Late in the evening of this day in 2003, President George W. Bush announced “the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign” whose purpose was “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and defend the world from grave danger.” It might be hard slogging, he said: “A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict.”
Not much after this day in 2007, Mitch Benn sang “Happy Birthday War.”
Of course, “war” rhymes with “four”; now he’ll have to rhyme something with “five.”
The cost of the war has come to almost 4,000 dead American servicemen, 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and maybe $527 bn in direct expenses. Or maybe more; Stiglitz and Bilmes put the cost in the trillions of dollars and there are other ways to measure civilian deaths which get that number much higher, too.
It is difficult to compare the current situation to any previous in our history. To recapitulate:
(1) The administration began this war on false pretenses; this is known. We can, if we choose, armor ourself in uncertainty as to what extent they knew the pretenses were false, but that they were false, is no longer seriously debatable. We may if we like claim that wars often begin and are prosecuted amidst a degree of falsehood, and this is so. Wilson and his administration, for example, lied a fair bit about why we were fighting the Great War, and why we fought in Russia immediately afterward. I do believe that in this case the degree of divergence from reality, and the evident willfulness with which the US government achieved that degree, rather distinguishes this episode from the ordinary war in which truth falls at the first fusillade.
But before we get too bogged down there, let’s move back a step:
(2) The first phrase above was, “The administration began this war”. That in itself should be uncontroversially true and worth considering. (It seems, further, uncontroversially true that this was, because of (1), preventive rather than preemptive war.) Few other wars in American history qualify under that rubric. Some “interventions,” some “actions” count: but really, you have to talk to the Sioux, to the Spanish, to the Mexicans—and those with long memories—to go back to an era when the U.S. plainly and openly started proper wars.
(3) The administration began this war without a good plan for what would happen to give us a victory. This resembles a couple of other wars in American history, notably the Philippine War and the Vietnam War. The former war, one could say we won, as against the latter which, let’s be honest, we pretty much lost. It is hard to say that either was quite worth the cost. I refer here to Theodore Roosevelt’s succinct summations:
While I have never varied in my feeling that we had to hold the Philippines, I have varied very much in my feelings whether we were to be considered fortunate or unfortunate in having to hold them, and I most earnestly hope that the trend of events will as speedily as may be justify us in leaving them
I don’t see where they are of any value to us or where they are likely to be of any value.
It would be around another forty years or so before we did leave them. Which might prompt us to reflect on the wisdom of Mark Twain’s all-purpose observation when applied to imperial wars: “It is easier to stay out than get out.”
(4) At this point we appear to be in a phase of the war whose primary purpose is “the defense of the power influence and prestige of the United States in both stages irrespective of conditions”. It is not clear how this will end, let alone end well. The last time we were here (for those who did not click the link, I note the phrase is from Neil Sheehan’s summary of the Pentagon Papers) the Nixon administration reached out to the countries funneling arms and aid to our guerrilla enemies. We are not obviously now doing that. The Nixon administration also escalated the war while professing to wish to see it end. We are kind of now doing that. It is not having no effect at ending the war, but it is not having the desired magnitude of effect either.
I suppose the approximate equivalent might have been if, after the Mexican War, the U.S. had succumbed to the all-Mexico movement and then faced a guerrilla insurrection lasting years.
John McCain wants “a greater military commitment.” He refers to our remaining in Iraq for a long time—a hundred, a thousand years—so long as US casualties stay down. Which is to say, he seems to envision something like the Philippine scenario. He doesn’t quite say how we get there from here.
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to draw down troops and internationalize the effort to stabilize Iraq. Obama points out that he correctly predicted from the start that the war would go badly.
My daughter dances ballet, fights with her brother, and is starting to read. She draws beautiful pictures and is learning to play the piano. Each day, it seems, she suddenly comes up with an extraordinary unprompted observation about the people she knows, what they do, and why. She has not been alive a single day when we have not been at war in Iraq.