Friday, December 16, 2011

War is over: the official end of the Iraq War

Man verweist Regenten, Staatsmänner, Völker vornehmlich an die Belehrung durch die Erfahrung der Geschichte. Was die Erfahrung aber und die Geschichte lehren, ist dieses, daß Völker und Regierungen niemals etwas aus der Geschichte gelernt und nach Lehren, die aus derselben zu ziehen gewesen wären, gehandelt haben.

[One refers regents, statesmen, peoples above all to instruction through the experience of history. But what experience and history teach is this: that people and governments have never learned anything from history and {never} acted according to lessons that were there to be drawn from it.] - G.F.W. Hegel, Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of History
The Iraq War is over for the United States. I was about to say "officially" over, but I suppose that's questionable. The last pullout of combat troops is on the last day of this year. And Charlie Pierce reminds us that "the war never will truly be 'over' until the authorization to start it in the first place is expunged from the law books." (The Unpaid Bills of the Iraq War Esquire Politics Blog 12/15/2011)

The President gives his view of the war's end in President Obama and the First Lady Speak to Troops at Fort Bragg 12/14/2011:

The New York Times featured the Pentagon's staged goodbye ceremony in a photo spread accompanying their story: Thom Shanker, et al, In Baghdad, Panetta Leads Uneasy Moment of Closure 12/15/2011. The story does give some indication of the miserable situation that we finally declared victory and agreed to leave, since our allied Shi'a-majority government in Baghdad refused to agree to leaving the troops the Pentagon and the Obama Administration wanted under the conditions the Americans demanded:

Almost nine years after the first American tanks began massing on the Iraq border, the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission here, closing a troubled conflict that helped reshape American politics and left a bitter legacy of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.

As Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta marked the occasion with a speech in a fortified concrete courtyard at the Baghdad airport, helicopters hovered above, underscoring the challenges facing a country where insurgents continue to attack American soldiers and where militants with Al Qaeda still regularly carry out devastating attacks against civilians.
The butcher's bill for Americans, according to the Times: "4,487 American lives, with 32,226 more Americans wounded in action, according to Pentagon statistics."

Two American bases are still open until December 31, and the American "troops that remain are still being attacked daily". Some US military trainers will also stay there, and undoubtedly some military and CIA black ops will continue, as well.

Despite all the hype about adapting to counterinsurgency, the US intervention bears striking resemblances from start to finish with the Vietnam War. Hype aside, the Pentagon did the same as they did in Vietnam; they stood up Iraqi armed forces built largely on the American model that are heavily dependent on US air and logistical support for optimal functioning:

Iraq’s military has critical weaknesses in a number of areas, from air defenses to basic logistical tasks like moving food and fuel and servicing the armored vehicles it is inheriting from the Americans and the jets it is buying. There are shortfalls in military engineers, artillery and intelligence.

"From a standpoint of being able to defend against an external threat, they have very limited to little capability, quite frankly," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the departing American commander in Iraq, said in an interview after the ceremony.
President Obama observed the impending end of the Iraq War with conventional platitudes not all that different from those featured in war speeches over the last century. No Lincolnesque invocations of mystic chords of memory, much less of Lincoln's sense of humility and tragedy. Obama from the official White House transcript, Remarks by the President and First Lady on the End of the War in Iraq-Fort Bragg, North Carolina 12/14/2011:

We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq -- 1.5 million. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded, and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice -- including 202 fallen heroes from here at Fort Bragg -- 202. So today, we pause to say a prayer for all those families who have lost their loved ones, for they are part of our broader American family. We grieve with them.

We also know that these numbers don't tell the full story of the Iraq war -– not even close. Our civilians have represented our country with skill and bravery. Our troops have served tour after tour of duty, with precious little dwell time in between. Our Guard and Reserve units stepped up with unprecedented service. You've endured dangerous foot patrols and you’ve endured the pain of seeing your friends and comrades fall. You've had to be more than soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen –- you’ve also had to be diplomats and development workers and trainers and peacemakers. Through all this, you have shown why the United States military is the finest fighting force in the history of the world. ...

As Michelle mentioned, we also know that the burden of war is borne by your families. In countless base communities like Bragg, folks have come together in the absence of a loved one. As the Mayor of Fayetteville put it, "War is not a political word here. War is where our friends and neighbors go." So there have been missed birthday parties and graduations. There are bills to pay and jobs that have to be juggled while picking up the kids. For every soldier that goes on patrol, there are the husbands and the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sons, the daughters praying that they come back.

So today, as we mark the end of the war, let us acknowledge, let us give a heartfelt round of applause for every military family that has carried that load over the last nine years. You too have the thanks of a grateful nation. (Applause.)

Part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who fought it. It’s not enough to honor you with words. Words are cheap. We must do it with deeds. You stood up for America; America needs to stand up for you.
But all the maudlin speeches in the world about our "fallen heroes" and how we "know too well the heavy cost of this war" won't bring a single one of them back. Nor will it repair the death and destruction the war brought to Iraq in the name of saving it.

We owe our "fallen heroes" and their families and every American citizen a clear understanding of how the disaster known as the Iraq War came about, including a full formal accounting of the crimes committed during it, especially the torture crimes and the blatant murders that were part of it. And, yes, there should be a full formal accounting of the war crimes committed by American soldiers and the conditions and command actions that brought them about and, all too often, ignored them or covered them up or minimized them. The Times' Michael Schmidt reports on new findings on the Haditha massacre, which the Pentagon apparently intended to (literally) commit to flames: Junkyard Gives Up Secret Accounts of Massacre in Iraq 12/14/2011:

The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.

The documents — many marked secret — form part of the military’s internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers.
In my mind, refusing to fully account for crimes like these equates rogue American soldiers who casually or carelessly murdered civilians to the actions of soldiers who did their duty and to our "fallen heroes".

No doubt, those who committed such crimes and the commanders who enabled them or covered them up would love to cover their actions with the aura of heroism and ritual worship of "fallen heroes" that our all-too-war-minded President is happy to indulge. And since Obama is deeply committed to Look Forward Not Backward - when it comes to torture, war crimes and official corruption but not to press efforts to expose criminal actions like James Risen's reporting on illegal domestic surveillance - we can't expect him to press for a serious evaluation of the "Lessons of Iraq", much less prosecution of war crimes.

Charlie Pierce argues:

On Wednesday, the president said that the Iraq War belongs to history. This, of course, is true. So, for that matter, does whatever he had for breakfast that morning. But history is not just all the stuff that happened in the past. It's why all that stuff happened in the past. It's who made all that stuff happen in the past. Until that accounting takes place, the war does not belong to history. Vietnam doesn't even fully "belong to history" yet. Our politics are still fought out over the fault lines created during that previous exercise in waste and treachery. I suspect — nay, I fear — that a great effort will be made among our political elites not to let that happen again here. Nobody will want to be "divisive." We will move forward. It will not be allowed to affect our current politics, except as a handy tool with which the war-hungry claque in our conservative foreign-policy elite can bang the president over the head a few times.

The Iraq War will "belong to history" in the sense that it will be buried there.

That will not pay all the bills. And until those bills are paid — until the proper people pay the proper recompense for what they did to this country, to that country, and to the world — the Iraq War is not over.
Speaking of maudlin, Pierce is the only writer I can think of how can pull off using the word "nay" and not have it sound maudlin. I wouldn't even try.

But what he says is very true. President Gerald Ford adopted a Look Forward Not Backward approach to the lessons of the Vietnam War, too. Obama's approach this week to the experience of the Iraq War has not been substantively different. The Vietnam War does haunt American politics, as Pierce say, as well as military strategy and popular understanding of war.

It was almost exactly 27 years between the notorious helicopter flights from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in 1974 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I hope Americans who remember the Iraq War will do a more thorough job of shaping a more realistic antiwar consensus over the next 27 years. Maybe someday there will be no more Dick Cheney's in the world. But none of us now living will be around to see that day. If we don't want future Cheneys to do what Dick Cheney and his collaborates did in the Iraq War and their war on the US Constitution, understanding the Iraq War thoroughly is an important safeguard against that.

The more I learn about history, the more modest my expectations become about humanity's ability to learn constructive lessons from the past. But if the human race has managed to go since 1945 without creating a world-devastating nuclear holocaust even though we had the means to do so, that in itself is reason for hope.

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