What Has Been Learned After Five Years?

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Five years ago, few proponents of war with Iraq openly stated that it would last this long. We all remember the optimistic talk of "cakewalks" and US troops being greeted with rose petals as they liberated the beleaguered Iraqi people. Although the war was not only sold as a short-term engagement to prevent Saddam Hussein from being a menace to America and the world, but also as a grand project to transform Iraqi society toward liberal democracy, its major advocates never imagined, or at least never admitted, that after half a decade, they’d have so little progress to show for it.

In what seems like an age ago, the major national-defense rationales for the war became debunked. To the cautious observer, these rationales were actually transparent before Shock and Awe began, but it’s now been years since they’ve captured the imagination of mainstream opinion. Only true believers, hawks more hawkish than the president, still claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. It is easier to find folks who believe Elvis is still alive.

The internationalist arguments for the war persisted longer. Phony elections bought the war party some time. Four years ago — yes, it has been that long — the Bush administration did its best to neutralize public agitation in time for reelection, and for a period around his second inauguration, even liberal critics of the administration began conceding that perhaps the war had been a good idea after all. This time around, the surge is supposed to be doing the trick, but Americans appear to be waking up to that lie, thankfully.

And yet, even after Abu Ghraib, such scandals as the cover-up of white phosphorous at Fallujah, one exposed lie after another, four thousand dead Americans (most of whom died after the capture of Saddam, nominal handover, and Iraqi election), tens of thousands wounded, and a million dead Iraqis, there still remains some hope in some circles that the US can turn it all around, if only the right manager were put in charge. Americans are fond of their military going in to crush the bad guys and free the good guys. Many who consider the Iraq war a large Bush administration failure want the US to save face and somehow do the Iraqi people right before withdrawing altogether.

Both the left and right in this country have a troubling militaristic side. Liberals who have been fairly solid on Iraq were largely unreliable, or downright bloodthirsty, when Clinton bombed Serbia. The collective-security Democrats delivered America into its four largest foreign bloodbaths, all within a period of about half a century, between the 1910s and 1960s. The right cheered on the entire Cold War, the neocons backed Clinton against a short-lived non-interventionist GOP in the 1990s, and today almost all Republicans care more about perpetuating indefinitely the war, this hopeless, vicious war, than they seem to care about any other political issue.

Yet the rationales for war are always shifting. The militarist neoconservative fantasies along with warmongering Republican party loyalty might be giving way to something new, but not necessarily something welcome. For some reason, many skeptics of the Bush policy have rallied around McCain. They have put too much stock into the idea that the current war effort has been riddled with inexperienced civilian oversight, corporate cronyism and bad planning. A maverick war hero like McCain is supposedly preferable to a draft avoider like Bush when it comes to putting our young men and women in harm’s way invading and occupying foreign nations.

The Democrats, for their part, have promised nothing to be that excited about. Obama sometimes gives vague promises to pull out within a year of coming to power (to put things into perspective, by the time this war was a year old, it had already seemed to have gone on far too long). At other times, Obama has nearly supported the Bush policy and distanced himself from his more antiwar remarks. Hillary has been, consistently, even worse.

What’s more, the Democrats have not at all lost their faith in aggressive foreign intervention as a perfectly fine policy option. We hear Obama — again, the most dovish president we’re likely to have — discuss intervening in Pakistan and boosting troop levels in Afghanistan. The latter has been a pet talking point of the Democrats since the political center soured on Iraq: they have kept promising to stop "neglecting" Afghanistan — an ominous promise to be sure, considering that American neglect of Afghanistan is probably all that has kept it from being as bloody as Iraq. The Democrats offer continuing violence and mayhem in the Middle East. Furthermore, they have not abandoned their commitment to "humanitarian" intervention, and we might see some bombs fall in Africa, should they recapture the White House.

Lost in most discussion is an exploration as to why there has been so much American approval of the war on terror — 9/11. Hysterical and jingoistic, nearly the entire American population rallied around an aggressive invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and roughly two-thirds supported what would become America’s biggest war since Vietnam, in Iraq. It was all out of fear, a thirst for revenge, a desire to see the US on top of the world again — to put it charitably, a miscalculation of risk and a misplaced sense of justice and national pride.

But it was America’s hubristic policy of perpetual war and foreign intervention that led to 9/11 in the first place. Sadly, this is rarely mentioned today. While it is not as taboo to say as it was in the days following the 9/11 attacks — the 9/11 Commission and Paul Wolfowitz have given credence to the basic idea — the full significance is never understood or even acknowledged, except perhaps by cynical and crazed neocons saying it is the price we pay for being the world’s protector. (Odd how war can be an excuse for terrorism, just as terrorism can be an excuse for war.)

Moreover, the fundamental problems with war and occupation rarely enter the mainstream discourse. When the cost in human lives reaches the hundreds of thousands, Americans take notice, but even the ones who concede that US policy actually brought about such unspeakable horror do not seem to give the issue remotely the weight it warrants. In assessing the human suffering in Iraq, we are talking here about a hundred or more 9/11s, to put it in such crude terms. We are talking about one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in decades. We are talking about irreplaceable human lives vanquished or otherwise devastated in the fire of war.

And this brings us to the moral issues involved. By what moral principle can any government drop bombs on civilian centers of a foreign nation, turn it over to military rule and theocratic law, play favorites among warlords, and continue an invasive presence after most the population wants it to leave? By what moral principle can war itself, in the modern manifestation that is inevitably accompanied by mass death of civilians, including totally innocent children, be defended? If the sins of a foreign leader justify it, then how can we not justify outright terrorism against an aggressive nation by the same reasoning? Surely, we must draw the line at killing the innocent — the most basic of all ethical values held by nearly everyone on earth — and yet war today is completely at odds with such elementary moral premises.

In the abstract, it is possible to see a reasonable argument that organized violence is a necessary evil that can sometimes do more good than harm. Such an argument would be cold utilitarianism, but at least it would be internally plausible. But we are dealing with deeply flawed institutions here. Governments are incapable of economic calculation on their own, infamously inept in their attempts to bring about domestic order and efficiently priced social services and infrastructure, and downright murderous the more utopian their designs become. The US government, in particular, has a horrifying record in foreign affairs. Even America’s favorite war, World War II, the nation’s last victory, involved enormous human rights abuses, at home and abroad, that most Americans are embarrassed of today, if they know about them at all. It’s been sixty years since such a foreign policy success, as qualified as it was, and so why all this infinite trust in the US government’s actions abroad?

The failure of war to bring about the good ends advertised of it is the same failure we see in the socialist economies of the 20th century. It relates directly to the moral principle that is somehow embedded in reality itself that moral wrongs yield practical failures and unforeseen consequences. Domestic communism leads to starvation, domestic repression and ever-increasing social chaos. With war, the tendency of one failed intervention to lead to another ad nauseam is an unspeakably deadly cycle and a brutal sociological addiction. In practice, the very low bar for morality set with war — the acceptance of mass killing as policy — leads to a tolerance of all manners of political evil: shameless deception and secrecy, torture, citizen surveillance, crippling taxation and inflation, erosions of free speech, indefinite detentions, central administration of the economy and deliberate targeting of civilians on a mass scale, whether through bombings or blockades.

If we want perpetual war, we are on the right track with the sorts of attitudes most commonly seen concerning the Iraq war, even including views held by many of those who currently see it as a big mistake but who have not fully learned the lessons from this very costly calamity.

If, on the other hand, we want a world more peaceful than a slightly tamed down orgy of carnage in the Middle East, if we truly want a future brighter for our country and humankind, we need to learn two important lessons from this war as well as others past: Imperialism runs against the human nature of free will and the yearning to breathe free, and its aggressive nature thus renders it an inappropriate and ineffective means to bring about liberty; and, even more fundamental, the act of mass murder is not made any the less immoral and destructive to civilization simply because it is ordered by presidents and generals and carried out under the guise of flag and uniform.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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