Chunglo, who served as a senior hospital corpsman with the Navy. “I think, obviously, a little more time could have been spent putting together a better plan for ongoing monitoring – especially over the last year – to limit the (insurgents’) impact.”
But many veterans acknowledge the pressures in Washington from a war-weary nation, particularly with Taliban violence on the rise in Afghanistan and demands for greater involvement in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Few veterans appeared to support a return of U.S. ground forces to Iraq – a prospect that Pelak called “an incredibly bad idea.”