The great thing about democracy is that all citizens have the opportunity to make their voices heard on issues of public policy. The messy thing about democracy is that this political liberty inevitably leads to social conflict, as different voices express different views and we wrestle with a search for some resolution. Ah, but the triumph of democracy is when a multitude of disparate voices all set aside their individual opinions on a difficult issue and find the right notes to become one choir.
On August 19, 2010, seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the last full Army combat brigade left the country, ahead of President Obama's end-of-the-month deadline for ending combat operations.
For some of us, this was a war that should have never been fought; for most of us, this was a withdrawl that should have happened years ago; and for others of us, this was a premature exit before the job was finished. But if you listen carefully, we are all in agreement on the message to our returning troops: Welcome Home, American Heroes.
This is no small thing, of course. It comes less than 40 years after a very sad time in America, when soldiers returning from a foreign war that also had little public support were too often treated quite differently.
One of the most tumultuous and divisive eras in American socio-political history was the late-1960s and early-1970s, when opposition to the Vietnam War escalated by the month. The widespread anti-war protests during that time made the anti-Iraq War protests of the mid-2000s seem quaint by comparison.
When the war finally ended in 1975 and American combat troops were called home, most American citizens greeted the returning soldiers with applause and words of thanks for their service. Unfortunately, some Americans were so passionately against the war that they confused their opposition to a policy with opposition to their fellow citizens who were courageously doing their jobs amid unspeakable conditions.
Raymond Kelly, now the commissioner of the New York Police Department, was a soldier in Vietnam who left the conflict in Asia for the conflict at home. As a young cop back in New York, he was assigned the job of policing demonstrations against the very war in which he had just been engaged. When the war ended and those soldiers came home, he recalls being shocked by how so many of those vocal opponents of the war simply became vocal opponents of the men who fought the war, actually protesting the soldiers themselves and, yes, using that awful addition to the American lexicon -- "baby killers" -- as some of them returned to the country that had deployed them on their mission.
So it's a stark and welcome contrast to those sad days of the 1970s when we see Americans from every part of the country and from every spot on the political continuum all standing to applaud soldiers returning from Iraq. We all realize -- perhaps fueled by the memories of those sad post-Vietnam days -- that these men and women volunteered to serve their country, with the full knowledge that it would likely result in their deployment to a dangerous part of the world where they would be human targets.
We sharply disagree about the wisdom of the decision to go to war in Iraq, with President Bush's decision to escalate the war even after learning that the evidence presented to the United Nations was faulty, and with President-elect Obama's announcement of a planned troop withdrawl before taking the oath of office. But we have no disagreement about the courage of the soldiers who fought the war and the honor with which they return to their homes.
As for me, I hope that we as a nation never forget the awful U.S. death toll in Iraq -- at least 4,415 as of last week -- and the thousands of moms who lost their sons, dads who lost their daughters, wives who lost their husbands, husbands who lost their wives, and little girls and boys who never got to know their daddies and mommies. This was an extraordinary price to pay in human lives (not to mention the tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, which hasn't exactly been in sound fiscal shape in the past decade) for a war that does not appear to be have made us any safer, nor reduced the spread of jihadism one iota.
And of course, the departure of the last American combat brigade from Iraq doesn't mark the end of the U.S. military presence in the country. About 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq through the end of next year. The troops are officially there in an advisory role, but will carry weapons to defend themselves and will join Iraqi troops on missions if requested. So while it's true that American combat operations officially end Aug. 31, the fine print reads that all U.S. forces must exit Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
But for now, there is reason to speak together with one voice as Americans and welcome home the brave men and women who represented our country with pride, courage, honor and skill. It's our solemn responsibility as a nation to care for the ones who were wounded and do whatever we can to ease the transition back to civilian life for those who need our help. They fulfilled the mission they were given to wage a war on foreign soil, now it's time for us to fulfill our mission to support them back on domestic soil.
Step one is to say thanks . . . and welcome home.