January 14, 2014 5:01:26 am
RICHARD A OPPEL Jr
Adam Banotai was a 21-year-old sergeant and squad leader in the Marine Corps during the 2004 invasion of Fallujah, a restive insurgent-held city in Iraq. His unit — which had seven of 17 men wounded by shrapnel or bullets in the first days of the invasion seized control of the government centre early in the campaign.
So when Sunni insurgents, some with allegiances to al-Qaeda, retook the city this month and raised their black insurgent flag over buildings where he and his men had fought, he was disbelieving and appalled.
“I texted a couple of friends,” said Banotai, now a firefighter and registered nurse in Pennsylvania. “Everyone was in disbelief.” “I don’t think anyone had the grand illusion that Fallujah or Ramadi was going to turn into Disneyland, but none of us thought it was going to fall back to a jihadist insurgency,” he said. “It made me sick to my stomach to have that thrown in our face, everything we fought for so blatantly taken away.”
The bloody mission to wrest Fallujah from insurgents in November 2004 meant more to the Marines than almost any other battle in the 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many consider it the corps’ biggest and most iconic fight since Vietnam, with nearly 100 Marines and soldiers killed in action and hundreds wounded.
For many veterans of that battle — most now working in jobs long removed from combat — watching insurgents running roughshod through the streets they once fought to secure, often in brutal close-quarters combat, has shaken their faith in what their mission achieved.
Some now blame President Barack Obama for not pushing harder to keep some troops in Iraq to maintain the stability. Others express anger at George W. Bush for getting them into a war they now view as dubious in purpose and even more doubtful in its accomplishments. But either way, the fall of the city to insurgents has set off within the tight-knit community of active and former Marines a wrenching reassessment of a battle that in many ways defined their role in the war.
“This is just the beginning of the reckoning and accounting,” said Kael Weston, a former State Department political adviser who worked with the Marines for nearly three years in Fallujah and the surrounding Anbar province, and later with Marines in Afghanistan.
Weston, who is writing a book, said Marines across the globe had been frenetically sharing their feelings about the new battle for Fallujah via email, text and Facebook.
“The news went viral in the worst way,” he said. “This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps and painful for a lot of families who are saying, ‘I thought my son died for a reason.’”
Ryan Sparks was a platoon commander during a seven-month Fallujah deployment in which three men were killed and 57 wounded in his 90-man unit. Now about to take a job in New York after recently leaving the Marines, Sparks, 39, said many of the younger Fallujah veterans were angry “because we lost so many Marines, and it feels like they were sacrificed for nothing.”
Yet even among older officers who seem less surprised by the turn of events, Sparks said, “It hurts to think that it isn’t as important to Americans as it was to us while it was happening.”
He likens Fallujah to Khe Sanh, the bloody 1968 battle where Americans triumphed only to abandon the base months later, although he did not disagree with the 2011 troop pullout and does not believe US troops should be sent back in.
“This makes the analogy complete,” he said. Banotai has no regrets about supporting the war, and said it was a mistake for the United States to withdraw troops when it did, which he believes was done for political reasons, not because the mission was accomplished. But he also would not favour sending troops back. “It’s too late. Mistakes have already been made,” he said. “We can’t go back and rewrite history.”
Across the Marine Corps, officers are struggling to respond to calls from wounded veterans and parents of Marines killed in Anbar about recent events in Fallujah.
“There is a rising drumbeat of anxiety/angst among our Marines concerning the state of Falluja/Ramadi today,” one senior active duty officer wrote as part of an email chain circulating among Marine officers discussing how to respond to the numerous inquiries they were receiving from Marines and their families about Fallujah. The officer cited what he called the Marines’ success in helping foster the Awakening movement — where local tribesmen turned against jihadists and partnered with US forces — and said that “without these victories, we might still be there today.”
The officer added: “What the Iraqi forces lost in the last month, four years after transition, is not a reflection of Marine efforts. If it is a reflection of anything, it is the nature of the Iraqi social fabric and long-suppressed civil discord.”
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