Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
December 19, 2011
This is a sacred season. Ancient traditions celebrate the turning of the earth and the darkest of nights. For others it is the festival of lights, the beginning of the Christian year, and the celebration of African wisdom. For all of us, this is the first time in nearly a decade when the U.S. will no longer be officially at war in Iraq. Under cover of darkness, the last combat troops convoyed out of Iraq, bringing to an end one of the most deadly and destructive military efforts ever mounted by the U.S.
Over the next few weeks, people will debate the reasons for this war, its costs and its benefits. Already people are arguing about the role President Obama did or did not play in bringing this tragedy to a close. If history is any guide, within a very short time, news of Iraq will slip from the headlines and from our hearts, driven out by the increasingly complex struggles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and our own concerns about elections and life.
In a brief message announcing that the last of our troops had left, President Obama asked that we “honor and reflect on the sacrifices that millions of men and women made for this war.” This call for reflection is an important one. The sacrifices are almost incomprehensible. The Center for American Progress puts the death toll at between 110,663 and 119,380. Of that total, between 103,674 and 113,265 Iraqi civilians were killed. No one actually bothered to officially count these deaths. Iraqi Security Forces count 10,125 deaths. The U.S. reported 4,484 deaths and suffered nearly 94% of all coalition deaths. An additional 32,200 U.S. troops were wounded. Nearly 3 million people were displaced or turned into refugees.
The economic costs are equally staggering. Over the last nine years we have spent $806 billion on Operation Iraqi Freedom. The projected cost simply for veterans’ health care is $422 to $717 billion.
More than 2 million people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the effects of Post Traumatic Stress are ricocheting through our society in the ugly forms of domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, and suicide.
The sheer destruction of lives and hopes, combined with the folly of the invasion itself and the ever-changing rationales for it, can dominate how we reflect on this war. So much was wrong. So much destroyed. So many lives thrown away. So little achieved.
But in this sacred moment, we have the time to ask ourselves some deeper questions. We have a responsibility to think beyond the most obvious costs of lives and money.
The end of the war in Iraq raises the troubling question of what kind of people we have become? It is easier to count bodies and money than to calculate the coarse brutality that is now a part of us. In the early days of this war Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, was appalled when the Iraqi military showed the faces of captured American soldiers. But within a few short months, the U.S. displayed the bodies of Hussein’s sons like trophy animals. Reminiscent of lynchings of old, we engaged in national celebrations of deaths.
The truth is that the U.S. efforts to maintain and extend our empire through force have failed. We have not achieved a political goal through military force since the end of WWII. All we have demonstrated is that we have the capacity to destroy.
This season is an opportunity for us to reflect on the horrors of war and the costs of empire. It is a time to turn our hearts and imaginations toward the creation of real peace. That might make the “sacrifices of millions” more easy to bear.