Like most Americans, I saw footage of the last Americans loading out of Iraq with relief and pride in our troops’ ability to fight a hostile enemy in a worse environment, half-way around the globe. Those who could endure that mortal peril and overcome a zealous foe deserve our deepest gratitude.
That keynote sentiment sincerely expressed, I’ve been trying to find a way to decide it was a worthy policy choice. Is there any way to conclude that it was a good idea, from the inception through to the recent conclusion? In terms of casualties, 4487 American troops died there, more than 93% of the “coalition” total, and another 33,186 of our military were seriously wounded. I am personally close to an Iraq vet, and have seen the legacy of his service, in terms of dreams delayed and altered, gruesome memories that can’t be expunged, reflexive reactions to unanticipated sounds.
Among the locals, it is variously estimated that more than 105,000 men, women and children succumbed since the first explosions of shock and awe. Every one of them also had a story. Did all those human beings die for something worthwhile?
It can be argued that the US deposed and brought to justice a vicious dictator, and that is true. But among the world’s worst 21st century tyrants, Saddam Hussein barely made the Top Ten list. Did we really trade all those lives and futures for his? And if that’s our job as world superpower – who’s next?
Then there is the WMD pretext. None were found, and there is ample evidence that the US government knew from the outset that their claimed existence was dubious, at best.
Did we really fight “Them” over there, so we wouldn’t have to fight Them here?” Any linkage between Iraq and Al Qaeda is illusory – perhaps born of a willful ignorance of those diverse cultures and relationships. I suppose that Iraq did become a flame, drawing to it some whose goal it was to fight Americans. Terrorists don’t seek a traditional fight, however – I don’t think there’s much evidence that the war concentrated those vermin in a place where they could be exterminated efficiently.
Did Iraq arrest the growth of terrorism? That also seems doubtful – if anything, I’m with Richard Clarke’s assertion that among the tiny minority of politically aware Muslims in the world, our invasion drove some passionate young Iraqis in the direction of martyrdom. And I would suggest that an occupying army on our shores would create a similar effect among patriotic Americans.
Did we at least gain a measure of retributive satisfaction for the atrocities of 9/11? To believe that, you’d have to also believe that most Muslims really are terrorists, which, as above, they manifestly are not. It’s also hard for me to decide that the follow-on deaths of more Americans than died on that dark day might be considered worth it.
Beyond the meager accomplishments that might be claimed, what did Iraq cost in addition to those lives, on all sides or none -- every one precious to somebody? The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that rolled-up costs, including interest on real national debt taken out, to fund the conflict, will be roughly $2 Trillion by 2017. That’s twelve zeros, times two. Medical and interest costs will, of course, extend well beyond that date. What better things might the federal government have done with that money – or put another way -- where would we be if it hadn’t been spent? Those who complain about Big Government and its wasteful ways need to wear all those zeros.
Internationally, the US squandered goodwill by acting unilaterally in the face of resistance from cooler heads elsewhere. It was hardly a coalition of the willing, and appeared, to many observers, to be an act of empire in a world that sorely needs multilateralism to resolve its most pressing humanitarian, political and environmental crises.
My own final, unhappy thought about Iraq is that it was a 20th century war – against a furtive 21st century foe. Occupy-and-subdue is an exceptionally expensive approach to defeating an enemy that has no national allegiance nor territorial base or ambitions. Terrorists are Tom Friedman’s “super-empowered individuals” – don’t they need a more efficient, surgical response?
I would like to find a way to decide for myself, and to reassure my veteran friend, that this war, and its successor in Afghanistan, are somehow worthy of the sacrifice. Can somebody help me here?