Why did America spend so long in Iraq?
Last night President Barack Obama announced “the end of our combat mission in Iraq.” This is welcome news — if years late. Yet in an address to the nation that ranged as far afield as energy policy and “the limitless possibilities of our time,” the president never got around to the essential question of this costly bloodbath:
Why did the United States spend seven years fighting in Iraq?
By the estimate of the British correspondent John Burns and New York Times London bureau chief, who was living in Baghdad when the invasion began and remained there until 2008, the war killed 4,500 Americans and wounded 35,000 of them. It also caused “tens of thousands” of Iraqi civilian deaths; cost $750 billion, nearly enough to wipe out this year’s federal deficit; and created “the anti-Americanism that would become commonplace around the world.”
That last is all too easy to overlook. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the world’s sympathy was with the United States. Everyone, including almost every Muslim, knew the 9-11 attack was heinous. Almost all nations, including nearly all Islamic nations, supported America’s counterattack in Afghanistan, which was clearly justified as self-defense.
Then we bombed and invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9-11 monsters, killing at least 10 times as many innocent civilians as were killed here on September 11. We took huge numbers of Iraqis prisoner, and tortured or humiliated them.
We blasted to the ground cities such as Fallujah, destroying the homes of innocents while using antipersonnel weapons, such as white phosphorous shells, which are designed to cause intense suffering before death.
We installed a puppet government and began to kill those who opposed it. Much of the world was disgusted, with reason. We practically begged the moderate Muslims of the world to turn against us.
Last night President Obama praised U.S. military forces in Iraq, who deserve praise. In a confused, stressful situation where it was hard to tell who the enemy was, 99 percent of U.S. soldiers, marines, sailors and aircrew carried themselves with honor. But why were our forces in a confused, stressful situation?
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a horrible place, and Saddam was a horrible person. But there are other horrible places, and the United States ignores them. Why did we invade and occupy a country that posed no national security threat to the United States? Two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have elaborately dodged this question. America deserves an answer.
The story constantly changes. At various points it was claimed by the second Bush White House and Defense Department that Iraq was building atomic weapons, or a stronghold of al Qaeda, or even planning an attack on the United States. A video timeline of Bush Administration statements about the need to attack Iraq is under the “latest program.” Regardless of whether Rachel Maddow is your cup of tea, it’s an informative timeline. All these claims were later retracted by the White House and Defense Department.
Suppose the true motives for the attack were to destroy banned weapons and depose Saddam. Morally, those motives can be defended. But, once American forces occupied Iraq, it took about a year to capture Saddam and hunt down his senior associates and to determine that there was no atomic bomb program. After doing this, why didn’t we just leave? If the United States had left after the first year – after performing the tasks that could be defended morally – the world might have admired us. Instead we stayed and stayed and stayed, killing and dying. Why?
The only attempt at explanation is circular. Last night Obama said, “A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency.” The reason the insurgency came into being was to oppose the U.S. occupation: even Bush, by 2006, said the United States had become “an occupying force.” Many Iraqi insurgents are despicable people – terrorists and criminals. Some are patriots. If another nation invaded the United States, wouldn’t Americans be radicalized and use guerilla warfare against the occupiers? To invade a country, create an insurgency and then claim the insurgency you created rationalizes years of combat and killing is Orwellian.
But there would have been chaos and violence in Iraq if we’d just pulled out and left. How, exactly, would you characterize what happened in Iraq with the United States still there? The last six years of occupation have only served to delay the moment when Iraq confronts its fate – which has always been inevitable regardless of whether U.S. forces departed or remained.
Was the invasion “the madness of King George?” Conspiracy theories, especially in the Islamic world, hold the United States attacked Iraq out of a vicious desire to slay Muslims or a venal desire to seize oil or as a ploy to control the Middle East. The first two proposed explanations are nonsense (in Kosovo the United States fought to save Muslims, and Washington could have purchased all the oil in Iraq for far more cheaply than by seizing it). The third is implausible — if the U.S. goal was control of the Middle East, it sure didn’t work.
In his 2008 book The Bush Tragedy, Jacob Weisberg proposes an explanation that seems chillingly believable. George W. Bush, Weisberg shows, grew up obsessed with proving that he was tougher than his father George H. W. Bush; the obsession was complicated by the father being a hero at the Battle of Midway in World War II, while the son went to great lengths to avoid military duty in Vietnam. During the 1991 Gulf War, the father’s army expelled Saddam from Kuwait but did not enter Iraq to depose the dictator — the elder Bush saying then, and maintaining since, this was because the international community had not sanctioned an attack on Iraq itself.
When the younger Bush became president and 9-11 created a pretext for use of the military, Weisberg’s theory continues, he seized the chance to invade Iraq, do what his father did not and become tougher than his father, at least within his own mind, since masculinity is not required to sit at a desk and tell others to die.
Bush Administration figures such as Vice President Dick Cheney, CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Department advisor Douglas Feith deliberately lied about the situation in Iraq in order to justify war, and Democrats in the House and Senate, in order to avoid criticism, rolled over.
We don’t have a peace treaty with Iraq. After all the cost in blood and sorrow, the United States and Iraq don’t have a peace agreement. For that matter, Iraq never formally surrendered. Think these are formalities? Peace treaties are the gold standard of success on the battlefield. Wars that “end” without them don’t really end.
There was no peace treaty to conclude the Korean War — just a 1953 armistice that stopped the shooting. That the Korean War did not end in a peace agreement is a reason military tensions between North and South Korea continue today. Fifty-seven years later, the terms of the armistice are still observed, but little else has been agreed on. For all the sacrifice in Iraq, where’s the treaty that spells out peace and friendship?
All we have is a “Status of Forces Agreement.” In 2008, the Bush Administration completed a SOFA in which Iraq’s sort-of government formally accepted the United States occupation, in return for the United States promising to depart if so instructed. By the terms of the SOFA, Baghdad could order Americans out of the country on short notice – and the United States would have no choice but depart. A referendum to see if the Iraqi people approve of the SOFA, and thereby grant legitimacy to the invasion, has been postponed repeatedly.
The July 2009 deadline to remove U.S. combat forces from Iraqi cities wasn’t an Obama idea, it was specified by the SOFA. So too was the current exit of heavy combat forces such as armored units. Though Barack Obama has been wise to withdraw heavy combat forces, he’s only following the script the Bush Administration laid out before leaving office. It borders on the bizarre to think that after campaigning for the presidency partly on his opposition to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, Obama is still following Bush’s Iraq timetable after being president for nearly two years, and not acting on any new vision of his own.
Is the “mission accomplished?” Bush famously claimed this while looking ridiculous on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in 2003, and Obama sort-of claimed it from the White House last night. The claim is impossible to assess – since we still don’t know what the mission was.
Would the dead have wanted us to continue fighting? A haunting question of combat is whether others must fall to honor the sacrifices of those who have fallen before. It was argued during the Vietnam War that simply leaving would mean those who already had died there had died for naught. Last night, Obama essentially used this argument, quoting an Army sergeant as saying, “I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this day would probably mean a lot.”
We live in a society that conducts these kinds of debates in sound bites. Once, the debate was conducted in poetry. In 1915, the Canadian physician John McCrea – who perished in World War I – wrote the poem In Flanders Fields, which argues that dead soldiers would want others to die, until there is victory. This poem became a sensation in the United Kingdom and the United States. Its relevant stanza:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep.
In 1918 Wilfred Owen, a British poet who served in World War I and died in France days before the ceasefire, argued the opposite in the poem Dulce et Decorum Est. This poem became a second public sensation. Its relevant stanza:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Latin means, “it is sweet and right to die for your country.” It is etched on the chapel wall at Sandhurst, the British school for army officers.
The fallen cannot speak: it is reasonable to suppose they would think others should keep fighting if there were something to fight for, but oppose others dying so that politicians can avoid being honest or making hard decisions. We kept fighting in Iraq. And we still don’t know why.