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Far From Over: The Costs and Consequences of War in Iraq
Fourth Sunday in Lent 2009

For Sunday March 22, 2009

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Numbers 21:4–9
           Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22
           Ephesians 2:1–10
           John 3:14–21

Paul Wolfowitz.
Paul Wolfowitz.

           This week marks the sixth anniversary of the United States's invasion and occupation of Iraq on March 19, 2003. President Obama has announced plans to bring home most of America's 142,000 troops by 2010 (and the 150,000 civilian contractors?), but even so, the war is far from over. Nor are the horrible costs and consequences of the war over. And whereas American officials who waged the war enjoy a culture of impunity, ordinary citizens around the world suffer the consequences of their dark decisions.

           This was a pre-emptive war of choice that did not have to happen. The successive rationales for the war that the American government gave to justify its actions have all proven to be false. Iraq did not possess WMDs, Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq was not a base for al-Qaeda (although the war made it one). The agenda of a free democracy in Iraq, observes Peter Galbraith in his book Unintended Consequences, "now has US troops fighting for pro-Iranian Shiite theocrats [the government] and alongside unreformed Baathists [the Sunni Awakening]."

           The human costs of the war have been appalling. Death, mutilation, maiming, and injuries destroy not only bodies but also human hearts, minds, lives, and spirits. As of March 3, 2009, there were 4,572 coalition deaths in Iraq (4,255 of whom were Americans). You can honor them and their families by clicking here to view their names and faces. At least 31,089 Americans have been wounded in Iraq, and with the Walter Reed scandal we now know just how badly our government failed these families.

Donald Rumsfeld.
Donald Rumsfeld.

           In Afghanistan, there have been 1,082 coalition deaths (655 Americans). You can view their names and faces here. At least 2,701 U.S. personnel have been wounded in Afghanistan.

           The human devastation among Iraqis is far worse. The Iraq Body Count project has documented a minimum of 90,000 civilian deaths in Iraq (some studies estimate more than a million). Two million Iraqis have fled their country for Syria and Jordan, and another two million have been displaced from their homes inside the country. The army and police are highly sectarian. There are few mixed neighborhoods anymore. It's entirely possible that "irreconcilable differences" (Galbraith) among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds will prevent anything like a unified state. Many experts believe they are merely biding their time until the next civil war.

           So far, the United States has spent or approved over $800 billion for the Iraq war. The final costs will be far higher, as Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes show in their book, The Three Trillion Dollar War (2008). The $800 billion has not been paid, but in effect charged to the credit cards of American children.

           What might the world look like today if the United States, in a preemptive and unilateral decision, purely from motives of self-interest and international security, had invested $800 billion in the Muslim world for health care and hospitals, schools and electricity, micro-enterprise and cultural institutions? Or spent the money on our own citizens to help those with no health insurance, fund social security, develop new sources of renewable energy, invest in schools and education, or retrain workers displaced by a fiercely competitive global economy?

Condoleeza Rice.
Condoleeza Rice.

           The Iraq war has also cost dearly in numerous geo-political ways. We've alienated ourselves from our friends, militarized international diplomacy, and enraged our enemies. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Haditha, renditions, no-bid reconstruction contracts, corruption, overpayments, and domestic wire taps have undermined the credibility of our commitment to human rights, rule of law, and democracy. The Iraq war has destabilized the greater Middle East region and supported the jihadist view of history that America wants to occupy, control or destroy their countries. War critics have been harassed and caricatured as unpatriotic. We have believed dangerous misconceptions about American exceptionalism.

           Whereas Iraq did not have WMDs, North Korea, Iran and Pakistan have grown as genuine nuclear threats. The attempt to marginalize Iran has made its influence in Iraq stronger than it has been in four hundred years. Syria is now more bold, not more threatened, and Israel is less rather than more secure. Turkey has been transformed from one of America's biggest supporters into a nation of virulent anti-Americanism. The "shock and awe" of American superiority revealed gross failures of intelligence, planning, and politics.1

           There's now a widespread consensus, based upon the meticulous research of Phillipe Sands (Torture Team), Jane Mayer (The Dark Side) and others, that the United States committed war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan when our highest officials legalized torture as public policy. According to Human Rights Watch, "more than 600 U.S. military and civilian personnel were involved in abusing more than 460 detainees." What the public has seen and heard about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is only the tip of the iceberg.

Cheney, Bush, and Gonzalez.
Cheney, Bush, and Gonzalez.

        Major General Antonio Taguba, a thirty-four year military veteran before he was forced to retire, wrote the Army's 2004 internal report on detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. More recently, in June 2008 he wrote the preface to a report by Physicians for Human Rights on prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, in Guantanamo Bay, and in Afghanistan. Taguba accused the Bush administration of committing war crimes and called for the prosecution of those responsible: "After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the [Bush] administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."2

           In his book The Gamble (2009), Thomas Ricks notes an emerging military consensus that envisions American troops in Iraq until 2015, in which case we are only halfway through America's costliest foreign policy blunder ever. Even more ominous, says Ricks, is the comment made to him last year by the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker: "What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what's happened up to now." And so, Ricks concludes: "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven't even happened yet."3

[1] See Galbraith
[3] The Washington Post, February 15, 2009, page B01ff.

Image credits: (1); (2) Council on Foreign Relations; (3); and (4)

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