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Was it worth it?

As the clock has been running down on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, generals and other top defense leaders don't even wait to be asked the big question. They volunteer their answer.

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, giving what was billed as the final videoconference update from Baghdad for reporters at the Pentagon Dec. 7, made it one of his three major opening points. Yes, he said, the Iraq War was worth it:

That is a personal question that, if you ask a number of soldiers that have served here, a number of Marines that have served here, any member of the service that have served here or the Iraqis, for example, you may get a different answer.  But from where I sit, I have to say it was.

We enabled and facilitated elections.  We've built a military. Violence in Iraq is at an all-time low.  In 2007, as I mentioned, at the height, we had 1,600 attacks a week in this country against the United States, against Iraqi security forces and against the Iraqis themselves.  Today we have less than 50 attacks per week.  And we provided the Iraqis an opportunity for a sovereign country to choose their way ahead.

And I just have to cite two other reasons why I think it has been worth it.  And one is -- when I was back at Fort Bragg, I had an opportunity to attend some funerals for soldiers that have died in Iraq, who were killed in action. And I went to one funeral, and the father whose son had been killed in Iraq came up to me and said:  “General, thank you.”  And I thought he was thanking me for representing the chief of staff of the Army at the ceremony, but that wasn't the case.  Because I asked him why was he thanking me, and he said:  “Thank you, because you allowed my son to do what he loved to do, and that was to be a soldier.”

Another example of why it's been worth it for me is, there is a program called Operation New Exit, where we bring a select group of service members back to Iraq who had to be evacuated because of injuries.  And till the day I die -- there is a Marine who was on one of those events that came back here -- Operation New Exit program, that came back here -- a double amputee, and he was blind.  And he said to me:  “General, I had to come back here. I had to leave here and get closure in a proper way because, you know, General, I wouldn't do anything differently.”

So for those reasons, I have to say for me this has been a worthy endeavor.

Compelling? Insulting? Depends where you're coming from. Now that U.S. Forces Iraq has formally cased its colors, it's a question that everyone is going to be thinking about this week.

There's a case to be made that the invasion of Iraq was one of the worst -- if not the worst -- security blunders in American history. (UPDATE: Loren Thompson, for one, thinks Iraq was "The biggest mistake in American military history.")

In addition to the dear cost in lives and treasure, it destabilized a volatile region; it badly damaged the credibility of American power; it distracted Washington for nearly a decade while it should've been paying attention to China or its other war, Afghanistan; it opened up deep fissures at home. A botched American attempt to eliminate a rogue power's nuclear weapons -- remember the whole "weapons of mass destruction" fiasco? -- may have wound up condemning the U.S. to accept two new rogue nuclear states, Iran and North Korea.

Then again, there are also many counter-arguments. A dictator is dead and his former subjects are now free. The neighborhood is safe from one threat of attack and invasion. There's a "democracy" right in the middle of the Middle East, and combined with this year's popular uprisings across the Arab world, Iraq could light the way toward a new era of stability and popular autonomy.

Or at very least, it's way too soon to know whether Iraq was "worth it."

What do you think?

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