This won’t be Vietnam, exactly. No helicopter whisking the last remaining Americans off the roof of the embassy. A contingent of 16,000 State Department contract employees — more than 5,000 of them armed mercenaries — will be staying on, running what’s left of the American operation in Iraq.
But there’s little doubt we lost this war — by every rational measure. Everyone lost, except those who profited from (and continue to profit from) the trillions we bled into the invasion and occupation; and those who planned it, most of whom remain in positions to plan or at least promote the wars we’re still fighting and the wars to come.
But in a certain profound sense, the war in Iraq, as we have come to know it over the last almost nine years, is shutting down. The Obama team couldn’t get “Iraq’s inspiring but fragile democracy” (in the immortal words of Joe Lieberman, waxing absurd in a USA Today opinion piece) to approve immunity from local prosecution for American troops. Our noble cause trembled, collapsed, and for a moment we became a democracy. The will of the sick-of-war public prevailed.
I find myself reflecting on this the way I might reflect on a berserk car alarm that finally shuts off — with the ringing still in my ears, with anger and frustration still wracking my body. Something that shouldn’t be happening has finally ceased happening, or soon will, but I hardly feel like celebrating.
“If any good comes of the Iraq war,” Michael Lind wrote recently in Salon, “it will come in the form of an Iraq syndrome, like the Vietnam syndrome that made Americans wary of large-scale military intervention abroad from the fall of Saigon in 1975 until the Gulf War of 1990-91. The mantra then was ‘No more Vietnams.’ That needs to be updated: ‘No more Iraqs.'”
I agree, but I don’t think this goes far enough. “No more Vietnams” is still operative: The public still hates war; even neocons acknowledge that Nam was a disaster. Because of it, the war interests spent a generation retooling their agenda, and ultimately American society, to work around this fact. Elimination of the draft, for instance, while seemingly a progressive step, took self-interest out of the antiwar movement.
And war propaganda became savvy and benign. Our post-Vietnam military adventures, while still fear-driven, also had “humanitarian” components, like spreading democracy or defending women’s rights. We developed “smart bombs,” which only destroyed, you know, infrastructure. And as Colin Powell famously proclaimed, as the Iraq adventure was starting to get ugly, “We don’t do body counts.” No daily kill reports this go-around; that would just turn the American stomach. With the help of an embedded media, war became largely invisible. The public went shopping.
Whatever “syndrome” does coalesce around this disastrous mistake must develop an intelligence that transcends the machinations that brought it on. For this to happen, we must stare deeply into the heart of the war’s consequences.
Most commentary has focused on the two most glaring failures from the point of view of national interest: strategic and economic. Strategically, we “lost” in that the war failed to turn Iraq into a stable, subservient ally. Instead, as Jonathan Steele put it recently in the UK Sunday Observer, “thanks to Bush’s toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s greatest enemy, Tehran’s influence in Iraq is much stronger today than is America’s.”
Economically, the Iraq adventure cost more than World War II, as David R. Francis pointed out recently in The Christian Science Monitor. It wasted more than $800 billion in direct appropriations. And when other costs such as ongoing medical treatment for injured vets are figured in, the money bleed grows staggering beyond all imagination — as much as $6 trillion, according to the well-publicized calculations of economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. To realize that such money could have gone into education, health care and the rebuilding of our crumbling, bankrupt nation is to start to feel the weight and scope of Iraq Syndrome.
Then there’s the death toll. Officially, almost 5,000 U.S. troops have died, with another 32,000 wounded. These numbers hardly begin to measure the extent to which vets’ lives have been shattered; most of them return from extended duty with some form of PTSD.
But the numbers go wild, and Iraq Syndrome swells into a raging antiwar movement, when we consider the war’s consequences from the Iraqi point of view. We don’t do body counts, but some years ago the British medical journal Lancet calculated the civilian death toll at more than 650,000. Other estimates go beyond a million dead. In addition, 4.7 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes. And what about the “inspiring democracy” we’ve created? According to Transparency International, Iraq is virtually a failed state, ranking 175th globally in corruption, ahead of only Somalia, Myanmar and (ahem) Afghanistan, as Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis noted on Common Dreams.
Finally, Iraq Syndrome must include awareness of our toxic legacy, in particular the radioactive fallout resulting from exploding several thousand tons of depleted uranium munitions. Last year, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study of the devastated city of Fallujah, pointing out that, among much else, it is experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945. And birth defects abound: “Young women in Fallujah are terrified of having children,” a group of British and Iraqi doctors reported.
The failure of the Iraq war is the failure of all wars, past and future: national policy grounded the dehumanization of a people. A military-industrial economy requires such policy to continue, and so it does. Iraq Syndrome may be our best hope in thwarting the power of the war consensus, especially if it includes the awareness that what we do to others we eventually do to ourselves.
(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
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