The staff sergeant was Luke Dill, and his words were published in an Aug. 19 Associated Press story. But Dill, an 18-year-old specialist in 2003, made it in a far different spirit than his commander in chief. "It's something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life -- the fact that I came in on the initial push, and now I'm leaving with the last of the combat units" is the rest of what he said.
As the president noted, Dill and those he fought with left a lot behind in Iraq. But they left not just what they lost but what they won. And still more important, and as the full quote makes plain, Dill takes much away, beginning with his pride in -- yes -- a mission accomplished.
And he makes plain that he has no stomach for an "open-ended war" in Afghanistan. That's a faint war cry for a conflict that can hardly be anything else. Indeed, the president somehow does not connect his fondness for deadlines with the paralysis of Afghan politics. How can he expect Hamid Karzai to take the kinds of risks that Iraqi politicians -- who witnessed what the surge did to al-Qaida and Iranian "special groups" in Iraq, and even joined in with their own intoxicating "Knight's Charge" operation -- now balk at?
It remains a fundamental belief across the Muslim world -- despite a generation of escalating American military presence across the region -- that the U.S. will ultimately tire of the struggle. When Obama takes the occasion of a formal, Oval Office address to declare that his "central responsibility" as president is to make "new products roll off our assembly lines," leaders across the greater Middle East, both friend and foe, can only question how faithful a security partner he will be.
For President Obama, Staff Sgt. Dill was simply part of "just a convoy of brave Americans, making their way home."
But it seems more likely that Dill's is not a story-ending homecoming but rather -- if he remains an American soldier -- a respite before another rotation, if not to Iraq then to Afghanistan or some other part of a region we cannot yet easily live with nor live without. Operation Iraqi Freedom was but one campaign in what we have come to call "The Long War" in the Greater Middle East.
The writer Bing West -- who as a Marine officer served in Vietnam and later became an assistant secretary of defense -- presciently titled his chronicle of the initial 2003 U.S. invasion "The March Up," in reference to the Greek historian Xenophon's "Anabasis," the story of Greek mercenaries who fought in Mesopotamia and then fought their way out. The Greeks' homecoming was but half Xenophon's story. Being professional soldiers and brothers in arms, they signed up for more service in what promised to be open-ended wars across a turbulent region.
What was true 2,500 years ago is true now.
Thomas Donnelly is a defense and security policy analyst and director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.