On August 19, the Army’s 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait. The departure of the last U.S. combat brigade closed a chapter in American history that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
U.S. leaders believed that after toppling Saddam Hussein, the vast majority of Iraqis would be happy and grateful. But insurgent forces proved more deeply entrenched than Americans had expected, and the Iraq war dragged on, with U.S. casualties mounting. By the time President Obama made good on his campaign promise to pull combat troops out of Iraq, 4,415 U.S. soldiers had been killed there, and 32,000 had been wounded. More than 1.5 million American troops served in Iraq in total.
The members of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, were among the lucky ones, and they knew it; many of them had served previous tours in Iraq. Although they were leaving without a decisive victory, the soldiers said they believed they had accomplished something positive in Iraq. After all, the world was now rid of Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator. The country had held its first free elections in decades (the ones in which Hussein had run without any opponents and racked up 100% of the vote didn’t really count).
However, those accomplishments were tainted by the now-debunked justification for going to war in the first place: the accusation that Hussein was making weapons of mass destruction. Then there was the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the controversy over whether waterboarding equaled torture. Because of suicide bombings, homemade bombs, and other violent attacks, the death toll among Iraqis shot up to about 100,000, leaving many ordinary people to wonder if they had been better off under the stable iron fist of Hussein.
The advent of WikiLeaks gave war coverage a truly modern angle. The website, which posts classified information from inside-government sources, dumped thousands of pages of documents into the public domain, much to the government’s displeasure. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange drew as much attention for his grandiose posturing and legal troubles (he is being investigated on allegations of rape) as he did for his information war against the U.S. military.
After the Army withdrawal, Iraq remains volatile and dangerous, and plenty of Americans there remain at risk. Private contractors now perform many of the jobs that the military once undertook, and in the first half of this year, more contractors than troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 50,000 troops remain to serve as military advisors; they are scheduled to leave by the end of next year.
The 4th Stryker Brigade’s long journey home took the troops from Kuwait to Germany to Maine, and finally to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where their families got up before dawn to greet them.