Opinion: Troops return home from a place they should never have been

By Leonard Pitts
Miami Herald

Eight years ago on a night in March, they interrupted our regularly-scheduled programs for a breaking news bulletin. We sat before our televisions and watched rockets arc into the skies over Baghdad. Many of us had doubts about the stated and implied causes of the war that began that night: the need to secure Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of WMD and to retaliate for his part in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But, as I noted in a column, “We need for George Bush to be right and those of us who are doubtful to be wrong. We need this for the sake of over 200,000 American servicemen and women who stand ready for war in deserts far from home.” We all know how that turned out.

There were no weapons of mass destruction. Hussein had no connection to the events of Sept. 11. Nor did the war pay for itself. Nor did Iraqis strew rose petals in the path of American tanks.

The things we were told on the route to war turned out to be untrue. What is true is that we fought a war we did not have to fight. It cost at least $806 billion and more than 36,000 American casualties, including 4,400 fatalities.

So there are mixed emotions at last week’s news that President Obama has decided to withdraw virtually all U.S. service personnel from Iraq.

There is elation, of course, thankfulness that American servicemen and women will be home in time for the holidays. But a patina of bitter shades the sweet and it is bound up in the fact that: They are coming home from a place they never should have been.

One feels like a broken record in saying this. That analogy, for those who have known only CDs and iPods, refers to the tendency of vinyl records to go bad and repeat a phrase ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. Similarly, your humble correspondent has repeatedly repeated himself over the last eight years in decrying the uselessness of this war.

As facts go, it is a pebble in the shoe, a nagging truth that has made the good news less good and the bad news worse.

The surge worked? We should not have been there. Americans killed by roadside bombs? We should not have been there. Iraq becoming more stable? We should not have been there. Service personnel coming home? Great. But we should not have been there.

Moreover, once there, we should have been universally appalled at the breathtaking cynicism with which the war was prosecuted. To name the most obvious example, consider the stunning contempt for our collective intelligence that allowed the architects of war, once their original rationale was thoroughly discredited, to pivot to a new one with barely a pause to admit that they were wrong at best, lied to and misled us at worst.

The point is not, “I told you so.” The point is that when a nation is angry and frightened as this one was after Sept. 11, its people are easy to manipulate, to herd down paths of heartache and easy answers. So a fitting way to honor our servicemen and women as they return to families they have not seen in far too long might be to promise that next time we ask them to go into harm’s way, we will recall how the bitter shaded the sweet this day.

Those men and women are the pride of this nation. They deserved better.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.