The headline of an August 22, 2007, article in the New York Times reads, “Citing Vietnam, Bush Warns of Carnage if U.S. Leaves Iraq.” Readers with live brain cells must be stunned by such a warning. What, exactly, does President Bush imagine is happening every day in Iraq now? Does he envision scenes of social tranquility and cooperative harmony amid the peaceful palms of Mesopotamia? And what, one wonders, does he suppose was going on earlier in Vietnam, as the U.S. forces extended their unwelcome stay year after grisly year? At times, observing the president and listening to his speeches, one simply doesn’t know what to make of him. Is he actually as detached from reality as he appears to be? And do his handlers really believe that at this late date, the American people will take seriously the rhetoric his speech writers persist in putting into his mouth?
No one knows precisely how many Iraqis have perished from violence since the U.S. forces unleashed shock and awe on them in March 2003 as a prelude to “liberating” them and shoving the blessings of “democracy” down their throats. Estimates vary from several scores of thousands to several hundreds of thousands. In any event, the number of deaths is enormous, especially in relation to the country’s population of approximately 25 million in recent years.
If we suppose, for example, that 100,000 Iraqis have died as a direct or indirect result of the present war, that number is equivalent to 1,200,000 deaths in the United States, whose population has been in the neighborhood of 300 million in recent years. Does anyone doubt that Americans would consider 1,200,000 war-related deaths in four and a half years to constitute “carnage”? Whatever the name one gives it, the number equals more than 400 times the number who died as a result of the infamous 9/11 attacks, and plenty of Americans were outraged by that relatively tiny number of fatalities. How might they have felt if they had suffered as a result of invasion and occupation the equivalent of the 9/11 death toll every fourth day since March 20, 2003? (The deadliest war in U.S. history, the War Between the States, caused approximately 620,000 deaths, most of them of soldiers, in four years.)
Sad to say, the Iraqi death toll may have been much greater than the one assumed in the preceding illustrations, more than six times greater, according to one respectable estimate. In addition to this appalling mortality, the war has caused countless wounds, injuries, illnesses, and an unspeakable amount of human misery and heartbreak. The great majority of those who have died or sustained injuries have been noncombatants, people who just happened to be within the blast radius of bombs, rockets, and shells or in the path one or more of the billions (yes, billions) of bullets U.S. forces have fired and the lesser but still considerable number the feuding Iraqi factions have fired. The descriptions and accounts of parents whose children have been killed or terribly wounded and children whose parents have been killed are agonizing to read. Yet such events are utterly normal in Iraq today: they occurred yesterday, they are occurring today, and they will occur tomorrow.
So, to return to George W. Bush, what does he suppose will happen if the U.S. forces do not leave Iraq? Surely the answer must be: carnage on a vast scale, carnage with no end in sight. Regardless of how deeply the president may immerse himself in wishful thinking, no other outcome may reasonably be expected.
Bush reminded the listeners of his “carnage warning” speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City that when U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, “the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens.” So it was. Yet, once the U.S. forces had done what they had done prior to 1973, what would have happened had they remained in Vietnam and continued to carry on their war business as usual? The only reasonable answer is: more of the same, on a vast scale — carnage that would have continued as long as the U.S. forces remained in the country.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam earlier, we must expect that if the U.S. forces were to leave, more carnage would occur. It is conceivable that the Iraqis would devise a way to settle their differences without enormous violence, but the odds now seem greatly against their doing so. Ultimately, of course, they would find a way; no society can persist forever in a state of civil war on the scale that now prevails in Iraq. Yet many more people are almost certain to die and to suffer wounds and the destruction of property before a peaceful resolution is effected, and that resolution itself may be dreadful in other regards. The United States, however, cannot prevent this distressing outcome. Indeed, its invasion and occupation have created conditions that make such an outcome virtually unavoidable. In short, the U.S. adventure in Iraq cannot have a happy ending. Just because the president unleashed the demons that are raging across Iraq does not mean that he or anyone else can chain them now.
Unless the U.S. forces leave, however, their containment will never really get started, because aside from a small group of collaborators and puppet officials, all Iraqis agree on the desirability of getting U.S. and other foreign forces out of the country. When Great Britain formed Iraq out of three Ottoman provinces after World War I and governed it as a League of Nations mandate, the Iraqis resisted the overlord’s rule to a greater or lesser degree until the Brits granted them independence (with Britain retaining military bases and transit rights) in 1932, leaving behind a political situation congenial only to dictatorship and repression. When the United States leaves Iraq, the political situation will be even uglier, probably for a very long time. No one has a magic sword to slay the dragons of ethnic, tribal, religious, and ideological hatred and conflict that suffuse Iraqi society or a magic potion to suppress the Iraqi appetite for political violence. Moreover, at this point a great many Iraqis have scores to settle with one another. For the neocon ideologues to have imagined that the U.S. armed forces could waltz into Iraq and establish a viable liberal democracy, initiating a cascade of similar political transformations across the Middle East, ranks among the greatest delusions of modern history.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president’s mind cannot accommodate much logic or empirical evidence. And he has admitted, as if an admission were necessary, that he does not “do nuance.” He and his speech writers will go to any lengths, however, to create the impression that keeping U.S. forces in Iraq will be good for the Iraqi people, not simply for Halliburton, Blackwater, Alliant Techsystems (the military cartridge manufacturer), and the rest of the military-industrial complex. Bush’s term in office is not scheduled to end until January 20, 2009, an interval that now feels like an eternity, and despite everything that suggests the wisdom and humanity of getting U.S. forces out of Iraq as soon as possible, he appears hellbent on staying the homicidal course without so much as even a rhetorical retreat from his self-righteous, Manichean conception of the complex conflicts ravaging that wretched land. And why should any humane person approve of staying this ill-fated course? Because, the president declares, a U.S. departure might result in carnage.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.