Because of a sequence of events completely out of my control, I found myself in a place no one could have ever imagined.
On October 13th, the Navy’s 235th birthday, I stood at a podium in the historic rotunda of the Al Faw palace in Baghdad to speak to a couple hundred Sailors and troops to honor their service and celebrate the day. It was one of the biggest honors of my life.
Just to be in the rotunda – the very place where the largest reenlistment in U.S. history was performed just two years before – was honor enough.
But to be given the privilege of speaking to these magnificent men and women on the Navy’s birthday was an experience that only comes once in a lifetime. I won’t recite the entire speech – there were cartoons, of course, but there were some other things I told them – things that I wanted them to know, that bear repeating.
The Navy represents hope and inspiration to the world – not just to the people of the United States, but to all nations. In 1258 Baghdad was laid to siege by the Mongol army. After a brief struggle the city capitulated and the gates were opened. For the next week, the Mongols systematically raped, tortured and murdered virtually everyone in the city. Then they burned it to the ground. Since then, Mesopotamia (and eventually Iraq) has suffered invading armies and brutal dictatorships – the last of whom raped and murdered its citizens for fun.
Then the U.S. showed up. When the Iraqis looked in the Americans’ eyes, instead of hate and brutality they saw kindness and compassion. They saw a spark of inspiration that comes from living in a free country; one that is founded on the principle that there are certain God-given, unalienable rights that mankind merits – rights that the American troops have all sworn a solemn oath to defend – and that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our men and women were not there to plunder. They were there to lead them to a better life.
No one knows what will happen after we eventually leave, but I do know this: that spark of inspiration is in the eyes of the Iraqis now, and that is a very difficult flame to snuff out.
I also wanted the largely Navy gathering to hear that even though Iraq is “out of the news”, we here at home know that they are still out there, fighting the good fight, sacrificing for the rest of us, and that we appreciate what they do for us every day.
Some day they will sit on their porches with their children or grandchildren on their knees, and when asked what they did to further the cause of liberty and human dignity, they will be able to say they were there, in the thick of things. That they were part of history.
Thank you, Admiral Simpson, for the honor of being there, and for the privilege of joining you and your fellow Sailors as you celebrated the Navy’s history and heritage.