For many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the news last week was bittersweet.
The black banner flag of al-Qaida returned to Fallujah and Ramadi after hundreds of American lives — principally Army soldiers, Marines and Navy SEALs fighting in street-to-street battles reminiscent of WWII — were lost in the effort to subdue insurgent forces that had been operating at will in Iraq's most strategically important cities in Anbar province. Al-Qaida in Fallujah was defeated as recently as 2005 after two major battles spearheaded by Marines and soldiers who encountered some of the heaviest urban combat since Vietnam.
Ramadi was not secure until the end of 2006 after U.S. Army, Marines and Navy SEALs were ordered to bring security and stability to the al-Qaida-infested city of 400,000. The "Battle of Ramadi," one of the most significant military engagements fought since 9/11, was won by deploying Special Operations Forces alongside conventional troops in block-by-block fighting under one command — appropriately named "Task Force Band of Brothers."
Al-Qaida is returning to power in Anbar and elsewhere in the region less than three years after the United States pulled out of Iraq with no agreement that would have left behind U.S. forces to ensure gains won in Anbar province and Iraq were not lost and American blood was not spilled in vain.
In 2006, after classified intelligence reported Iraq "all but lost," President George W. Bush doubled down on additional troops because he believed "a stable and secure Iraq" was vital to U.S. national security interests. His legacy gamble paid off until last week.
Just as troubling to veterans who served in Afghanistan is the comment by Robert Gates in his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Gates writes that President Barack Obama didn't believe in Afghanistan but sent more troops anyway. He cites "suspicion and distrust of senior military officers,'' and after a March 2011 meeting with the president, concluded the president "doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his. … For him, it's all about getting out." Yet 74 percent of American casualties came after Obama ordered the troop surge into Afghanistan in 2009. More than 37,000 American troops are still deployed there.
At the Naval Academy, principle lessons on leadership taught to every midshipman and future commissioned officer involve the responsibility of command. That leadership chain runs up to the secretary of Defense and the commander-in-chief. In the military, officers and enlisted alike swear an oath to our Constitution to "support, defend, bear true faith and allegiance" and to "obey the orders of the president of the United States." Military discipline and effectiveness is built on the foundation of obedience to these orders.
Leadership 101: Even if you disagree with the commands from those appointed above you, deliver the orders to your troops embracing them as your own. Only if you believe the orders you have been told to execute are unlawful can you legally refuse them.
If the president doesn't believe the mission will ultimately be successful, should the men and women he sends to achieve his national security objectives be willing to die for them?
Lone Survivor opened this past weekend on movie screens nationwide. It is the story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor of a four man reconnaissance team confronted with a moral conundrum — kill or detain unarmed Afghan goat herders and face prosecution in the media and under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or let them go and roll the dice. This is the one movie every American should see to understand the moral, ethical and leadership challenges our service members confront.
Most military veterans who have served in combat and lost a teammate won't tell you their brother died for God, family and country, the president or the Constitution. They died defending the men serving alongside them in harm's way.
The lasting legacy of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be the memory of the service and sacrifice of those who died. Sadly, instead it will be that of two polar opposite presidents, one who bet his post 9/11 record on actively engaging in the Middle East, and his successor, who went the opposition direction and made disengagement his unannounced desired end in hopes of avoiding another 9/11.
Dan O'Shea is an Annapolis graduate, reserve Navy SEAL officer mobilized after 9/11 for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He served as the coordinator for the Hostage Working Group at U.S. Embassy Baghdad from 2004-2006 and was a counter-insurgency adviser to the commander of International Security Forces-Afghanistan from 2011-12. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.