WARRIORS OF DEFEAT

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- The great majority of Americans have so turned off the news from Iraq that most are doubtless not even cognizant that al-Qaida has retaken the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and hoisted their ugly black pirate's flag there.

One can almost here people saying, "Now, if we could only get out of Afghanistan, too!"

But there is one group -- an important group -- that is not so sanguine about losing those dusty, dirty, sunbaked cities only a few hours' drives from Baghdad. These are the U.S. soldiers who, during the American war in Mesopotamia, fought and saw their buddies die for these places found more easily in the Bible than in an atlas.

What's more, we are beginning to witness the creation of a type of young soldier virtually never before seen in American experience. I speak of the soldiers of the unwinnable wars. Some might call them the soldiers of the "unwon" wars or, more dramatically, the warriors of defeat. Any way you put it, it doesn't sound noble.

Defeat is defeat, and these men who went across the seas so valiantly, willing to believe you can pledge your whole soul to half-truths, will have to live with it -- and with what their country blithely sent them into -- all their lives.

The New York Times just featured a front-page article on how the Marines who had fought in Fallujah were "transfixed, disbelieving and appalled." Kael Weston, a former State Department political adviser who worked closely with the Marines for three years in Fallujah and Anbar Province, said that "Marines across the globe had been frenetically sharing their feelings about the new battle for Fallujah via email, text and Facebook."

"The news went viral in the worst way," Weston said. "This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, 'I thought my son died for a reason.'"

These emotions are scarcely surprising. The Marines had fought a bitter battle in November 2004 over the city, and many analysts considered it the corps' biggest and most dangerous fight since Vietnam. Nearly 100 Marines and soldiers were killed in action and hundreds more were wounded. When they left, it was with the clear understanding -- "promise" from our government? -- that the Iraqi forces could hold the area.

It is curious how little literature, at least that I know of, there is about the men and women who come back from lost wars, whether it be Americans in Vietnam, or Brits in Gallipoli, or French in Dien Bien Phu.

But this neglected subject is worth far more than only a little research: What, really, are the feelings of these men -- about their country, about their position in the community, about their relations with their wives and colleagues? What do they think now about the war? Have they accepted the end as simply a fact of life or are they quietly burning with resentment inside? In short, who IS the veteran of the lost war?

Losing is particularly galling to Americans, who in our hearts see ourselves as victorious sportsmen with winning personalities and smiles. Indeed, until the Vietnam War, which spanned roughly from 1958 to 1975, Americans had never really lost. Tickertapes on Broadway -- that's our way of doing things, not skulking home after the Vietnam War and having your neighbors close the doors when you walk down the street.

But it must be seen that there was nothing wrong with our fighting men in Vietnam. It was Washington, which had set the servicemen and women up against people fighting for their independence as a nation. The only way to defeat people like this is to wipe them out, one by one by one. Their interest is infinite; our interest in Indo-China was finite.

America should have learned from Vietnam, but it didn't. After 9/11, the enormous egos of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, pumped up like carnival balloon clowns, sent American troops into Afghanistan and then, as a second thought, Iraq, which would "only take six months." These were guys who liked war and wanted ones with their own names on them.

In short, then, since World War II, all these "little wars," except Korea, which was sui generis, were merely exercises of ambitious men's egos. It is typical in history that when great countries or empires have reached their apotheosis, they spawn ambitious men who lead their countries on dangerous campaigns of expansion undesired by the majority of the people.

This is perhaps the major danger for America: to waste our blood and our treasure on foolish little wars of minor importance. Meanwhile, we already have these soldiers of lost wars among us. They need our understanding and our help.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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