On Monday, President Barack Obama gave a joint speech with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to mark the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In announcing the holiday homecoming, the president has made good on his campaign promise to bring the war to an end. For thousands of families welcoming their loved ones home, it is a time for joy; for the country, it is a time for gratitude.
Now is also a time for healing. Both the people of Iraq and U.S. veterans have wounds to heal and relationships to rebuild. The veterans come home to a still-struggling economy, limited jobs, and complex health issues. Iraqis are still picking up the pieces of an infrastructure shattered by war and complicated by sectarian tension; living in the midst of regional upheaval presents no easy road, either. Five years ago, when I studied the smaller pockets of Iraq’s sectarian violence, the ugliness of what can happen in a power vacuum appeared overwhelming. The reality of what happens when some people have plenty of weapons and no accountability remains a major concern — and not just among Iraqis.
Alongside the president’s statement came the news that Academi, the latest version of Erik Prince’s mercenary company Blackwater, will be seeking more contracts in Iraq. As U.S. troops withdraw, let’s hope that more of Prince’s “finest” won’t need to fill any gaps. If the White House is correct in its assertion that U.S. troops have properly trained and equipped the Iraqis to handle their own security (or if Blackwater is unable to shed its old reputation along with its name), then perhaps there’s hope that the 5,000 contractors withdrawing this month won’t be replaced in the year ahead.
Should Blackwater return, or should the Iraqis be unable to manage their own security, the state runs the risk of returning to a model where rule of force always supersedes the rule of law. A legitimate police force — which Blackwater has no hope of being part of — provides more than just peace of mind. It gives the strongest signal that Iraq will not become another Arab Spring cautionary tale. So often, the police have been the primary muscle (and most intimidating agents) of ruthless regimes in Syria and Egypt. If the Iraq War has truly ended responsibly and well, then the rule of law and a legitimate police force will be the best signals of American success.
For veterans returning home, success is both simple and challenging. Troops trained in highly specific skills for the battlefield also need skills for the boardroom; those broken in battle need fully-funded health care and a proactive approach to helping them take the next step. Fortunately, new tools for building post-military careers seem promising.
Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a slate of new online tools that help veterans access details about their service record and translate their skills for prospective employers. Since channeling veterans into new careers is the single most proactive way to ensure their success — personally and economically — measures like this will need to grow as the administration carefully tracks veteran employment rates. To date, those unemployment rates have hardly been inspiring. But our veterans’ future health and security depend on this success. (For more recommendations on improving veterans’ employment, check out Iraq veteran Tim Embree’s testimony before the House Veterans Affairs committee).
Ultimately, no single week will ever quite suffice as “the end” to this chapter of our history. For those who made the ultimate sacrifice, there is no homecoming. For those rebuilding Iraq, there is no immediate end. For veterans, there is the next challenge of another chapter of life.
But for all of us, there is the recognition that today, we can turn a page in our history. And for that we can be grateful.
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