“We should just leave and let them have it.”
When I was deployed to Iraq’s Anbar province, I spoke these words, and I don’t think I was alone. The smell of parched camel dung and burning plastic stung my nose every day of that year-long adventure, at least half of which involved enduring a hellish blast furnace from which there was only a hint of respite at midnight.
Make no mistake about it, western Iraq is not a vacation destination. The barren desolation and pervasiveness of the dust draw comparisons to the world’s largest ashtray, although after factoring in the smell, a litter box is a more apt comparison. Even so, a few million Iraqis call it home, and during my tenure I had the pleasure of meeting some of them – good people for the most part, the majority not caring whether their neighbor was Sunni, Shia, or otherwise. The vast percentage simply regular people trying to survive the next day of poverty. Sprinkled into that mix were people who wanted me dead, and no amount of goodwill diplomacy would ever change that. As a human being, I felt sorry for those regular people who have to live there, but in the grand scheme of things, I can’t say as I gave a damn.
Today I walked past a television, which was looping the latest footage about the fall of Ramadi. These were bits and pieces of clips I’d seen before, mostly file footage of various buildings and such getting blown up, or groups of men firing AK-47s at something or maybe nothing. I paused for a moment, not caring about the first few images I saw until I almost looked away.
It only lasted a few seconds, but it sucked the air out the room. A Humvee was parked on a street in front of a hospital in Balad (Not the U.S. airbase, but the actual city). This was a place I knew. The screen then flashed a map of Iraq, listing the areas currently under ISIS control. Most of the northwest quarter was shaded, and not only was Ramadi listed, but such lesser known retreats as Haditha and Hit.
I knew exactly where these places were. I’d either been there or flown over them. Somewhere in a trunk in my storage shed is a pocket notebook with a handful of names written in it – the names of American servicemen who gave their lives to liberate that part of the world from violent oppressors, because their country asked them to give people they’d never met a chance at a better life.
To watch those places fall back to madmen hurts. I don’t know if we should be sending in support, putting boots on the ground, or spending millions bombing the place into a giant parking lot. I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t think anyone else does either, but what is happening now feels wrong.
Make no mistake, I don’t care about Anbar – it’s not just at the bottom of the list for Disney’s latest theme park, it’s an isolated, barren hellhole in a part of the world no person in his right mind would want to live or even visit. There is still one inescapable fact I can’t get past.
We bought it with the blood of friends and brothers-in-arms. That makes it my hellhole.