Leaving Iraq: What We Leave Behind

There’s no lack of dishonest, revisionist, self-congratulatory commentary on the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. The general consensus in the media village is that “our long national nightmare” (as Gerald Ford said about another decade-long war) is now over, and it exacted a terrible cost in blood and treasure (only ours of course — theirs is almost never mentioned), but that all in all, looking back, the “campaign to establish a sovereign Iraq was worth it” (the implied underlying assumption being both that “establishing a sovereign Iraq” was the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq and occupied it for almost 10 years; and that we achieved that goal).

Some journalists, and others in a position to know, are telling the truth. It’s always worth noting when that happens — beginning with Andrew Bacevich:

The principal benefit derived from the Iraq War is easily identified: as the war’s defenders insist with monotonous regularity, the world is indeed a better place without Saddam Hussein. Point taken.

Yet few of those defenders have demonstrated the moral courage – or is it simple decency – to consider who paid and what was lost in securing Saddam’s removal. That tally includes well over four thousand U.S. dead along with several tens of thousands wounded and otherwise bearing the scars of war; vastly larger numbers of Iraqi civilians killed, maimed, and displaced; and at least a trillion dollars expended – probably several times that by the time the last bill comes due decades from now. Recalling that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to al-Qaeda both turned out to be all but non-existent, a Churchillian verdict on the war might read thusly: Seldom in the course of human history have so many sacrificed so dearly to achieve so little.

Yet in inviting a narrow cost-benefit analysis, the question-as-posed serves to understate the scope of the debacle engineered by the war’s architects. The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War extends beyond treasure squandered and lives lost or shattered. Central to that legacy has been Washington’s decisive and seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft. With all remaining prudential, normative, and constitutional barriers to the use of force having now been set aside, war has become a normal condition, something that the great majority of Americans accept without complaint. War is U.S.

“Of all the problems that the U.S. troop withdrawal won’t affect in Iraq,” writes David Enders at McClatchy, “what to do about the number of internally displaced people looms the largest.” He continues:

As many as 2 million Iraqis — about 6 percent of the country’s estimated population of more than 31 million — are thought to have been forced from the cities and towns where they once lived and are housed in circumstances that feel temporary and makeshift.

More than 500,000 of those are “squatters in slum areas with no assistance or legal right to the properties they occupy,” according to Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group. Most can’t go home: Either their homes have been destroyed or hostile ethnic and sectarian groups now control their neighborhoods. Those who are displaced internally say the Iraqi government has done little or nothing to help them, and in some cases has even prevented them from returning to their homes.

Arguably THE most horrifying aspect of war (arguably, because there are so many to choose from) is the way it dehumanizes those who participate in it and those who are unwillingly caught up in it. Innumerable examples could be cited, but this one, regarding 400 pages of documents about the U.S. massacre of unarmed civilians in Haditha that a New York Times reporter stumbled across near Baghdad, is perhaps the most compelling:

The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.

The documents — many marked secret — form part of the military’s internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers.

Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.

But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on the soldiers who were assigned here, their frustrations and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand. In their own words, the report documents the dehumanizing nature of this war, where Marines came to view 20 dead civilians as not “remarkable,” but as routine.

Iraqi civilians were being killed all the time. Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar, in his own testimony, described it as “a cost of doing business.”

Now U.S. troops have left Iraq for good — and except for the relatively few who were directly involved, Americans don’t have to think about it, worry about it, or deal with it anymore. That is one of our privileges as Americans: If we do not wish to know about what happened in places like Haditha, or reflect upon it too much, we don’t have to.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, International, Media, Politics, Society, War

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