Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Iraq Plus 10

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, one of the worst foreign policy disasters in American history. Not the worst - Vietnam killed 55,000 Americans and god knows how many Vietnamese, tore the USA apart, gave us Nixon in place of LBJ, corrupted almost every piece of American society, made us hated in the world - Iraq did plenty of harm, but Vietnam beat it across the board. But I will leave Iraq ahead of the Mexican-American war and the War of 1812. The former may have actually done the country more harm (being a fairly direct antecedent to the Civil War), and it was a vile act - an unprovoked act of conquest ("one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation" said Grant), all the worse for being waged in order to extend slavery - but, unlike Iraq or Vietnam or the War of 1812 (for the most part), it was a fairly spectacular victory, and wicked or not, success has to count for something. And the War of 1812, though a stupid war and a complete disaster for the USA, didn't do too much harm - the British had bigger fish to fry and dropped it, and we managed to win a battle after it was done, so I guess it isn't in the running... No - Iraq gets that second place.

But that's the best you can say about it - not quite as bad as Vietnam. A war started on false pretenses, that never really promised any benefits for the US or the world - Saddam Hussein was irrelevant in 2003, there was nothing to be gained by fighting that war. A war that weakened the much more useful endeavors in Afghanistan. That cost us support around the world for everything we did. Costs thousands of lives, trillions of dollars - of our money, never mind the harm we did to Iraq to no end. And did it all for nothing - there were no benefits to starting it, and no unexpected benefits emerged along the way. We conquered the place easily enough, but screwed things up as soon as we marched in. We were diminished by the war in every way - our actions, particularly things like Abu Ghraib (though that started before we went to Iraq); our political discourse - the cowardly reaction of the political classes, accepting the war, congress abdicating its responsibility, the press taking no responsibility, the public accepting the thing... We have not recovered from Vietnam (I'm not sure, sometimes, if we've recovered from the Mexican-American war) - we will be a long time recovering from this disgrace.

I remember the beginning of the war - walking through the Public Garden, with helicopters flying overhead, circling downtown, as if they were afraid that millions of hippies would come out of cold storage and take over the city. It was unsettling. I joke about hippies, but what were those helicopters there for? There might have been protests, though I didn't see them that day - but what difference did a bunch of helicopters make? I felt instead that this was something officials felt they had to do - we were at war - there should be helicopters circling the city, cops in riot gear, sirens. You had to act like there was a war going on....

I don't mean to turn this into a kind of media critique, though I suppose it's inevitable. It was a war for the media, and by the media. The blogs were all shivery about it, after months and months of anticipation and debate. Perfectly sensible liberals defending the build up to war, though a lot of them seemed to drop out in the last month or so before the event. Exciting footage on TV (I guess it was exciting - the news channels seemed to think so) - sensible people on TV, sensible liberals! Bill Clinton! talking about how important this was, gosh, what if Saddam has something? All of that surrounded by a steady pulse of uneasiness - elevated terror alerts at opportune moments, that kind of thing.

It was very strange. I remember arguing about it, mostly on AOL - the arguments for the war seemed so completely nonsensical. The claims about Saddam's threats were so obviously exaggerated - there was plenty of information around, from far more credible sources (like the actual UN inspectors), that he didn't have any weapons of mass destruction - and there was nothing, anywhere, to indicate that he had any connection to Al Qaeda, that he planned to cause any trouble to anyone (other than his own people) - it was maddening. And so many of the arguments, even in the public discourse, consisted of magic thinking, metaphors - anticipating Tom Friedman's Suck. On. This. moment - showing the world we meant business. So much of it was like that - all about messaging - sending a message to the terrorists that we were big and bad and were gonna kill a bunch of the bastards! Which depended so much on analogies and metaphors - the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud stuff - the people I was arguing with on AOL were particularly awful, constantly comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler, to a naughty child, to a gangrenous limb, on and on. It was hard, in real time, in 2003, not to see the war as a piece of theater - as what Friedman said it was - going somewhere and picking someone out and beating the living shit out of them, just to show we'd do it.

In other words, terrorism. And, as is almost inevitable, terrorism never works - the people you use it on take note and get you back when the chance comes. Or, sometimes, get back at someone else... but it doesn't work. Victims of terrorism harden their hearts, at least against the users of terror.

And - I know it is bad form to say I told you so, but - Tom Friedman's still employed! So - sorry - I did tell you so, as did quite a few other people, many of them in positions where they should have been listened to. And a not insubstantial number of protestors. Who were right. So I will end with something I wrote on AOL, April 12, 2003:
We might want to hold off a bit on claiming Iraq has been "liberated" - currently they are simply conquered (though not quite pacified) - maybe we should find out who ends up in charge before getting too celebratory. Let's face it - the odds that Iraq will come out of this better off than they were under Saddam are probably about even - they are that high primarily because they may not have us for an enemy any more. Their new rulers are not likely to edify the gentle of heart.
I mean - we could see the rest of it coming. I could, and who am I? It's kind of the point I was getting at with the comments on the media, on the symbolism of the war - the pro-war side treated it as though it were a gesture. The anti-war side didn't have all that much special virtue, maybe - they just treated it as real actions in the real world involving real people. Which is a lesson we fucking well ought to learn.

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