A Strategic Blunder of Historic Proportions

An Iraq War veteran, (who asked for anonymity) sits and drinks a beer beside the symbolic graves of fallen friends, Sgt. Eric Snell and Pfc Michael Pittman, both from his former unit, the 1st Infantry Division, at the Arlington West Memorial on Memorial Day in Santa Monica, California on May 30, 2011.

Never forget. Or do we? 

Eighteen years ago, March 20, 2003, the United States began its second war against Iraq in a little over a decade. It is difficult to fully comprehend what led up to that point, or all that followed. We don’t talk much about Iraq now, beset by new crises that rightfully demand our attention. But I did not want to let this anniversary pass quietly. I believe strongly it merits much more than a mere mention or a tweet. So I share a deeper set of thoughts. 

I write this knowing that this topic is likely to get less visceral attention than others I might have chosen for this Sunday’s essay. Even when the war was raging at its height, this was a story that the American people didn’t want to fully confront. With an all-volunteer armed forces, the vast majority in this country were insulated from a moment-to-moment consciousness about the conflict. It was distant. And the pain and sacrifice, while tragic, did not strike at the heart of the nation’s identity. Even as a war that was sold on being relatively tidy and quick stretched on into months, and then years. Even with Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib, and the ubiquity of the term IED. 

To turn back to Iraq is to recognize a painful professional chapter in my own life, a moment where courage and moral clarity were called for, and the press, me included, did not fully rise to the challenge. As I wrote in What Unites Us (slightly re-edited):

I consider my biggest journalistic failure to be one in which I unfortunately was not alone. In the lead-up to the second Iraq War, when the American public needed a strong and independent press, too many of us blinked, didn’t ask enough tough questions, didn’t investigate deep enough, were not skeptical enough of government claims —and the nation was worse for our drifting from our core purpose. 

By all assessments, Iraq was a bloody and costly conflict that was poorly planned and poorly executed, not so much in the initial military campaign but in the rationale for invasion in the first place and then the management of occupation. Almost all of the press, myself included, accepted the selling of the war around “weapons of mass destruction” with far too little skepticism. The term “WMD” was a brilliant marketing campaign by the Bush administration to conflate the Armageddon scenario of a nuclear weapon (although most experts believed Iraq didn’t have anywhere near the capability) with the specter of chemical weapons, which, while horrific, are much more limited in scope. This wasn’t simply a vague case of “fake news.” It was subtle propaganda, with just enough of an air of plausibility to lull a nation into a war of choice. And yet the press continued to use the term “WMD” up to and after the war.

Meanwhile, the links of Iraq to al-Qaeda, which we now know were nonexistent, involved so much nuanced explanation of people and groups with foreign names that it was easy for the administration to sow confusion to sell its policies. And the press didn’t do enough to try to explain the differences. As the military effort in Iraq became an increasingly fractious occupation, the press began to ask harder questions, despite the predictable blowback from the administration. Much of what we now know about what happened in Iraq is because of great journalism. But the policy decisions had already been made and the damage had already been done.

To try to measure the cost of the war, where to even begin?

  • The biggest winner of the Iraq War was Iran. In a destabilized region, Iran’s power and influence have grown and spread. Iraq had been an implacable foe, one against which Iran had fought their own bloody and intractable war in the 1980s. But now, they have a far friendlier government in Baghdad. And American’s reputation and interests in the Middle East have been harmed, not enhanced. 

  • Before we attacked Iraq, we took our eyes off the real battle against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, at a climatic moment when we might have defeated a terror network forcefully and conclusively. The U.S. and its NATO allies appeared to be on the cusp of  taking command in Afghanistan, at least militarily, when resources and focus were suddenly yanked away and poured into a new war in Iraq. Now, Afghanistan is a war that is still ongoing, approaching 20 years! Americans are still serving and dying. Afghanis are dying, and struggling, caught in interminable conflict. (And new phases of the Iraq war still drag on.)

  • Estimates put the financial cost to the United States at around $2 trillion. This does not include an additional “$490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.” According to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, that expense could accumulate more than $6 trillion in interest over the next few decades. 

  • On both sides, there was a human cost. Nearly 5,000 U.S. service members died fighting in the Iraq War. Thousands more were maimed. Each represents a life upended and extended webs of family and friends who will never be the same. Then there is the cost for the Iraqis. A 2013 analysis as summarized by Phillip Bump for The Washington Post shows that between violence and war-related causes, there were more than 600,000 deaths. To put this in perspective: “that is about equivalent to the population of Washington, D.C., in 2010. As if every man, woman and child in the District of Columbia were killed in war, died as a result of failing infrastructure or were killed by Islamic State terrorists.” Although numbers help to frame and quantify loss, any tally would be an incomplete estimate. The toll of war and its rippling consequences on human life affect, directly and indirectly, far more than a specified war zone. And they stretch across decades.

Just a few weeks before the war began, in February 2003, I headed to Baghdad to interview Saddam Hussein. The capital was quiet, but you could feel the tension of the unknown. I had interviewed Hussein before the first Gulf War, and you could not be in his presence without feeling (excuse the language) that the pucker factor was high. This man was a mass murderer, with no remorse. If you had been in the room as I was, and considering his record, his answers to some questions, his body language, and the look in his eyes, I believe you would have concluded as I did: here was a stone cold killer.

Here are my reflections on my two interviews with Saddam Hussein.

We had to do a dance on the day of the interview —blindfolds, changing vehicles, driving in circles. We eventually arrived at one of Hussein’s palaces. It is odd to sit before someone whom you knew was in the sights of your own nation’s armed forces. I tried to cover the expected ground, attempting to break through the bravado and the practiced responses, and most importantly keep him talking. His answers came with a performance: a man who you knew was never questioned.

In my first interview with Saddam in 1990, I had asked him if he thought that the United States military, with its overwhelming firepower, would still find itself in another Vietnam. He had said it would be worse, that the United States would be defeated, and in the process knocked from its position as a superpower. History in that case proved him wrong. In the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition was content in driving Saddam from Kuwait. He would remain in power. There was no nation-building, no long occupation, no echoes of Vietnam. The second war with Iraq, of course, turned out much differently.

A few weeks after my interview with Saddam, I was heading back to Baghdad, over the road from Jordan. U.S. forces had overrun the Iraqi military with little to no opposition. Saddam was on the run. The mighty statue of him in the capitol had been pulled down by Marines (the Shelley sonnet "Ozymandias" was top of mind).

There were still pockets of resistance. We had to huddle under gunfire for a night off the side of the road west of Baghdad. As we made our way into the historic metropolis, I remember yearning for a faint hope that maybe things would turn out better than I had feared. But I had seen enough of war, of the false certainty of leaders, and of the Middle East to put much stock in optimism. 

Early on the war cheerleaders were eager for a victory lap. There was even a now-infamous photo op where President Bush crowed for the cameras in front of a banner that rang with hubris: Mission Accomplished, even though the crisis of so-called “post-war” Iraq was already emerging. What would transpire would be a catastrophe, one that might very well go down as the greatest strategic blunder in American history. 

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the failures Iraq embodied have infused subsequent crises —both domestic and international. Conceit. Recklessness. Unpreparedness. Xenophobia. 

I think of the women and men I met on my multiple trips back to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think of those who came back broken in mind and body or carried in flag-draped coffins. Was their sacrifice necessary? Did the immense burden of the few serve the many? I think about all that could have been, and was not. Books have been written on Iraq, and historians will undoubtedly return to the topic for as long as people are writing about the United States and its place on the world stage. I know I can only scratch the surface of this topic here, to give faint relief to the web of tragic detail. But I hope that you have read to this point and I want to leave you with a final thought. 

Never forget what happened, or how it came to be.  

—Dan

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