Ten years since the start of the Iraq war: a military buildup sold as a way of preventing a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; an invasion based on inconclusive evidence whose gaps were interpreted in ways most favorable to combat; a false victory symbolized by a “mission accomplished” sign on a jet carrier; a vigorous insurrection costing the lives of thousands of American troops; a surge whose success is still being debated today; and then, at long last, an exit.
That, in a nutshell, summarizes a war whose most definitive lesson was pithily summed up by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: Any president who wants to send a big American land army to the Middle East again, Gates said, should “have his head examined.”
But in looking for explanations, we shouldn’t focus only on years 0 to 10. The war did not begin 10 years ago this week any more than it ended when combat troops left. The narrative of the Iraq war has a prologue and an epilogue whose lessons are as valuable to the United States as those derived from what came in between.
As for the prelude, defenders of the war have somehow successfully rewritten the story to ignore the fact that many scholars, journalists, and defense specialists were urging President Bush not to succumb to this folly.
The war’s proponents simply ignored reports like those produced by the now-defunct Knight-Ridder chain — which challenged the assumptions that the administration, and its more powerful journalist allies, were selling at the time. Those same proponents mocked former government officials, including ex-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who urged Bush not to attack Saddam Hussein. They dismissed the generals who warned of the dangers of lengthy occupation. And all those civilian protestors were accused of being naive, modern-day Neville Chamberlains.
David Kay, the former weapons inspector and then head of the Iraq Survey Group, which found no proof of the weapons of mass destruction that he had so flippantly promised, eventually declared that “we were all wrong.”
But who exactly is “we”?
The Iraq war’s prologue and epilogue are as important as what came in between.
Intelligence assessments may have been flawed, but to suggest that they alone were responsible for the war is a misreading of events. There were plenty of other people whose predictions of what was to come were spot-on. For the future wars and might-be wars, this is the essential lesson of Iraq: There were many people who predicted, correctly, all the what was bound to come. There was no single “we.” Ideology fueled the decision to go to war, and it overwhelmed all the contrary assessments that were delivered in gray, the cautionary hue.
We know now that it is much easier to start wars than to fulfill our commitments to those who fought them. We can never know what Iraq would be like today if the war had not been fought, but we have some sense of what was lost by those who were asked to wage it.
Most Iraq war veterans came home to restart lives that had been interrupted, but not damaged. They were the lucky ones. Over 4,400 soldiers died there, most of them after the initial mission — removing Saddam Hussein — was accomplished. Add the suicides, and the physical and mentally wounded, and this war’s toll will keep on mounting.
Our system for veterans cannot seem to manage the burdens war imposed. For example, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, 97 percent of all claims for services and compensation are made on paper. Is it any wonder that they are, on average, delayed for a year? Talk about shock and awe.
How we fought the war itself will be judged by military historians and counterinsurgency scholars. They will review the mistakes and false assumptions that led us to such long combat, and that made it so difficult to leave. But that shouldn’t be the end of the questioning.
Anniversaries are just an easy way to remember that time is passing.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem