We expect our wars to end in iconic moments. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865 revealed the exhaustion the country felt at the end of the United States’ bloodiest war. The 1945 Life magazine photo of a sailor planting a kiss on an unsuspecting woman in Times Square captured the joy at the end of World War II. Thirty years later, helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon laid bare the tragedy and waste of the Vietnam War.
For most of the past two weeks, the U.S. military and the Obama administration seemed to be searching for a way to sum up a war that stretched nearly nine years, drained close to $1 trillion from the nation’s coffers and led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. service members. There were presidential speeches, a seemingly endless procession of military ceremonies and, of course, the final convoy out of Iraq by 500 American troops. Just days after the U.S. pullout, Baghdad has been consumed by political turmoil. Images of the withdrawal are being replaced by those of violence as at least 65 people were killed and nearly 200 injured in bombings in the Iraqi capital.
“Maybe we are not going to have this iconic moment to end the war?” said one U.S. official involved in Iraq policy. “It’s going to be a gradual fading away, a fuzzy ending to a fuzzy kind of war.”
We may not have one big moment, but several recent glimpses make up a collage of the war’s end. Here are my favorites: poignant, haphazard andabsurd snapshots of the United States’ quest for closure.
On Dec. 15, the American military’s top brass gathered at Baghdad International Airport to fold up the U.S. Forces-Iraq battle flag and spirit it home. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta offered up the usual praise for the troops. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top American commander in Iraq, pronounced the country a “relatively peaceful environment.” Most of the senior Iraqis invited to the ceremony did not show up.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in attendance and spoke of what “our sons and daughters — I mean, literally, our sons and daughters — have achieved.” He looked at his wife as he uttered those words. Two of the couple’s three children fought in Iraq. The general spent more time in the country than just about any American officer.
Dempsey’s remarks were a poignant reminder of what a powerful and isolating experience the war has been for a relatively small number of U.S. military families. Dempsey’s wife, Deanie, who was making her first trip to Iraq, was moved to tears.
Two days later, on Dec. 17, American and Iraqi officials gathered in the chapel at Contingency Operating Base Adder, the last American base in Iraq, for a signing ceremony to turn over the facility and its remaining property to the Iraqi Air Force. A six-man Iraq band, clad in dirty blue uniforms, played a ragged marching song on dented trumpets and trombones.