From Robert Koehler’s essay, Iraq Syndrome:
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.
Mr. Koehler is hopeful. I’m less sanguine that we’ll learn anything from Iraq.
George W Bush cut the justification for invading Iraq out of whole cloth. W, like his daddy, was always looking for international pariahs he could bring to heel in the service of feeling presidential. Both men considered the commander-in-chief role afforded the president of the highest existential order in shaping their presidencies. In short, both were warmongers that sought war for war’s sake. What can we learn from that? Perhaps that there is a great danger to the republic of allowing so much unfettered leeway for one man to engage what amounts to his private military (since the elimination of the draft) in overseas adventures, but little else. There is no way to know until a president is elected, no matter how many meaningless debates are held along the campaign trail, how he will apply the levers of powers at his disposal, but it can generally be assumed that a man wishing to be president has also some megalomaniacal tendencies, elsewise, why bother? No man should be afforded as much discretion for military adventurism as the constitutional separation of powers has devolved to allow the president.
The next war (Iran, most likely) will be assumed, as always, to be the same as the last war by the generals and politicians planning for it. It won’t be, just as Iraq wasn’t the same as Vietnam. Unless Iran does something foolish (hardly out of the realm of possibilities), the war will likely have to be sold to the American public as a fight to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That won’t be the real cause, else there would be a long list of antagonist countries with which we’d need to do battle. The real cause will be Iran’s intransigence in the face of relentless American expansionism. Expansion is what empires do, until they are no longer able. Iran stands in the way of America’s continued expansion. Unless America is forced to abandon its imperial designs by some catastrophic decline in its power, conflict with Iran is as inevitable as was Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
It may seem contradictory to claim that Bush was responsible for the Iraq war, but that expansionary wars are nonetheless inevitably what empires such as America’s do. While imperial expansionism is in the DNA of empire, there is quite a bit of play around the joints as to how and when such expansion occurs. Bush instinctively (DNA inherited from his father?) sought expansion by military means, and in any old place that could be sold to the public as justifiable by dint of dictatorial evil or phantom weapons of mass destruction. Anywhere that doesn’t enjoy a liberal democracy whose population can be exploited by American capitalists under a US-supported democratic regime would fit the bill. There’s no telling how many of the revolutions this year in Arabia might have ultimately seen US ground troops under a Bush regime. As happened, his successor only got the US directly involved in one. It’s not clear what, exactly, Obama might do about Iran. He seems more inclined to soft power and clandestine operations than to forcible regime change, at least for now, but political exigencies may force his hand.
But what would be the outcome of war with Iran? Probably no better than that of the Iraq war, which Koehler explains wasn’t much else than disastrous:
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.
Koehler’s website explains that he is a peace journalist. I like that description. Unfortunately, there’s not much peace to write about when the focus is on an empire as rapacious, belligerent and expansive as any in history.