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The moment American blood was shed in Iraq, the war was worth it

An armored vehicle belonging to Kurdish peshmerga fighters

An armored vehicle belonging to Kurdish peshmerga fighters rushes to a bombing site as smoke rises after airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants outside of the city of Irbil in northern Iraq in this Aug. 8, 2014 file photo. The Pentagon has finally named its fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria: Operation Inherent Resolve. Credit: AP / Khalid Mohammed

Do we really have to have this conversation?

The one about Iraq. The one where every presidential candidate is asked, "Knowing what you know now, was going into Iraq a mistake?"

I suppose it's hard to avoid the question with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in the race. As the older brother of former President George W. Bush, it's tough to lay the topic aside.

But it's also tough, when the question is asked, not to think about the families of the soldiers who died in that campaign. There were 4,490 service members killed in Iraq. More than 32,000 were wounded. The question asks, implicitly, was your husband's, brother's, daughter's or father's life squandered? Did your boy lose his legs for nothing?

We've been through this conversation before. But it's been a while. The emotional wounds of the Vietnam War have settled, but it doesn't take much to kick them back up. A documentary by Rory Kennedy called "Last Days in Vietnam" did that when it began airing last month on PBS, almost on cue for the Iraq second guessing. Kennedy's film focused not on whether we should have gone into the Vietnams, but on what our chaotic departure meant to the South Vietnamese comrades we abandoned in the end. It left viewers, at least this one, feeling sick and ashamed of U.S. political leadership, even 40 years later. It made me remember grown-ups looking silently out windows the week Saigon fell.

That war cost more than 58,000 American lives. Were they all wasted when we pulled out?

I hated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for his answer Wednesday about Iraq, even if it was honest. When asked whether in hindsight we should have gone into Iraq the Texas Republican said, "of course not." His response brought on that sick feeling again. At least Jeb fumbled the question. There was honor in that (until he later backtracked). But I found no honor in Cruz's safe reply. It is sure to be repeated by much of the presidential primary field. No one wants to defend the Iraq War now. It's a political loser with the Arabian Peninsula in turmoil.

There's something contemptible about Monday morning quarterbacking when American lives have been lost. My father left friends in Italian soil when he returned home from World War II. They're still there, 70 years later. Some military historians now question whether the Italian campaign was necessary at all. I can think of a half dozen Italian expressions for them. There should be a 100-year requirement for second-guessing in matters like that.

What I remember from the start of the Iraq War was a nation in overwhelming -- but not unanimous -- agreement that Saddam Hussein had to go. The Butcher of Baghdad had defied 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, and almost no one but America was willing to back them up. The wounds from 9/11 were fresh, and Americans were prepared to make a large statement on the international stage.

What swayed me, like others, was the intelligence report about "yellow cake" uranium in Hussein's possession. It could be enriched for use in "dirty bombs," we were told. Some of that intelligence turned out to be flawed, but not all of it. More than 550 metric tons of yellowcake was secreted out of Iraq by U.S. forces to Canada in July 2008, after most news cameras had left the country. You can look it up. That's 550 metric tons of fissionable material that will never fall into the hands of the Islamic State. We don't hear much about that.

Candidates for president are free to question strategic decisions made by predecessors, even with 20/20 hindsight. It's obnoxious but fair game. But when asked whether a war that cost nearly 37,000 American casualties was a mistake, they'd darn well better answer "no."

The moment American blood was spilled in Iraq, the mission became worth it.

No matter what.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.