It's the question asked by Gold Star families -- the loved ones of our fallen -- when I meet them at funerals or public events. It's spoken quietly by the spouses of grievously wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines when I visit military and veterans' hospitals. It's in the correspondence I receive from parents and friends of those who have left something on the battlefield: "Was it worth it?"
A decade ago last week, when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, this wasn't a question posed to our Fox News team. While cameras in Baghdad captured the "shock and awe" of precision-guided missiles and bombs hitting Saddam Hussein's capital, Griff Jenkins and I were embedded with U.S. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 and a battalion of Royal Marine commandos en route to the Faw Peninsula on the largest night helo-borne assault in history.
More than 50 U.S. and British helos took off from the tactical assembly area in Gibraltar and raced for the border at more than 100 knots, just 120 feet above the ground to avoid enemy radar. My night lens, pointed out over the .50-caliber machine gun, caught the blinding flash as the helicopter on our left side went down on the desert floor. There were no survivors. The seven British commandos and four U.S. Marines aboard were the first 11 of 4,804 coalition personnel -- 4,486 of them Americans -- killed during nine years of combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By April 9, when we went with Marine Regimental Combat Team 5 into Baghdad, more than 350 Americans had been killed or wounded. Yet there was still an international and domestic consensus that coalition forces would capture Saddam -- and his brutal sons, Uday and Qusai -- and find the weapons of mass destruction that had been the casus belli.
Today, critics denigrate the sacrifice of blood and treasure in Mesopotamia by describing Operation Iraqi Freedom as "Bush's war" and claim it was "illegal" or, at best, "a mistake." The revisionists overlook Saddam's brutal record: millions dead in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, his well-known use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians and genocidal attacks against his own people.
From the mid-1990s, the regime in Baghdad provided refuge to vicious terrorists who killed Americans. Abu Nidal, who dispatched assassins to kill my wife and children, was sequestered in Baghdad. Abu Abbas, mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking and financier for families of suicide bombers who blew up "Americans and Jews," was captured by U.S. troops while trying to flee Iraq.
Well before the inauguration of George W. Bush and al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attack on our homeland, the Iraqi military was firing on U.S. and British aircraft enforcing United Nations-imposed no-fly zones. Reports of widespread corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program were commonplace, as was Saddam's refusal to permit international inspections of suspected nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-of-mass-destruction sites. Allied intelligence services, U.N. inspectors and a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress thought that Iraq's deadly weapons programs were still viable in 2003. Saddam wanted the Iranians to believe it. They did, as did many of his generals.
The failure to find these weapons after the liberation of Baghdad points to our defunct human intelligence capability -- not U.S. military inadequacy. The decision not to recall defeated Iraqi military personnel to their barracks and enlist their help in rebuilding their country exacerbated a growing insurgency. The current administration's inability to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement for U.S. military access in Iraq has emboldened Iran.
Yet none of this means the war in Iraq wasn't "worth it." After Saddam was captured in December 2003, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi abandoned his nuclear weapons program. We were there in 2005 for the first free and fair elections ever held in the "land between the rivers." The credibility of the global jihad fomented by al Qaeda was destroyed in Iraq.
Dealing with today's government in Baghdad, headed by Nouri al-Maliki, is hardly easy, but it's no longer a genocidal threat to its own countrymen, its neighbors or us. Despite security challenges and the chaos in neighboring Syria, the Iraqi economy, educational system and standard of living gradually are improving.
The outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom isn't perfect. The Obama administration still could lose the peace that our warriors won. Still, a decade after we accompanied our troops across "the berm" into Iraq, we still can look Gold Star mothers and the spouses of our wounded in the eye and tell them: "By volunteering to go into harm's way, your American heroes made us all safer. Their selfless sacrifice was worth it."
Oliver North is the host of "War Stories" on Fox News Channel and the author of the New York Times best-seller "Heroes Proved" (Threshold, 2012).
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