By Daniel Feehan, MPP ’13
Three years ago, I watched President Obama’s inauguration from Baghdad while on a deployment with the Army. Just two days prior, a soldier from my unit had been killed in combat.
I was troubled. I could not find the soldier’s name in American media aside from a sterile Defense Department notification of his death. The absence of his name coincided with a striking omission from President Obama’s inauguration speech: Iraq was not mentioned at all.
To the thousands of us who had toiled and suffered in Iraq, his omission made it seem that the war wasn’t worth mentioning. Perhaps, as with any omission, it was best not to dwell on unpleasant things when given the opportunity to move on.
Three years later, despite troubling sectarian violence in Baghdad, the war in Iraq is over. However, a question remains: Will America move on? Will America forget, or perhaps never fully understand, the sacrifices of the past nine years?
As the Iraq war moves from the present to a historical place in the American conscience, it must remain a center of debate and discussion. In our own student body and throughout the graduate schools of Harvard, there are more than 250 American military veterans, many of whom served in Iraq. If you don’t know them, I encourage you to use your time here to do so. Our studies here represent a unique moment to close what is perceived to be a growing “civil-military” divide in America. Closing the civil-military divide is of vital national interest and it is in our interests as classmates before we enter the policy world.
To be sure, the last American soldier leaving Iraq did not wipe clean the memory of the past nine years. In many ways, the past nine years are still happening for families like that of my fallen soldier and the families of each soldier that he devoted himself to keeping alive. Whatever this next month, year, or century will bring for this country, we dare not forget that true progress is only ever made in the acceptance of our past. That is the life of a soldier and that is the history of this nation.
As the last troops left Iraqi soil to make it home for the Christmas holiday, the Department of Defense announced that there were no plans for a parade to celebrate the end of the war. To be sure, this is not the end of World War II. It was a curious announcement, however, given the discussion in America today around the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. Mostly lost in this discussion is the other 1 percent of Americans that have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The announcement of no parade doesn’t just show how this minority is overlooked, but also, how it is consciously forgotten.
Though the Iraq war has ended, it will never be concluded until an unpleasant past is acknowledged for its part in determining our direction toward a most challenging future. The American service member patiently awaits his or her next role.
I assure you, another American soldier will die in war and their life will have meaning for those that knew them. They will celebrate the soldier’s name and the truth that no matter how unpleasant the memory of their passing, that passing was integral to finding a way forward in a difficult time, of persevering in their very name. They will know and they will remember. Our country must as well.
Daniel Feehan is Co-President of the Kennedy School Armed Forces Committee and an MPP1. He served for four years in the Active Duty Army, including two combat deployments to Iraq.