Take a moment and a deep breath. Try to step back. Imagine yourself not the kind and powerful American, but the poor and powerless Iraqi.
Imagine the bombs falling from your skies; imagine those young Americans, many frightened, a few belligerent. Not knowing your language, your streets, your customs. Unable to tell a bakery from a butcher shop.
All those Weapons of Mass Destruction you know nothing about.
As if life wasn’t difficult enough before these strangers arrived, their Humvees speeding through your streets, automatic weapons in hand, on patrol, ever-alert, not knowing friend from foe, a simple shopkeeper from a suicide bomber, a righteous man of faith from a religious fanatic.
Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator, capricious and vicious, his mental illness so significant that he could order men to be killed for the slightest of reasons: because he feared them, or hated them, but mostly because he figured out he could successfully pit one tribe against another. Reward his Sunni friends; punish his Shiite rivals. Bomb the Kurds.
And yet, nevertheless, Iraq was a magnet. Students came from all over the Middle East to its schools. Women could speak their minds, could learn, share power. There was a thriving middle class. There were bookstores and well-regarded medical care.
When the twin towers collapsed, we could have gone after those who attacked us. Not just their proxies in the Afghan caves, but those behind them. But that would have been inconvenient. Bomb Saudi Arabia? Go after the rich and powerful Saudi bankers? Those “friends” who had financed so many American projects and politicians …
So much easier to head to Baghdad.
There were so many sensible voices saying “No!” Middle Eastern scholars like Juan Cole. Former Weapons Inspectors. So many millions of ordinary citizens spilling into the streets of European capitals, American cities.
It was from the beginning a lethal combination of arrogance and stupidity. Justified by lie after lie. The Generals lied. Our political leaders lied. Our journalists lied: the once proud New York Times became a parrot for the rush to war.
One lie after another. Why we were going. What it would cost us. How the Iraqis would greet us. How long it would last. Lies and more lies.
It was, of course, a disaster. That so many of us knew it was a disaster in the making matters not a bit.
Not to the millions upon millions of Iraqis who have suffered. Those who died. Those who watched their parents die; their children die; their teachers, their friends. Those who watched as hospitals burned, schools bombed, museums looted.
Those who saw the light of daily life turn dark. Literally without electricity for so many hours of the day. Children who quickly discovered they could die on the way to school.
As despicable as Saddam had been, we somehow made things worse. So much worse. And in the process of smashing it all, we reduced a proud if flawed civilization to chaos. We turned the very biggest of lies into the very worst truth: we brought al-Qaeda to Iraq.
The estimable Middle Eastern scholar Juan Cole explains it so well:
“Ironically, by invading, occupying, weakening and looting Iraq, Bush and Cheney brought al-Qaeda into the country and so weakened it as to allow it actually to take and hold territory in our own time. They put nothing in place of the system they tore down. They destroyed the socialist economy without succeeding in building private firms or commerce. They put in place an electoral system that emphasizes religious and ethnic divisions. They helped provoke a civil war in 2006-2007, and took credit for its subsiding in 2007-2008, attributing it to a troop escalation of 30,000 men (not very plausible). In fact, the Shiite militias won the civil war on the ground, turning Baghdad into a largely Shiite city and expelling many Sunnis to places like Mosul. There are resentments.”
But, of course, we were so very far away from it all. Miles and miles away. Shopping. Watching “Lost” or football or baseball.
Those who lived it, saw it, were transformed.
Take a moment. Take a breath. Do you want to know why those we sent have PTSD? Do you want to know why some of our soldiers come home to commit suicide. Be just a little bit brave. Ask a soldier who was there to tell you his or her story.
Take a moment. Take a breath. Do you know we never really counted the Iraqi dead? We will never know how many died. Costofwar.com estimates more than 200,000 Iraqi civilians died. Lancet published a study suggesting that there werea staggering 654,965 excess deaths related to the war, or 2.5 percent of the population, through the end of June 2006.Large sections of the country became dangerous, and it is believed that up to 7.4 million Iraqis became refugees or were displaced.
We know 4,489 American military personnel were killed, along with 3,455 members of our proxy army, the military contractors. We don’t know the exact number of our wounded, because their wounds are both physical and mental. But as of March 31, 2014 there have been 970,000 disability claims made to the VA.
And the money:
As I get ready to stand with my Support our Troops/It’s Time to Come Home sign on yet another Saturday, the most virulent of al-Qaedas, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS,) has already taken Mosul from the Iraqi Army and is now marching on Baghdad. Meanwhile ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the corrupt Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki are each calling upon every Shiite to take up arms. It is said that the Iranians have sent 2,000 troops over the border to fight ISIS, while the Kurds have seized Kirkuk.
And the British and American politicians and pundits are at it again. Of course, the fault lies elsewhere. Blame the Iraqis for not taking advantage of the many opportunities we offered them.
It’s easy to pick on the most conservative and hawkish of critics, but our war in Iraq has always been a war of equal opportunity for the gatekeepers.
Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, is anxious to insist that up until recent months Iraq was a success story:
“Three to four years ago Al Qaida in Iraq was a beaten force. The country had massive challenges but had a prospect, at least, of overcoming them. It did not pose a threat to its neighbours. Indeed, since the removal of Saddam, and despite the bloodshed, Iraq had contained its own instability mostly within its own borders.”
And adamant that despite the fact that a mere nine Tony Blair months later, Iraq is breaking apart, we, of course, were always right to intervene:
“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not; and whether action or inaction is the best policy and there is a lot to be said on both sides. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.”
And even the usually responsible and empathetic Nicholas Kristof assures us the fault lies elsewhere:
“The debacle in Iraq isn’t President Obama’s fault. It’s not the Republicans’ fault. Both bear some responsibility, but, overwhelmingly, it’s the fault of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki …”
Why? “For several years, Maliki has systematically marginalized Sunnis, weakened Sunni Awakening militias that had been a bulwark against extremists, and undermined the professionalism of the armed forces.”
But isn’t Maliki our Maliki? Weren’t these really our policies? Our plan? Has Kristof forgotten the playing cards of the Saddam Sunnis to be captured and killed? Dissolving the army?
Then Kristof offers an odd and terribly ironic reminder:
“Let’s remember that Iraq isn’t a political prop. It’s a country whose 33 million people are on the edge of a precipice. Iraq is driven primarily by its own dynamic, and unfortunately, there are more problems in international relations than there are solutions.”
Maybe I’m missing something here. I don’t remember the Iraqis asking us to invade. I don’t remember Iraqis asking us to occupy their land. A dreadful dictatorship, yes. On the edge of a precipice, no. Credit that to the American bombs, the American occupation, to the devastation and despair that quickly pushed people to the precipice.
Not surprisingly, another New York Timeser, David Brooks blames Obama. For leaving too soon. Before we were finished. Because it turns out our Maliki needed constant supervision:
“Almost immediately things began to deteriorate. There were no advisers left to restrain Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. The American efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army came undone.”
As Juan Cole reminds us, the facts are a bit more complicated:
“Those who will say that the U.S. should have left troops in Iraq do not say how that could have happened. The Iraqi parliament voted against it. There was never any prospect in 2011 of the vote going any other way. Because the U.S. occupation of Iraq was horrible for Iraqis and they resented it. Should the Obama administration have reinvaded and treated the Iraqi parliament the way Gen. Bonaparte treated the French one?”
Why is it we always know best? Especially when we know nothing. We knew nothing about Iraq or the Iraqi people. And all these years later, after our bombs and military bases, our strategic alliances, the ink-stained fingers, siding with the Shiites against the Sunni, offering one brand of dictator for another, replacing one corruption for another, we still know nothing. Worst of all, we don’t even have the humility to admit our mistakes.
Why? Because we are Americans? Because we care? Because we love freedom and they don’t? Because we know best?
That, of course, is something Republicans and Democrats can always agree upon. We not only know best, but are the best. President Obama proclaimed this greatest American myth just recently at West Point: “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.”
He explained: “In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics. Think about it. Our military has no peer … our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy independent.”
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
It’s hard to know where to begin. Our economy? He obviously has a job and doesn’t need food stamps. Infant mortality? Life expectancy? A dysfunctional health care system? How exceptional are we?
Our willingness to affirm international norms and the rule of law? Is he forgetting about a war of choice based on lies? Torture?
So yet again we’re offered the triumph of rhetoric over reality. Al-Qaeda on the run … uh well …
And so as ISIS advances, the Generals and Politicians and Pontificators will now suggest strategic bombing. That works, doesn’t it? Except, who do we bomb this time? Do the bombers know the difference between a Shiite martyr or a Sunni militant? Will the ISIS fanatics please raise their hands so our drones don’t mistake the teenagers for the tyrants?
As, for me, as the war went on year after year, as the numbers of the protesters dwindled, I began to seek out reports from Iraqis willing to share their stories. Brave bloggers from Mosul, from Baghdad. There’s a lot here, and this clearly contradicts the estimable Tony Blair, but you may be interested to read last year’s post from an Iraqi, Baghdad Burning of the River Bend Blog, written on the 10th anniversary of our war:
“Ten years since the invasion. Since the lives of millions of Iraqis changed forever. It’s difficult to believe. It feels like only yesterday I was sharing day-to-day activities with the world. I feel obliged today to put my thoughts down on the blog once again, probably for the last time …
“Looking back at the last 10 years, what have our occupiers and their Iraqi governments given us in 10 years? What have our puppets achieved in this last decade? What have we learned?
“We learned a lot.
“We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair – it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death … A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red.
“We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands.
“We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.
“We are learning that corruption is the way to go. You want a passport issued? Pay someone. You want a document ratified? Pay someone. You want someone dead? Pay someone.
“We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear.
“We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know — the luxuries – electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools – those are for deserving populations. Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country …
“What about George Bush, Condi, Wolfowitz, and Powell? Will they ever be held accountable for the devastation and the death they wrought in Iraq? Saddam was held accountable for 300,000 Iraqis … Surely someone should be held accountable for the million or so?
“Finally, after all is said and done, we shouldn’t forget what this was about — making America safer … And are you safer Americans? If you are, why is it that we hear more and more about attacks on your embassies and diplomats? Why is it that you are constantly warned to not go to this country or that one? Is it better now, 10 years down the line? Do you feel safer, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of the way (granted half of them were women and children, but children grow up, right?)
“And what happened to Riverbend and my family? I eventually moved from Syria. I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until … Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will we be able to live normally? How long will it take?
“For those of you who are disappointed reality has reared its ugly head again, go to Fox News, I’m sure they have a reportage that will soothe your conscience.
“For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. ‘Lo khuliyet, qulibet …’ Which means ‘If the world were empty of good people, it would end.’ I only need to check my emails to know it won’t be ending any time soon.”
That’s from River Bend in exile.
As for me I don’t feel exceptional in the slightest.
I can’t help but weep for those we sent and never came back or came back never the same. For those Iraqis we killed and wounded in the name of freedom.
And I can’t help but weep for the chaos to come.