As US troops leave Iraq, some ask: Was the war worth it?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the cost of the war was high, but that troops gave birth to a 'free and sovereign' Iraq. More than 4,400 US service members died in Iraq.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
US Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta (c.) speaks during ceremonies marking the end of US military mission in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 15.

As the American war in Iraq comes to an end, some troops find themselves grappling with a question that has dogged them through multiple deployments: Was the sacrifice worth the price that US forces paid here?

“I’ve had people come to me, ‘Why were we there? What did we do? Why did 4,000 die in Iraq? Why did I lose my friend?’ ” says Lt. Col. Mark Rowan, an Air Force chaplain who has served 12 deployments and who has counseled troops returning from Iraq. “We don’t really know the answer to that yet.” 

Commanders say it’s a question that they can’t readily answer, either. “My opinion about sacrifice is that it’s a very personal thing,” says Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, the senior US Air Force officer in Iraq. To pronounce whether the war was “worth it,” he says, would mean “putting words in the mouths of family members” who continue to mourn for loved ones.

Beyond those directly connected with the war, few Americans will ever understand the scale of loss for the US military, many here also believe.

It’s “almost impossible for the American people to comprehend the level of sacrifice” that US troops have made in this war, says Handy.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, flying into Baghdad for the official “close of mission” ceremony Thursday, addressed the troops, as well as the question that many silently ask themselves. 

“To be sure, the cost was high,” he said. But “those lives were not lost in vain: They gave birth to an independent, free, and sovereign Iraq.” 

US forces who have been working with their Iraqi counterparts up until their last hours here wrestle with whether America did indeed accomplish what it set out to do.

They wonder, too, whether the answer to the war's worthiness hinges on another question – the question of, say, whether America won the war.

“We came to give them a democracy,” says Staff Sgt. Donald Rice of the 447th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. “We gave them a chance at democracy. Was 4,400 lives worth the cost of giving them the chance at democracy?” he wonders.

“I’m not going to judge personal sacrifice,” says Handy, “but I can tell you it’s tremendously important for this country to be stable.” Iraq today has a “democratically elected and inclusive government,” he adds, and there remains hope for “what that might mean to the region,” as the Arab Spring enters the winter season.

Rowan, the chaplain, says he has fielded agonized questions from troops, particularly among those who have experienced the heartbreak of losing their comrades.

He recalls presiding at the moment of death of a soldier, a married father of three who was shot while out on a 2009 patrol in northern Iraq. 

“I stayed with him and held his hand,” Rowan says, “and did all the last rites before he passed.”

When his fellow soldiers learned that he had died, “they exploded and threw their helmets down.” 

They wondered, too, whether the war was worth this – the loss they witnessed again and again. 

Rowan says that sometimes it helps to turn the question around: “I ask them, 'What do you think you accomplished there? For the Air Force, or outside the base, maybe you were part of a team that got terrorists out of a town. Were people able to live free again?' ”

The point, he says, is to focus on, “What good did you do there.” For America, for the politicians, he tells them, “History will decide the rest.”

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