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Why we fight


By Thomas Daly

Seven minutes into our first patrol in Ramadi, the point man was shot in the throat. The wounded Marine apologized to his lieutenant for getting hit. Then he went unconscious.

Another day at war, another firefight, another casualty. After the confusion and chaos of our brush with combat, I couldn't stop wondering: What did this Marine's sacrifice accomplish? We didn't kill or detain any al Qaeda operatives. We didn't discover any hidden weapons caches. Ramadi didn't feel any safer because of our presence. So what was the point? In past wars, the answer to "Why do you, or we, fight?" was easy. In World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis' expansion, provided a call to action. Today, it isn't so clear.

Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, the nature of each traumatic injury or death may be different, but the question of "why" that follows is still the same. To ignore the why erodes the basic principle that provides what every combatant needs to fight: the reassurance that the cause is worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. Once this basic principle is no longer true, soldiers and Marines fight for self-preservation, and each other, not a heroic cause or just peace, as politicians might like to think.

In Ramadi, our lives were reduced to a collection of missions, during which we tried to identify and kill an unseen enemy before he could do the same to us. We weren't fighting for any noble objective, or to protect the U.S. from weapons of mass destruction. We were fighting for survival.

Then, halfway through the deployment, in the vast farmland east of Ramadi, an answer came. In January of 2007 an Iraqi citizen militia approached my unit, wanting to help us defeat al Qaeda. In the series of pinpoint raids that followed, I realized that I wasn't fighting for America. I was fighting for the Iraqi people. The more I interacted with the militia, understood their suffering, the more I became convinced in their cause against al Qaeda. The brutal murder of a father while his wife and young children were forced to watch and the placement of children's heads in baskets because their "tribe" was not fighting the Americans were no longer statistics. They knew the hard reality of life under brutal terrorists. Their pain was real. And because of that reality, the fathers, sons, mothers and daughters that made up the militia became my, and America's, greatest opportunity. They revealed to me my unseen enemy. Al Qaeda was no longer a shadow in the dark. My unit now had a purpose. Our war finally had meaning.

We conducted raids with former insurgents, men who were once our enemy but had switched sides. We adapted to an unconventional style of warfare, which resulted in the capture and killing of dozens of militants, including the second highest-ranking insurgent in Anbar province. Most important, our actions directly contributed to what came to be known as the "Anbar Awakening"--the uprising of thousands of Anbari tribesmen against al Qaeda. That, in turn, led to the collapse of the terror network in cities like Fallujah, Haditha and Ramadi.

This was why we fought. Not for the reasons politicians championed from behind lecterns hundreds of miles away. We fought for the Iraqis. So they could live free from terror.

When the president and other elected officials send soldiers and Marines into battle, they know they'll go willingly, at a moment's notice, without questioning why. Eventually, though, that question will bubble up to the surface. It took me six months to figure it out.

I'm glad I did. Because you never want to be a looking at the body of a fallen comrade, searching for the meaning of his sacrifice.

Thomas Daly joined the Marines following his graduation from the University of Rochester in the spring of 2004. He is the author of Rage Company: A Marine's Baptism by Fire, an account of his tour of Iraq during the surge. He is now a project manager for ITT Corporation and lives with his wife and daughters in New York.

By Thomas Daly  |  May 31, 2010; 8:32 AM ET
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Semper fidelis Marines.

Posted by: GypsieGyrene10 | May 31, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Why did you leave The Marine Corps?

Posted by: WarriorJames1 | May 31, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I’m glad the Marines could find a reason for the war, albeit a reason completely different from the one given for starting the war, and one that only materialized five years after we started fighting, and which if we hadn’t of invaded the country wouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Posted by: codexjust1 | May 31, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Right, it is not like Saddam was killing off the Shia or anything. I mean gasing the kurds isnt much to worry about either, it was all peace love and happiness over there. With the occasional, or wait, daily attacks on coalition warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone. But yes, you are right codex, it was all smiles, that is if you were a baathist sunni. But hey they are just Iraqis, not real people. They dont deserve to live in freedom and we shouldnt enforce international law or worry about genocide. Our white picket fences and fancy cars are more important than the lives of millions who live in squallor with no education and little hope for a positive future. I mean geez, lets not even talk about those Iraqi Americans who were conscripted into saddam's army while they were visiting their families before the 1st Gulf War. Bottomline, progress takes sacrifice. That is what it means to be a hero.

Posted by: Scoops | June 4, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

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