Like many, I rationalized the US incursion into Iraq as, "I don't know whether Iraq has WMDs, but Saddam is a brutal dictator and removing him from power is worth our effort."
With 10 years of hindsight, I can say that our invasion of Iraq was not worth our effort. Iraq was not worth the deaths of 4,488 US men and women with names like Lucas, Justin, Chadrick, Romel. Iraq was not worth the pain of the families that live on, Gold Star Families, or the many children now fatherless. For our nation, Iraq was an unnecessary cost for not nearly enough gain. For our nation, Iraq was a mistake.
Personally, the lessons I learned were worth the volunteering as an infantryman for two tours, 801 days, and over 400 combat missions in Iraq. I have had the honor of leading more than 100 great men and women, and working with hundreds more. Through them, I saw what it means to serve, to show loyalty to an idea and to each other, to work incredibly hard, and to be American.
The lessons I learned were worth being told by my battalion commander that the participation of my then-fiancé in an anti-war protest would directly lead to the death of some of our soldiers, that she wasn't "supporting the mission" as expected, as if the debate on risking American life was unpatriotic. The lessons are worth being told that anti-war protests would decrease morale in our unit, as if the strategy of clearing the same neighborhoods house-by-house, over and over again didn't already deal a death-blow to morale. The lessons are worth the tears that fill my eyes every time I hear "Taps.''
Historians will continue to analyze why we invaded Iraq and whether or not our leaders willfully misled us. But what we know to be true is that those who questioned were quickly shunned as un-American in the same shameful vein as Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Looking back, many may wish those voices were stronger — stronger in volume, in quantity, and in their ability to change policy. At least 4,488 Americans would. I would.
As I walked with my men up and down the streets of Baghdad, meeting Iraqis in baked-mud houses over sugary chai, I learned how important investment in education and economy is to peace. The young men that fought us had no job, no education, and no hope that things might get better. Risking or losing their lives fighting us seemed their least bad option in their wholly distorted view of the world. If they'd had a job to support their family, they would never have picked up an AK-47 or constructed a homemade bomb.
Ten years later, our mistaken invasion of Iraq has taught me three things: questioning the value of the fight is never unpatriotic and is crucially necessary; I personally own the actions of my government and I must stay engaged; investment in education and economies prevents conflict. I hope we've learned the same lessons as a country. The cost is far too high to learn them again.
Dan Futrell, a US Army veteran and two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and a Tillman Military Scholar of the Pat Tillman Foundation. He lives in Somerville.