The 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war came and went last week with little public fanfare and almost no official recognition. And no wonder. Few Americans want to think of that misguided affair, let alone celebrate it.
But it should not be forgotten or ignored. As with the Vietnam War before it, not only should the service and sacrifice of the Americans who served there be honored and remembered, there are lessons to be learned as well.
That many of those lessons are the same is disheartening. They need to be relearned nonetheless.
Perhaps chief among them is the danger of hubris. The United States invaded Iraq because its leaders were utterly convinced of their own wisdom and rectitude. They made no allowance for their humanity or that of Iraqis. They believed their particular political theory had the inevitability of gravity, never bothered to learn who they were dealing with or what forces drove them and ignored the fact that in any war the other guys can make choices as well.
Much of that centered on the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which was colossally wrong but honestly held. It was not a lie. It was simply the result of confusing a hoped-for outcome with evidence.
That vision was the real culprit and it was grounded in the worst sort of arrogance. Paul Wolfowitz was under-secretary of defense under President George W. Bush and is widely considered one of the chief architects of the Iraq war. In an open letter to Wolfowitz published in the March edition of Harpers, Andrew Bacevich traces the thinking behind the invasion to a renowned Cold War strategist named Albert Wohlstetter whom Wolfowitz admired. And in doing so, he damningly outlines how grandiose that thinking was.
Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, retired Army officer, author and professor of international relations at Boston University who at one point in his career worked with Wolfowitz. He also lost a son in Iraq.
His point is that Wolfowitz seized on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to ramp up support for invading Iraq, not out of obsession with Saddam, but to apply Wohlstetter’s ideas to “demonstrate the efficacy of preventive war” and to claim “for the United States prerogatives allowed no other nation.” It was to establish the United States not only as the sole remaining superpower, but to achieve “unquestioned supremacy.”
Wolfowitz went so far as to famously claim Iraqi oil money would cover the cost of liberating that country. But at the same time, he and the Bush administration ignored the roles of history, religion, tribal loyalty and the lasting effects of decades of a brutal and bloody dictatorship. And with Saddam out of the way, Iraq quickly devolved into a chaotic civil war.
Almost 4,500 Americans died, about 30,000 were injured, and the U.S. spent more than $1 trillion. More than 100,000 Iraqis died and more than 2 million were displaced. And as was pointed out in The Atlantic last week, the two countries that gained the most from all that were China and Iran. Whether it will ever become a functioning democracy is still unclear.
For too many Americans, Iraq means only sadness that few want to revisit. That is better, however, than risking repeating those mistakes.
As John Nagl, a retired Army officer and fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told The New York Times, “This is a little like the crazy uncle in the attic that nobody wants to talk about. But we need to because we put him there.”