The National Catholic Review
Kevin Clarke
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The last convoy of U.S. combat troops crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait in the early morning of Dec. 18, 2011, bringing almost nine years of war to a muted and dusty finish. To hinder possible parting shots from Al Qaeda, comrades in arms in the Iraqi military were not informed as U.S. troops pulled out in the middle of the night. The silent exodus was in stark contrast to the war’s “shock and awe” beginning in March 2003.

U.S. soldiers were happy and relieved to be on their way home for Christmas, but concerned about what might follow in Iraq. It is hard to know what to feel about this war stateside. So many of us were invited to be no more than spectators to the carnage. Weren’t we told to carry on and go shopping?

A universal conscription never joined us in worrying over our young people; our taxes were never hiked to pay for the outlandish costs of Iraq. Our professional fighting men and women and the thousands of reservists pulled in from middle-class lifestyles and middle-aged parenting seemed to be the only ones called upon, repeatedly, to sacrifice. The poor may apparently now be asked to do their share as the federal government responds to Iraq’s unbudgeted tab by cutting social services.

The last U.S. casualty in Iraq was Army Specialist David Emanuel Hickman, 23, of Greensboro, N.C. He died in Baghdad on Nov. 14, killed, like so many of the other 4,487 U.S. service members lost in Iraq, by an improvised explosive device. Even as they attempted to withdraw in mid-December, U.S. forces were harassed by mortar and artillery fire.

When the American flag was lowered for the last time at the Baghdad airport, no Iraqi dignitaries bothered to show up. In Fallujah, where mansions built with generous “pacification” handouts stand not far from a bridge where the burned bodies of four U.S. contractors were hung, the U.S. withdrawal was brazenly celebrated with banners decorated with photos of burning American Humvees.

It should not come as a surprise that Iraqis are not especially grateful for America’s prolonged excursion along the Euphrates. More than 104,000 civilians died during the war. Its chaos unleashed unresolved sectarian tensions that had festered for generations and still menace the future.

A fatal rupture with the Kurds in the north seems as likely today as it did in 2003; Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has already begun to exhibit alarming authoritarian tendencies. The fate of Iraq’s Christians seems grim, though most have already left. Also left behind were thousands of Iraqis who worked closely with U.S. forces over the years as translators, aides or in more dangerous clandestine capacities. Can they expect to survive reprisals from Sunni or Shiite extremists now that their patrons and protectors are gone?

It does not seem likely that a ticker-tape parade along Wall Street will mark the end of this war. Perhaps we did our celebrating too early, during the false “Mission Accomplished” period. Maybe, given the many political, strategic and finally emotional ambiguities, there is no way to “celebrate” the end of the Iraq adventure, even as we strive not to confuse mixed emotions about this war of choice with our positive feelings toward the people who served there.

There might be some satisfaction to be found in saying that at the very least, the United States has learned a valuable, if costly, lesson in Iraq. But the drumbeating along the Potomac has already begun, as our war-mongering punditry primes the cannon for a new “intervention” in Iran. We may begin our next military misadventure long before the tab for this one has been paid in full, if it ever can be.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor or America.

Comments

RICH BRODERICK | 12/27/2011 - 11:05am

It seems to me that we are a country that will always be at perpetual war. We have  one-thousand military bases all over the world. The cost and casualties will continue to climb.

The human costs; Coalition deaths totaled 4,803, of which 4,484 (93 percent) were American. The number of Americans wounded was 32,200. Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated to total between 103,674 and 113,265. The war resulted in 1.24 million internally displaced persons and more than 1.6 million refugees.

In their book “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, estimate the projected total cost of veterans’ health care and disability payments to be between $422 billion and $717 billion.  The number of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder  is at least 168,854. The suicide rate for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans is 1 every 36 hours according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

 We have left Iraq a devastated country and we have squandered capital that could have improved our cities, schools, and infrastructure. Considering the immense suffering caused, the cost of  human life and treasure, this is less than a Pyrrhic victory. The casualties number hundreds of thousands, but we are all victims.

C Walter Mattingly | 12/25/2011 - 7:57am
Before passing judgment upon an action, especially an action involving war and death, it seems only prudent to look upon the alternative of inaction and perhaps also the lense of history to establish a viable contest. Otherwise a perspective could prove myopic and fundamentally flawed.

It really isn't necessary to categorize once again all the atrocities and the causus belli acts committed by Saddam Hussein, from shooting at US planes attempting to enforce an agreed-upon no-fly zone, a likely plot to assassinate a former US president, etc. Simply looking at one issue of the record the UN and those concerned with international human rights presents an appalling overview: according to the UN estimates, Saddam's stealing of the monies of the Oil for Food program alone resulted in 800,000 Iraqi deaths over a decade or so, mostly the elderly and the young. Add to that the genocidal sarin gassing of a village of his people, the mass executions, torture, etc, and the scope of the murderous damage the aptly named Butcher of Bagdhad (as one of his models was Josef Stalin of Bloodbath fame, Saddam may have valued his moniker) did and was continuing to do is apparent to anyone with open eyes. Kevin is correct to state that the Iraq war resulted in 100,000 plus civilian deaths. As terrible as this is, the reality of the situation cannot be rationally assessed without considering that it is highly likely that Saddam's continued reign would have resulted in 5 to 10 times more death, torture, and genocide than that number. The price both Iraqis and Americans paid in this conflict was very high, and the war was very poorly handled until Gates and the military genius Petraeus were appointed. But how do you value saving over half a million Iraqis from highly likely death at the hands of a genocidal butcher? 4500 American dead and a trillion dollars is a lot of money and lives. By itself the dollars almost equal one year of deficits under our current administration. If the war had not been mismanaged, it would have been less, but still expensive. How do you value saving half a million lives? How do you value providing the possibility of a more democratic Iraq, which may or may not materialize?

Here the lense of history can be of help. The Korean War provides us with a not-so-distant mirror.  That involvement cost us the lives of almost 8 times the losses of US servicemen as Iraq and estimates of over 400,000 South Korean civilian deaths. And the aftermath of the war in South Korea was anything but a healthy functioning democracy. Instead there followed decades of corruption and autocratic dictatorship. Truman was vilified by his political opponents for his entrance into the war. Yet anyone looking at South Korea and the North Korean alternative easily sees the extraordinary suffering and lives saved, literally millions, from starvation and utter domination, as well as the emergence of a prosperous democracy. The great majority of those here and in the West now consider Truman's decision on the war a high point of his administration.

While we do not know the outcome of the turmoil in Iraq sure to follow our withdrawal, nor do we know the outcome of the Arab Spring that those advising the Bush presidency correctly predicted would follow, and we do know that just over the 9 years it is highly likely we saved hundreds of thousands from Saddam's slaughter. While our editors may disapprove of this fact, Americans who do believe we are our brothers' keeper in this instance can be proud of our servicemen and the many Iraqi lives saved by their sacrifice. 

 

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