On the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War

“Active duty military personnel in uniform, and people needing a little extra time or assistance, are free to board at this time.”

US Airways from Washington to Charlotte accorded the same treatment to soldiers as to people on the short bus, cripples and mental defectives. And why not? The men and women who served in Iraq often need a little help.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal told the tale of one of them, Marine Lance Corporal Williams. The only survivor of a roadside bomb, now back in civvies, he can’t seem to enjoy himself. The WSJ says he wonders why he alone was spared while all the other members of his squad – his “family” – were killed. Perhaps, too, he wonders why any of them had to die.

Back to ‘normal’ life, the veteran faces a new enemy. Statistically, in uniform or at home, he is more likely to kill himself than be killed by someone else.

Next month brings us to the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq. In the US it was a very popular war at first. Americans wanted to strike a blow against someone. Iraq was available. But after a few years, the public lost interest and then turned against it.

It wasn’t worth it, they thought. Some felt betrayed, led into the war on false pretenses. A few soldiers, too, saw they were badly used. And more than a few taxpayers counted up the cost and didn’t like the numbers. From any angle you looked at it, the Iraq War was a mistake.

It was “the most disastrous foreign policy decision of my lifetime… worse than Suez,” said British minister Kenneth Clarke on the BBC. Why disastrous? Because there are now more Al-Qaeda fanatics than ever, who are more determined than ever to cause trouble. And any real enemy of the United States of America learned that it had better get real weapons of mass destruction – and fast. Not having them would not save you from invasion.

But the costs of war go far beyond strategic blunders.

Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman:

Between 2003 and 2006, according to a peer-reviewed study in the Lancet medical journal, 601,000 more people died in Iraq as a result of violence – that is, bombed, burned, stabbed, shot and tortured to death – than would have died had the invasion not happened. Proportionately, that is the equivalent of 1.2 million Britons, or six million Americans, being killed over the same period.

… 31 per cent of the excess deaths in Iraq can be attributed to coalition forces – about 186,000 people between 2003 and 2006. Second, most studies show that only a minority of Iraqi insurgents were card-carrying members of AQI. [Al Qaeda Iraq]. The insurgency kicked off in Fallujah on 28 April 2003 as a nationalist campaign, long before the arrival of foreign jihadists but only after US troops opened fire on, and killed, 17 unarmed Iraqi protesters. Third, there were no jihadists operating in Iraq before our Mesopotamian misadventure; Iraq had no history of suicide bombings. Between 2003 and 2008, however, 1,100 suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the country. The war made Iraq, in the approving words of the US general Ricardo Sanchez, “a terrorist mag¬net… a target of opportunity”.

“Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts,” wrote the Iraqi blogger known by the pseudonym Riverbend on her blog Baghdad Burning in February 2007. “It’s worse. It’s over. You lost… You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out… You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power… ”

In September 2011, a Zogby poll found that 42 per cent of Iraqis thought they were “worse off” as a result of the Anglo-American invasion of their country, compared to only 30 per cent of Iraqis who said “better off”. An earlier poll, conducted for the BBC in November 2005, found a slim majority of Iraqis (50.3 per cent) saying the Iraq war was “somewhat” or “absolutely” wrong.

In terms of the financial cost, we estimated that the war in Iraq would cost $1trn when it was launched. Dear readers wrote to say we were crazy. It was a cake walk, they said. They said it could be accomplished for pennies. But even $1trn was far too low. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz may be an idiot, but he can add. And he puts the cost at over $5trn, perhaps $6trn, when the final bill for missing limbs and life-long psychological care is tallied.

Was it worth the expense? You decide. But, first, what kind of expense was it? Not a necessity. There was never any need. An investment? At first, some war proponents cited the return on investment we’d get from oil concessions. But most of those have gone to foreign companies and oil is sold at world prices anyway.

That leaves entertainment. At $80,000 per family of four it was far more expensive than cable TV. But less than a beach house. Several novels and big-budget movies have come out of it. Americans watched its progress on prime-time TV – like a SuperBowl for mortal stakes.

And thinking Americans surely got their juices flowing, with laughter or outrage. At Tony Blair, for instance, who said there was “no doubt” they would “find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.”

And at Dick Cheney, who said the invaders would be “greeted as liberators” and George W Bush, who claimed “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East” would be “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

But there is one other way in which the war against Iraq may have been worth it. True, it was a disastrous adventure from almost every perspective. But mistakes are always more valuable than successes. The whole progress of mankind depends on them. You make mistakes, you learn and you correct them.

The trouble with the Iraq War is that the people who made the mistake have learned nothing. The lies and delusions behind the war never blew back into the faces of those responsible for them. Instead, soldiers, taxpayers, and innocent Iraqi civilians paid the price. Politicians, the military brass, and the pundits – notably Thomas Friedman – who promoted the war still walk on two legs and sleep soundly at night.

Too bad they can’t share, more directly, the war’s pedagogic benefits. Perhaps, in genuine sympathy for the victims, they could cut off a leg and, in a dark night of moral desperation, at least try to remember where they hid the pistol and the ammunition.

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  • Jack

    The little guy, the guy at the bottom has to face reality. As do small or new organizations.

    But as organizations get larger, or better established, or as one moves up any organization, including government, so one becomes distanced from the realities.

    The business of the organization becomes a game. This is what the leaders of the USSR were engaged in while their nation atrophied around them.

    There is today no organization bigger, or better established than the US government, which is staffed by many people who are out of touch with the realities of the things they address.

  • Changing Man

    Not sure why I’m reading this article on the MW website? If it comes under the heading of global economics then lets try to put the costs of the war (apparently 5-6 Trn $) into a perspective that MW readers can relate to? E.g. the global economic crisis has resulted in an output loss equivalent to between $60trn and $200trn for the world economy and between £1.8trn and £7.4trn for the UK ( BoE 2010).
    My conclusion is that while soldiers and citizens were losing their lives in Iraq, the financial sector was engaged in self-serving activities which would destroy even greater $value.

  • LERENARD

    ‘The end of war is seen only by the dead’ -Plato

  • Boris MacDonut

    #2 C Man. The World Economy is worth $70 trillion per year. Over what timescale do you suggest we are losing $200 trillion?
    The UK economy is$2.5 trillion,when do we lose $7.4 trillion?
    The Iraq war lasted about a month. How did it cost one tenth of the World’s money?

  • Changing Man

    I’m quoting the BoE Boris. “Credit crisis cost the nation £7trn, says Bank of England
    Independent, Wednesday 31 March 2010
    The financial crisis has cost the British economy up to £7.4trillion in lost output, according to the Bank of England.
    Andrew Haldane, the Bank’s executive director for financial stability, said that taking into account the permanent damage done to the productive potential of nations across the world, as well as the immediate costs of supporting the banks and the recession, there is an output loss equivalent to between $60trn and $200trn for the world economy and between £1.8trn and £7.4trn for the UK.”

  • Boris MacDonut

    #5 i assume they are looking long term .Either a lifetime (now 80+ years) or until the end of time. I still find the ststistic ridiculous. 7,400billion over even 80 years is still about £90 billion a year for nearly three generations.

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