The Iraq War raises many questions still, 10 years after those first bombs sought out Saddam Hussein. Most of the coverage of this tenth anniversary will focus on the decisions leading to the war, the blend of lies and arrogance in the Bush administration, which never really learned a lesson from their vast carelessness. Others will focus on the naiveté of the liberal hawks -- Hitchens, Remnick, Ignatieff, et al -- whose self-righteousness could have lit up a metropolis. Or the spotlight will be on the fallen soldiers and marines, the 4,488 killed in Iraq, and the effect on their families.
What we won't hear much about is what happened to Iraqis. And having written about this many times, having commissioned a mortality survey in Iraq, and having developed an explanation for American indifference, I am hardly surprised that the national discourse about the war focuses the way it does.
As I reflect on the 10 years of the Iraq War, what is most striking with respect to the war's enormous human toll -- nearly one million dead, five million displaced, hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, untold misery -- is the sheer callousness of the pro-war clique when confronted with these facts. As I argued in my book about this topic, The Deaths of Others, nothing stings the national security establishment like the charge of wanton killing. Even failure in war is more acceptable than culpability for large numbers of civilian casualties. And that, perhaps as much as any reason, is why the policy and media elites avoid the topic almost completely.
One expects the neocons, the right-wing media, and the Republican Party generally to be in denial. Their embrace of the war policy was steeped in mendacity and callousness from the beginning, as the respected intelligence analyst Paul Pillar has said repeatedly. In dissecting the rationales for invading Iraq, Pillar notes that the war's architects continue to cling to the demonstrably false claim that it's all about faulty intelligence regarding Saddam's alleged WMD program. "Intelligence did not drive or guide the decision to invade Iraq -- not by a long shot, despite the aggressive use by the Bush administration of cherry-picked fragments of intelligence reporting in its public sales campaign for the war," he wrote recently.
In my view, the Bush regime's motives were instead about getting rid of Saddam, transforming the Middle East, protecting Israel, and guaranteeing access to oil. The price to be paid by Iraqis for these grand and self-serving objectives was an afterthought, if it even rose to that status. The war makers maintain, says Pillar, that their only mistake was believing faulty intelligence. Their only mistake. The recent film about Dick Cheney drives this home as well -- no regrets.
But the neglect of Iraqi suffering is a bipartisan affair. One need only look back on the earlier phase of our belligerent stance toward Iraq. After all, we actually waged a 20-year war, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The most durable policy of that earlier phase were the sanctions imposed by the elder Bush and sustained by President Clinton, sanctions which were calculated to squeeze Iraqis so hard that they would depose Saddam. The actual result was a social dissolution that, among other consequences, resulted in the unnecessary deaths of between 300,000 and 500,000 Iraqi children. When questioned about this catastrophe, Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, told 60 Minutes that the suffering and mortality were "worth it" to punish Saddam. Clinton never disavowed the policy, either. A more callous display of indifference would be hard to find.
In the 2003-11 war, you would also be hard pressed to find a Democratic official who decried Iraqi suffering. As late as 2007, after it was clear that the country had been thrown into a bloody civil war and casualties were in the hundreds of thousands, the liberal Senator Dick Durbin claimed that "we have given the Iraqis so much ... We Americans, and a few allies, have protected Iraq when no one else would." He didn't mention any mortality figures apart from those of the U.S. military. The liberal intelligentsia was equally clueless. Not only did many liberal hawks cling to their hideous enthusiasm for the war far beyond the time it was clear that the WMD rationale was false, but some of them could never acknowledge that their supposed good will toward Iraqis was undermined by the ongoing carnage. Responding to the high mortality figures in 2006, for example, Christopher Hitchens cheered the high number (estimated then at 650,000), writing "who is to say how many people were saved from being murdered by the fact that the murderers were killed first?"
More sober and well-informed analysts were no less error prone. Colin Kahl, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, later made Obama's deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, wrote in Foreign Affairs in late 2006 a full-throated exoneration of U.S. military tactics in Iraq. Kahl approvingly quoted military leaders' assertions of protecting civilians and concluded: "Judging by three key markers -- the level of civilian casualties, the conduct of U .S. forces during operations, and the military's response to instances o f noncompliance -- the actions of U.S. forces in Iraq have largely matched the rhetoric o f their leaders." This, he boasted, was "conduct becoming." Among other miscues, such as accepting uncritically the lowest possible figures for civilian deaths, Kahl saw the Haditha massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by a squad of marines (and a subsequent coverup) as an excellent test case of this sterling record. In fact, as we know now, not one of the eight squad members or officers who engineered the coverup were held accountable for the murders.
Even as the retrospectives on the war spotlight the "we made mistakes" mantra, American elites still avoid the actual human toll in Iraq. They will not discuss it, they will not grapple with the current consequences, like the three million Iraqis who are still displaced from their homes, and they certainly will not consider U.S. culpability. If we don't come to terms with this catastrophe, we learn nothing. It's not just about the lying by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, or the see-no-evil media lemmings. It is a moral failing of much greater magnitude -- knowing that this carnage was occurring and not acting on it, not admitting to it, trying to burying it under more mendacity.
In the midst of the worst violence in Iraq in 2006, when the United States was obligated under international law to provide security in Iraq but was too cowardly or inept to do so, one could hear the occasional Iraqi voice in this howling wilderness of death. America didn't want to listen, but some voices came through in blogs, mostly. One such message struck a chord with me as the father of a young child. It was written by another father, in Baghdad. Perhaps more than any other artifact of the war, it captures its deepest agony:
I cannot imagine a father or mother hating their children. But in our miserable existence, we come very close to that.
An average parent in present-day "free Iraq" spends a good portion of the day and night worrying to death over his or her children going to school, going out with their friends, being a shade late in coming home ... Their agony in their sleep soaking wet in their sweat during the long power cuts in the mercilessly hot summer nights of Baghdad is a dull pain of helplessness and fury in the heart.
Most of the time you are sick with worry over their safety and well-being. The knowledge that they are in constant danger consumes you. It eats you alive.
You then realize that it is your love for them that is killing you. You begin to hate that love.
Follow John Tirman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JohnTirman