07 December 2014

Remembering Fallujah Part 4: The Aftermath of Victory

his is the final part in a four-part series commemorating the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in November, 2004. Read Remembering Fallujah Part 3: Urban Combat Is Hell.

Chaplain Ric Brown knew when he first enlisted that he’d probably go to war. He didn’t realize he’d be in the most savage urban battle U.S. forces had seen in a generation.

Photo by 1LT Kimberly Snow
Ten years ago this month, the American-led task force that smothered the city of Fallujah to retake it from insurgents had mostly accomplished its mission. Operation Phantom Fury had begun by the end of the first week of November. Within a month the Marines, Soldiers, and Iraqi troops had secured every corner of the city that its previous masters had described as the “cemetery for Americans.” 

Brown was there from the beginning. 

Ten years later, the toll is both easier and more difficult to measure. 

Launched on November 7, Operation Phantom Fury achieved its objectives rather quickly. The Regimental Combat Teams swept through the city and exterminated most of the remaining insurgents within a week. By November 14, the Marines-led task force occupied Fallujah.

By then, as Marines conducted final clearing operations in the eastern part of the city, a message had been painted in black on the infamous green trestle bridge:

This is for the Americans of Blackwater murdered here in 2004
Semper Fidelis 3/5 Dark Horse

The Americans had won, but it came with a price. Brown lost four of his Soldiers in the battle, 19 during his tour.

“Six months after getting back from Iraq I’m in church one day and it hits me like a ton of bricks that I lost those guys, I lost my best friend who’s a sergeant major,” recalls Brown. 

Families and friends of nearly 100 American troops would go through the same process. 

Besides the deeply personal effect the heroic loss of service members has, there were institutional and political repercussions for the military. 

Immediately, the result was a candid and sobering reevaluation of the Iraq campaign. Politically, support began to deteriorate for the war at home. 

In June 2005, a New York Times columnist declared, “The All-volunteer Army isn’t working.” 

“The problem now,” Bob Herbert argued, “is that most Americans have had plenty of time to digest the images of people being blown up in Baghdad and mutilated in Fallujah.” 

Fallujah, and similarly terrible battles in Iraq, made continuing to fight the war nearly impossible without reinstituting a draft, according to the author. 

Meanwhile, the Army looked at innovative ways to win with the Soldiers it had.

During the Second Battle of Fallujah, then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus served as the first commander of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq and the Multi-National Security Transition Command, charged with developing Iraqi security forces. Within a year he would assume command of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he would, along with Marine Lt. Gen. James Amos, supervise the authorship of a revised counterinsurgency field manual.  

The new field manual would be released and adopted theater-wide by February 2006. 

In the medium-term, updated COIN doctrine and a troop surge would help Petraeus, named commander of all coalition forces in Iraq in early 2007, turn the tide against the Iraqi insurgency. 

For the next few years, U.S. service members continued the fight in Iraq and surged against a growing insurgency in Afghanistan. It has been the longest sustained period of combat for America’s Armed Forces. The volunteers have proven up to the task, after all. They had outlasted the naysayers. 

Now, exactly ten years after that landmark battle in Iraq and three years after all U.S. forces withdrew from the country, the military is reducing its presence in the other major theater of the War on Terror. 

When I first met Chaplain Brown in Kandahar, I wondered about the parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. As security deteriorated in the former, what would happen in the latter once we withdrew? 

Brown didn’t have an answer. 

Given that Fallujah was under the control of the same type of thugs who had gone against the Marines and Soldiers in 2004, I asked him if the men of Phantom Fury died in vain.

“No,” he replied without hesitation. “Their sacrifice wasn’t meaningless because they did what they were sent there to do.”

Indeed, with a hard-won victory in Fallujah, their legacy is a more powerful and resilient force. To suggest that the U.S. military can’t fight with volunteers now sounds absurd. 

Brown, too, is more resilient, and he continues to help his Soldiers, who are far away from combat. Now serving at a division level, he reminds himself that there are Soldiers outside the wire who have it worse. He tries not to lose sight of who is fighting. 

Before his men went into Fallujah, he took aside a squad leader and prayed,  “Lord, give this young man the strength and wisdom to protect his soldiers. Give him the courage and conviction to deliver them from the unknown. Give him the faith and guidance to know your path, Lord. Give him the perseverance to stay on it.” (From House to House: An Epic Memoir of War) 

I asked him what he would pray for the young Soldiers ending their mission in Afghanistan. 

“About the same thing," he replied. "It is about the leaders leading their Soldiers and giving their Soldiers confidence. It’s about having the strength and faith and assurance to give it, to pass it on.”

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