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Was There a War in Iraq?

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As America's involvement diminished last autumn, I wondered how the Iraq War would be remembered. Would we recall only the U.S. sacrifice of blood and treasure, or would we grapple with its broader meaning -- not least the hundreds of thousands dead, the millions displaced, the "smoking ruin" of a once-modern country?

The answer is trickling in, and it is precisely what I expected. Consider first the photo exhibit in New York, "Conflict Zone," honoring photojournalists killed or wounded in recent U.S. wars. What is striking about the photos in the exhibit -- those online -- are how very few depict the ravages of war brought on by the American invasions and occupations for Iraqis and Afghanis. We see many images of U.S. flag-draped caskets, kids playing soccer, a child cuddled by a marine, smiling girls, and many, many photos of American fighting men. After all, these photos seem to say, these wars were all about Americans, so why show anything else?

Or consider another type of forgetting. The New York Times published a forum online last week, "Does the U.S. Have a Plan for Iraq?" Five contributors, four of which could fairly be described as conservatives, made brief comments. Several of them took up one of the Republican talking points, that President Obama has essentially cut-and-run from Iraq. "The arbitrary timelines for withdrawal coupled with desultory political engagement produced a predictable Iraqi political crisis," charged Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution. Marisa Sullivan of something called the Institute for the Study of War asserts, "The United States has fewer ways to influence the situation in Iraq than it has had in the past, given the significant (but largely self-imposed) loss of leverage caused by a single focus on disengagement and withdrawal." They are not only upset about the hasty retreat, but the residual support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they find distasteful.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that the timetable for withdrawal was set by President Bush, the impossibility of extending that timeline foiled by the Haditha massacre (the result of which is Iraq's refusal to sustain U.S. criminal immunity), that Maliki's power was consolidated under Bush, and that a major promise of Obama's 2008 election was withdrawal from Iraq. What is more troubling about the right-wing moaning is that they fail to mention that eight-year war that just ravaged the country.

Schake, who worked in the Bush White House, notes the "not uncommon conspiracy-mindedness of societies emerging out of decades of authoritarianism" to account for Iraqis' suspicion of U.S. motives. She might have read opinion polls in Iraq that for years has pinned responsibility for the colossal violence and devastation of the war -- yes, our war in Iraq -- squarely on the U.S.

Another, more sophisticated contributor to the forum, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, made a similar point. "Iraq is an incredibly fragile state whose democratic institutions are weak and mostly overwhelmed by the residual fear, anger, avarice and competing aspirations of its various leaders and communities," he notes, but doesn't mention why that might be.

What was common to all the commentators is a failure to mention that there was a war, started by the United States, pursued in violation of international law, and resulting in the deaths and displacement of more people than virtually anyone cares to acknowledge. If it's not mentioned, it just might not have happened, at least for those who urged it on.

The war's destruction escapes nearly all discussions of the U.S. history in Iraq. It's a destruction that includes 20 years of war and sanctions. The 12-year sanctions period resulted in more than a doubling of infant mortality with estimates ranging to 500,000 additional children dead. (This is bipartisan callousness: Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared such infant deaths as "worth it" to get rid of Saddam, which of course they did not do.) The 2003-2011 war took hundreds of thousands of lives through direct violence and indirect causes like malnutrition and demolished health services. The most accurate method of estimating mortality--randomized, household surveys -- held that between 400,000 and 650,000 "excess deaths" had occurred as a consequence of the war, and those surveys were done nearly six years ago, at the peak of the violence. Since 1991, the United States' actions -- sanctions, invasion, occupation, failure to provide security when a civil war broke out -- have resulted in well over a million dead Iraqis.

No wonder the war and sanctions enthusiasts don't want to mention any of this.

As the photo exhibit shows, however, this capacity to forget is not limited to the right wing. Virtually no journalists or political leaders have explored the destruction of Iraq. President Obama never mentioned the Iraqis' sacrifices in his speeches announcing or celebrating the end of the U.S. war. Journalists like Anderson Cooper routinely describe the death toll in the "tens of thousands." Rachel Maddow has aired more stories about the lack of victory parades for Iraq War vets than she has about Iraqi civilians killed in the war. NPR and PBS are reluctant to take up the issue as well.

Of course, Republicans are keenest to tag Obama with fecklessness in Iraq -- hence the proliferation of red herrings in the New York Times forum. We will hear more of this as the campaign drags on and violence continues to beset the country, but the plain fact is that Americans didn't care much about Iraq when the war raged and certainly don't care now.

Unless a thorough investigation of the war's consequences for Iraqis is undertaken, however, the forgetting will soon be hardened into America's national narrative -- a "tragedy" (so many wasted American lives), a "noble mistake," and certainly that useful catch-all, a "mess." And because we have mentally buried the destruction of Iraq so quickly, the next war will be so much easier to start.

John Tirman is the author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars

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