Guest Column: The Only Exit Strategy
September 11, 2004
"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only
because rough men stand
ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell
The Marine Corps is tired. I guess I should not say
that, as I have no authority or responsibility to
speak for the Marine Corps as a whole, and my opinions
are mine alone. I will rephrase: this Marine is tired.
I write this piece from the sands of Iraq, west of
Baghdad, at three a.m., but I am
not tired of the sand. I am neither tired of long
days, nor of flying and fighting. I am not tired of
the food, though it does not taste quite right. I am
not tired of the heat; I am not tried of the mortars
that occasionally fall on my base.
I am not tired of Marines dying, though all Marines,
past and present, mourn the loss of every brother and
sister that is killed; death is a part of combat and
every warrior knows that going into battle. One dead
Marine is too many, but we give more than we take, and
unlike our enemies, we fight with honor. I am not
tired of the missions or the people; I have only been
here a month, after all.
I am, however, tired of the hypocrisy and
shortsightedness that seems to have gripped so many of
my countrymen and the news media. I am tired of
political rhetoric that misses the point, and mostly I
am tired of people "not getting it."
Three years ago, I was sitting in a classroom at
Quantico, Virginia, while attending the Marine Corps
Basic Officer Course, learning about the finer points
of land navigation. Our Commanding Officer interrupted
the class to inform us that some planes had crashed in
New York and Washington D.C., and that he would return
when he knew more. Tears welled in the eyes of the
lieutenant on my right while class continued, albeit
with an audience that was not very focused; his sister
lived in New York and worked at the World Trade
We broke for lunch, though instead of going to the
chow hall proceeded to a small pizza and sub joint
that had a television. Slices of pizza sat cold in
front of us as we watched the same vivid images that
you watched on September 11, 2001. I look back on that
moment now and realize even then I grasped, at some
level, that the events of that day would alter both my
military career and my country forever.
Though I did not know that three years later, to the
day, I would be flying combat missions in Iraq as an
AH-1W Super Cobra pilot, I did understand that a war
had just begun, on television for the world to see,
and that my classmates and I would fight
that war. After lunch we were told to go to our rooms,
clean our weapons and pack our gear for possible
deployment to the Pentagon to augment perimeter
security. The parting words of the order were to make
sure we packed gloves, in case we had to handle
The first Marine killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom was
in my company at The
Basic School, and was sitting in that land navigation
class on September 11. He fought bravely, led from the
front, and was killed seizing an oil refinery on the
opening day of the war.
His heroism made my emergency procedure memorization
for the T-34 primary flight school trainer seem quite
insignificant. This feeling of frustration was shared
by all of the student pilots, but we continued to
press on. As one instructor pointed out to us,
"You will fight this war, not me. Make sure that you
are prepared when you get there." He was right: my
classmates from Pensacola are here beside me, flying
every day in support of the Marines on the ground.
That instructor has since retired, but I believe he
has retired knowing that he made a contribution to the
greatest country in the history of the world, the
United States of America.
Many of you will read that statement and balk at its
apparently presumptuous and arrogant nature, and
perhaps be tempted to stop reading right here. I would
ask that you keep going, for I did not say that
Americans are better than anyone else, for I do not
believe that to be the case. I did not say that our
country, its leaders, military or intelligence
services are perfect or have never made mistakes,
because throughout history they have, and will
continue to do so, despite their best efforts.
The nation is more than the sum of its citizens and
leaders, more than its history, present, or future; a
nation has contemporary values that change as its
leaders change, but it also has timeless character,
ideals forged with the blood and courage of patriots.
To quote the Pledge of Allegiance, our nation was
God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
As Americans, we have more freedom than we can handle
If you are an atheist you might have a problem with
that whole "under God" part; if you are against
liberating the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Asia, all
of Europe (twice), and the former Soviet bloc, then
perhaps the "liberty and justice for all" section
might leave you fuming. Our nation, throughout its
history, has watered the seeds of democracy on many
continents, with blood, even when the country was in
disagreement about those decisions.
Disagreement is a wonderful thing. To disagree with
your neighbors and your government is at the very
heart of freedom. Citizens have disagreed about every
important and controversial decision made by their
leaders throughout history. Truman had the courage to
drop two nuclear weapons in order to end the largest
war in history, and then, by his actions, prevented
the Soviets from extinguishing the light of democracy
in Eastern Europe, Berlin. Lincoln preserved our
country through civil war; Reagan knew in his heart
that freedom is a more powerful weapon than
Leaders are paid to make difficult, sometimes
controversial decisions. History will judge the
success of their actions and the purity of their
intent in a way that is impossible at the present
moment. In your disagreement and debate about the
current conflict, however, be very careful that you do
not jeopardize your nation or those who serve. The
best time to use your freedom of speech to debate
difficult decisions is before they are made, not when
the lives of your countrymen are on the line.
Cherish your civil rights; I know that after having
been in Iraq for only one month I have a new
appreciation for mine. You have the right to say that
you "support the troops" but oppose the war in Iraq
and Afghanistan. You have the right to vote for
Senator John Kerry because you believe that he has an
exit strategy for Iraq, or because you just cannot
stand President Bush. You have the right to vote for
President George W. Bush if you believe that he has
done a good job over the last four years.
You might even decide that you do not want to vote at
all and would rather avoid the issues as much as
possible. That is certainly your option, and doing
nothing is the only option for many people in this
It is not my place, nor am I allowed by the Uniform
Code of Military Justice, to tell you how to vote. But
I can explain to you the truth about what is going on
around you. We know, and have known from the
beginning, that the ultimate success or failure of the
war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the future of
those countries, rests solely on the shoulders of the
Iraqi and Afghani people. If someone complains that we
should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein, that
our intelligence was bad, that President Bush's
motives were impure, then take the appropriate action.
Exercise your right to vote for Senator Kerry, but
please stop complaining about something that happened
over a year ago.
The decision to deploy our military in Iraq and
Afghanistan is in the past, and while I believe that
it is important to the democratic process for our
nation to analyze the decisions of our leadership in
order to avoid repeating mistakes, it is far more
important to focus on the future. The question of
which candidate will "get us out of
Iraq sooner" should not be a consideration in your
mind. You should not want us out of Iraq or
There is only one coherent exit strategy that will
make our time here worthwhile and validate the
sacrifice of so many of our countrymen. There is only
one strategy that has a chance of promoting peace and
stabilizing the Middle East. It is the exit strategy
of both candidates, though voiced with varying volumes
and differing degrees of clarity. I will speak of Iraq
because that is where I am, though I feel
the underlying principle applies to both Iraq and
The American military must continue to help train and
support the Iraqi Police, National Guard, and Armed
Forces. We must continue to give them both
responsibility and the authority with which to carry
out those responsibilities, so that they eventually
can kill or capture the former regime elements and
foreign terrorists that are trying to create a
radical, oppressive state.
We must continue to repair the infrastructure that we
damaged during the conflict, and improve the
infrastructure that was insufficient when Saddam was
in power. We should welcome and encourage partners in
the coalition but recognize that many will choose the
path of least resistance and opt out; many of our
traditional allies have been doing this for years and
it should not surprise us.
We must respect the citizens of Iraq and help them to
understand the meaning of basic human rights, for
those are something the average Iraqi has never
experienced. We must be respectful of our cultural and
religious differences. We must help the Iraqis develop
national pride, and most importantly, we must leave
this country better than we found it, at the right
time, with a chance of success
so that its people will have an opportunity to forge
their own destiny.
We must do all of these things as quickly and
efficiently as possible so that we are not seen as
occupiers, but rather liberators and helpers. We must
communicate this to the world as clearly and
frequently as possible, both with words and actions.
If we leave before these things are done, then Iraq
will fall into anarchy and possibly plunge the Middle
East into another war. The ability of the United
States to conduct foreign policy will be severely, and
perhaps permanently, degraded. Terrorism will
increase, both in America and around the world, as
America will have demonstrated that it is not
interested in building and helping, only destroying.
If we run or exit early, we prove to our enemies that
terror is more powerful and potent than freedom.
Many nations, like Spain, have already affirmed this
in the minds of the terrorists. Our failure, and its
consequences, will be squarely on our shoulders as a
nation. It will be our fault.
If we stay the course and Iraq or Afghanistan falls
into civil war on its own, then our hands are clean.
As a citizen of the United States and a U.S. Marine, I
will be able
to sleep at night with nothing on my conscience, for I
know that I, and my country, have done as much as we
could for these people. If we leave early, I will not
be able to live with myself, and neither should you.
The blood will be on our hands, the failure on our
The bottom line is this: Republican or Democrat,
approve or disapprove of the decision to go to war,
you need to support our efforts here. You cannot both
support the troops and protest their mission.
Every time the parent of a fallen Marine gets on CNN
with a photo, accusing President Bush of murdering his
son, the enemy wins a strategic victory. I cannot
begin to comprehend the grief he feels at the death of
his son, but he dishonors the memory of my brave
brother who paid the ultimate price. That Marine
volunteered to serve, just like the rest of us. No one
here was drafted.
I am proud of my service and that of my peers. I am
ashamed of that parent's actions, and I pray to God
that if I am killed my parents will stand with pride
before the cameras and reaffirm their belief that my
life and sacrifice mattered; they loved me dearly and
they firmly support the military and its mission in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
With that statement, they communicate very clearly to
our enemies around the world that America is united,
that we cannot be intimidated by kidnappings,
decapitations and torture, and that we care enough
about the Afghani and Iraqi people to give them a
chance at democracy and basic human rights.
Do not support those that seek failure for us, or seek
to trivialize the sacrifices made here. Do not make
the deaths of your countrymen be in vain. Communicate
media and elected officials that you are behind us and
our mission. Send letters and encouragement to those
who are deployed. When you meet a person that serves
you, whether in the armed forces, police, or fire
department, show them respect. Thank the spouses
around you every day, raising children alone, whose
loved ones are deployed.
Remember not only those that have paid the ultimate
price, but the veterans that bear the physical and
emotional scars of defending your freedom. At the very
least, follow your mother's advice: "If you can't say
something nice, don't say anything at
all." Do not give the enemy a foothold in our nation's
public opinion. He rejoices at Fahrenheit 9/11 and
applauds every time an American slams our efforts. The
military can succeed here so long as American citizens
support us wholeheartedly.
Sleep well on this third anniversary of 9/11, America.
Rough men are standing ready to do violence on your
behalf. Many of your sons and daughters volunteered to
stand watch for you. Not just rough men -the infantry,
the Marine grunts, the Special Operations Forces - but
lots of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids,
teenagers, who are far away from home, serving as
drivers, supply clerks, analysts and mechanics. They
all have stories, families, and dreams. They miss you,
love you, and are putting
their lives on the line for you.
Do not make their time here, their sacrifice, a waste.
Support them, and their mission.
Lt. Kevin Brown, a 2001 graduate of the U.S. Naval
Academy serving in Iraq, sent this letter to his
family on the third anniversary of 9/11. Send Feedback
responses to email@example.com.