SAN ANTONIO — To say Marines, current and former, were stunned to hear that the Iraqi city of Falluja had once again fallen to black flag-waving jihadists is an understatement.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faced a direct question about the matter on Jan. 8 when he was visiting wounded warriors at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
What would he say to those Marines?
“You all did what you were asked to do,” Hagel said. “And I think you did it as well as it could have been done. And I think there’s some proof in the pudding on this. I don’t agree with an analysis that lives were wasted on this at all. I just — I don’t think that’s true.
“And I think it’s unfortunate that there are people out there saying that. That’s just not true. You can — everyone who served there can be very proud of that service, the contributions you’ve made. And it is a different country today. It has hope. It has possibilities. It has elections.
Hagel reminded the veterans why the U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011.
“We went in [to Iraq and Afghanistan]not to stay forever, not to be occupiers, but to give the people of each of those countries an opportunity to govern themselves, to give the people of each of those countries an opportunity to defend themselves, to support themselves.”
“In the case of Iraq we invested eight years and many lives and many wounded. I don’t need to tell this group that. We’re in our 13th year in Afghanistan. We’ve invested lives there as well, and limbs. And a lot of heartache and a lot of sadness.
“But the intent was never to stay forever and defend the country forever. I think in Iraq’s case that after eight years we did accomplish what we set out to do.”
For Hagel, questions about the costs of war may be familiar. Hagel was wounded twice in Vietnam while he served as an Army infantry sergeant. Years later he expressed doubts about the strategic value of that war and the way senior American officials managed it.
In an HBO documentary in 2011, years before taking on his current job, Hagel said he fully supported the Vietnam War when he was a soldier deployed there.
“I thought the purpose was right and I thought there was a more of a regional, geopolitical interest and that is why our presidents and those in charge of our national security and foreign policy had chosen to make a stand in Vietnam,” Hagel said in an HBO documentary.
However, his time in the jungle led him to question the senior leadership’s decisions.
“I saw the waste. I saw the folly you take a mountain, you take a village and you take great casualties and then you pull out 48 hours later and then [our military leaders]say, ‘Well, this really wasn’t as strategically important as we thought.’
“So you clear out and you think, as a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old, at some point it starts to dawn on you – you just sacrificed these young people. If it was strategically that important why did you just walk away?”