Scoring Our Four Iraq Wars

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Marine photo / Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

A U.S. Marine in Anbar province, Iraq, 2008.

A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.

— Thucydides

It’s still unclear how history will judge the U.S. conflict in Iraq. It seems most people think it was a mistake, despite the success of the initial invasion.

Many Americans feel we lost the war in Iraq, after all, people want clear victories, and the confusion of what happened in Iraq prevented a clear understanding of what happened.

So, a clear understanding of the Iraq conflict is important. We should know what we went through and we should have a better understanding of how to deal with future conflicts. Determining whether we won or lost in Iraq is difficult, though, because we didn’t fight one war.

We fought four, with varying outcomes.

War is the very definition of confusion, both to those fighting, and to those who observe from afar. The term ‘fog of war’ applies not only to the fighter — it also obscures the details for those who watch.

I have the rare advantage of having done both; I was in the dirt fighting in the initial invasion, as a Marine, and again in Ramadi in 2004.

I then spent the next seven years as a civilian intelligence analyst, looking at the war from the most strategic of levels, briefing generals and writing reports for politicians.

The conflict took up most of my twenties, and a good chunk of my thirties. I was in Iraq at the beginning in 2003, and at the very end when we withdrew in 2011.

The four distinct wars were against different enemies with vastly different agendas and motivations. Quite often, the soldiers and Marines in combat didn’t even know who, exactly, they were fighting.

War #1, against Saddam Hussein.

We won the first war, decisively.

Although President Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech seems premature now after years of insurgencies, the reality is the mission was, indeed, accomplished at that point in time.

The objective of the invasion was to topple Saddam, and we did it.

We were greeted as liberators in Baghdad. I had women and kids throwing flowers on my Humvee. An old man, missing teeth, drooling and with an empty eye socket, reached into my vehicle, grabbed my face, and kissed me on both cheeks.

Our success in removing Saddam sent shockwaves throughout the region. Was it a coincidence that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003? Unlikely. I believe the Iranians deeply feared we would swing east after we defeated Baghdad.

Also, arguably, the “Arab Spring” is indirectly a consequence of Saddam’s fall. The removal of an Arab dictator showed it could be done.

War #2, against the Sunni insurgency.

The second war began shortly after the few halcyon days of the summer of 2003, when defeated Sunnis, furious at having lost power with Saddam’s fall, regrouped and started attacking U.S. and coalition forces.

They formed disparate groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigade and remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, and fought out of a sense of nationalism. After all, their government had been overthrown by a foreign invader, and they were patriotic Iraqis.

Iraqis have an intense sense of nationalism, perhaps more than any other Arab nation. For example, in 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority – the infamous U.S.-led effort to nurture a democratic Iraqi government – attempted to establish a new Iraqi flag. Purportedly, the reasoning was to erase the legacy of the Saddam regime. The CPA didn’t realize is that the Iraqi flag existed long-before Saddam, and the Iraqis loved their flag. A nationalist insurgency against an invading force should have been expected.

But we defeated the Sunni Insurgency, thoroughly, in 2007.

In part, our success was due to a massive, U.S.-led effort to essentially buy off the Sunni insurgents with jobs — a program called The Sons of Iraq. Additionally, President Bush significantly increased the U.S. troop presence, otherwise known as “the surge.”

But there was another factor, possibly the most important. The Sunnis had finally become tired of the repressive Islamists, led by al Qaeda in Iraq, which imposed sharia law and forced the Iraqi Sunnis to send their daughters abroad as wives of Islamist fighters.

War #3, against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Iraqi franchise of al Qaeda was deadly, no question, especially while they remained allied with the nationalist Iraqi Sunni insurgency.

But between losing local Iraqi insurgent support and the surge, AQI was significantly reduced in capability. We didn’t eliminate AQI entirely — they were still capable of attacks on occasion — but we achieved something else.

For about eight years, give or take, the U.S. war machine killed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jihadists, radical Islamists from all over the world bent on killing Americans. We lost a lot of U.S. troops to AQI.

But our greatest fear didn’t happen.

In the intelligence community we called it “bleed-out.” Unlike after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, jihadists that fought in Iraq didn’t return to their home countries and start Islamist insurgencies of their own. They didn’t go back to their home countries because we killed them by the thousands.

Iraq was a grist-mill for jihadists, quite literally an abattoir. For every soldier or Marine we lost, they lost dozens, if not hundreds.

AQI survived, barely, but it never turned into an organization that could threaten the United States on our own soil. This, in my opinion, was a victory.

War #4, against the Iraqi Shia.

The United States fought a proxy war with Iran from 2004 to 2011.

Iran funded, trained and otherwise supported several Shia insurgent groups, including Jaysh al Mahdi, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Iran provided sophisticated weapons, including Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) and Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions (IRAMs), as well as thousands of 107mm and 122mm rockets. These highly-lethal munitions caused thousands of U.S. casualties.

Could we have won this proxy war with Iran?

Perhaps, if we had stayed.

If the Bush or Obama administrations had had the guts to confront Iran, perhaps we could have secured in Iraq something unique, a truly democratic society in the heart of the Middle East. Perhaps we could have been in the position to ameliorate the horror of the Syrian civil war, of Bashar Assad murdering his countrymen with the support of Iran, as it transports weapons to his regime via Iraq.

But we didn’t.

We ceded the battlefield to Iran and its Iraqi proxies when we left Iraq in 2011. An action I believe history will someday call the most horrendous military/political retreat in U.S. history.

Was the invasion itself a mistake? Perhaps. It certainly changed my life for forever. I think Saddam had to go, but I wish we could have taken him out with a drone strike.

But did we “lose?”

Yes and no.

We won three wars, and only lost the fourth because we quit the field of battle.

The greatest tragedy of Iraq may end up being that our initial victories could be eclipsed by our ultimate failure.

J.E. McCollough served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2005. He is a combat veteran of two tours in Iraq as a counter-intelligence specialist, where he earned a Purple Heart and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with ‘V’ Combat Distinguishing Device. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 


As an Iraqi, first of all I'd like to thank you for your efforts in spreading democracy in my country although I must admit that our people weren't ready to embrace democracy as they were brain washed by Saddam media anti-western propaganda .

As about your article I can't agree anymore with your point of view but, as I see it the Obama administration swinged sides to stand with AQI and former enemies to stop the Iranian rising threat, so instead of fighting directly now they use the same proxy war model to defeat Iran through free Syrian army and salafists through Qatari and Saudi aid. This might be risky on the long run because of the threat the Qaeda still resembles to the u.s


Thanks for providing a more nuanced survey of OIF than is normally seen, Joel. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on different aspects of the invasion, occupation, and withdrawal. Keep writing these great pieces!


While I do agree with most of what the writer stated, however, "Saddam Had To Go" is a no go. Numerous leaders, including some of the ones we put into power, "Need to go." Killing Saddam; not the reason. WMD's; not the reason. If we wanted Saddam dead, he would have been killed before Bush gave the ultimatum. The WMD point? No comment. Destabilizing that entire region and prepping for the dominos to fall in our favor was the reason. Oil, was the reason. Emplacing puppet governments in the Central point of that region was the reason. During the days after we Jumped into Northern Iraq, our first major mission as an infantry unit, was to protect Halliburton technicians and executives as they visited every oil facility in Northern Iraq. For months this was our mission, including guarding the oil fields.....8 man infantry teams guarding oil facilities? Sir yes Sir.


The "Arab Spring" BS proves my other point but the fact remains, if we attack a nation because of terrible leaders then why are the most threatening still in power? Africa is full of'em, yet we never wage war there....ever! Iran and NK threaten us and other nations yet their leaders, still in power. We did not lose the proxy battle with Iran, on the contrary, their currency continues to fall towards zero, their nuclear program has significantly been disrupted, and the religious leadership is starting to wane. History will show we ran an effective covert and puppet installation program for that region. It will show we effectively fixed the playing field in our favor. Finally it will show that my brothers and sisters didn't die for the death of a diminished terd.


The author needs to learn the distinction between war and occupation.  You fight war against nation states.  Gulf War 2 ended when the Regime was toppled.  That is when we should have left.  Sticking around for 8 pointless years was a waste of blood and treasure, which would have been better spent in Iran. 

novarich 1 Like

We can all agree that the root cause for starting this war was a huge mistake. 

This article argues that we should of stayed to finish War #4, and I'm sure that we could of done that. I'm also confident that there would of been War #5, #6 and so on. Someone in the region will always step up to cause trouble. And even if you artificially interfered to create "a truly democratic society in the heart of the Middle East" unless the region is stabilized as a whole you'd just have an Israel War of 1967 type of scenario eventually. And again more war.

You've missed the point. America is no longer willing to trade taxes & the blood of our sons & daughters to police the world based on OUR OWN cultural standards. We don't have the right and we don't have the appetite to do this anymore.

I'll end on this point. I hate this statement, "Saddam had to go". What about North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Equatorial Guinea, Congo, Sierra Leone, the drug cartels of Mexico, the India/Pakistan potential nuclear war, the Gaza strip, and on and on!?! Let's not pretend that this is the only part of the world with crazy people.

It is pure arrogance to think you we can / should fix these problems. We can't, we can't even fix our own at home. The 2008 bank bailout was $750 billion and 2 years of war is greater then that. You can take this war and shove it up your @$$ because I'd rather spend that money on our economy, education and social programs. I want our people back home.

Superation 1 Like

Razb2--you want to talk about stupidity? Let me break down in simpleton terms what his accolades mean. The man who wrote this was counter-intel while in Iraq. This means he was out in the Iraqi public almost daily. Questioning locals, seeking insurgents, GATHERING INTEL. He would be the man in the know. He was wounded in action AND did some feat of heroism. What did you do over there? It had to have been something for you to come onto a website and denounce and bash someone else on their expertise.

As for there being 4 wars...I would argue there are 5 but am willing to defer to the experience of this man.. As the military sees it there were ODS-the initial invasion of Iraq; and then OIF I, II, III, IV-the ongoing support missions in Iraq (I deployed during OIF3).

I agree with you that America was fooled into invading Iraq but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have been done. Sadaam was an evil man who did very evil things and needed to be removed. The point this man is trying to make is that we set out to create stability in the region after we uprooted a mass murder and then bailed before the mission was completed.

Conclusion? Next time you feel the need to spew self-righteous stupidity, do your homework. NBC isn't news. Neither is The Daily Show. Unplug and actually do some research instead of thinking you know something that you don't. Makes you look uninformed and as you put it-DUMB.


Oh and i love how yor advocating that we should have continued fighting in  iraq for years longer, even after the war was revealed as a complete fraud, countless incidents of americans abusing detainess and "ghost prisoners", and the iraq govt that we installed asked us to leave


To the author: What in God's name is wrong with you ppl?  First of all, War #1 and War #2 were the same war: We were fighting Sadam's supporters.  They're also the same as War #3, since they allied themselves with Al-Qaeda; the same Al-Quaeda/Baathists that still kill at least 20 ppl a week in terrorist attacks in iraq.  As far as War #4, this idea that we were at war with Iran in Iraq was always a lie.  We and Iran were supporting the same govt in Iraq, i.e., the Maliki govt, i.e., the group of iranian spies that were formerly known as the Iraqi National Congress which the neo-cons (your bosses, I'm guessing) had the brilliant idea of replacing the baathists with, thus starting the civil war.  Will u ppl never give up?  YOU LOST!  IT WAS DUMB!  WE ALL TOLD U IT WAS DUMB BEFORE U DID IT!  AND YOU DID IT ANYWAY, AND THEN LOST!  BECUZ YOR DUMB!


"War #3, against al Qaeda in Iraq." What is the information regarding Al Qaeda presence in Iraq before 2003?


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