Opinion: On not learning from the Iraq War


Published: 03-27-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

This March marks the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It’s amazing how little public reflection there has been about the American role in that endeavor. The Iraq War was not an error or a tragic mistake. It was a crime, a needless war fought on false pretenses.

The American ruling class, Republican and Democratic, has utterly failed any test of accountability for what it did to Iraq. There has been no reckoning, making the likelihood of future Iraq-type invasions, probable. When I call the war a crime, I am not being hyperbolic.

After World War II, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg wrote, “War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

The U.N. Charter forbids military aggression unless in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it. Neither allowing criteria applied here. In this instance, an invasion proceeded because our government systematically lied. The U.S. government committed the supreme international crime.

After 9/11, instead of focusing on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration claimed Iraq and Saddam Hussein were to blame. This was in spite of the fact Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Why the Bush administration shifted focus to Iraq remains something of a mystery. Possibly it had to do with Iraq’s immense oil reserves and possibly it had to do with Bush’s dislike of Saddam because Saddam had wanted to kill Bush Sr.

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The Bush administration created a false narrative around weapons of mass destruction (or WMD) existing in Iraq. They spread entirely unfounded lies about Iraq possessing lethal weapons including biological weapons, chemical weapons and nuclear bombs.

In January 2003, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice famously said to Wolf Blitzer, “...there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he (Saddam) can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly declared, “there’s no doubt Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.” In January 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared Saddam “has large unaccounted for stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, including VX, sarin, mustard gas, anthrax, botulism and possibly smallpox.” The Bush administration fabricated conclusions from intelligence in many statements even though the CIA had told them there was no reliable evidence about WMD.

Hans Blix, the UN Weapons Inspector, had found no WMD in Iraq but he was ignored. The Bush administration did not want to wait to see what Blix found. There was a rush to war.

A complacent and willing mass media acquiesced in the Bush fantasy about WMD. The list of Iraq War cheerleaders was bi-partisan, including many liberals as well as neo-conservatives. All shared a colonialist mentality. In its coverage of the war, the Fourth Estate failed America by buying into lies and deception and regurgitating the propaganda. They lent a helping hand to American imperialism.

Still, before the war was fought, many millions around the world saw through the falsity and knew the war lacked any justification. Absolutely massive anti-war demonstrations flared up around the globe. I recall marching in front of the State House in Concord with many others. The anti-war voices were ignored though, and what ensued was a monumental and predictable debacle.

Forty-three days after the “shock and awe” start of the war, Bush dressed up in a military flight suit and appeared on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a large banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” In cocky fashion, Bush and company had predicted a quick victory but the only thing accomplished was massive death and destruction and a terrible worsening of the quality of life in Iraq. The invasion led to a lengthy and unexpected occupation, insurgency, sectarian violence, and the rise of the Islamic State.

In the Iraq War, 4,418 Americans died and 31,994 were wounded. That statistic doesn’t capture the full picture of the harm done to our troops.

In her book, “They Were Soldiers,” Ann Jones quotes a military Mortuary Affairs specialist, Jessica Goodell, saying, “War is disgusting and horrific. It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the list of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”

Then there is the matter of veteran suicides. Since 9/11 the number of veterans and service members who have died by suicide has dramatically spiked up. The trend greatly outpaces the suicide rate of the general population.

As for the Iraqis, it is estimated 275,000 to 306,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by violence in the war. Many more died from indirect causes like poor health care, degraded infrastructure, and increased lawlessness. Four million Iraqis were displaced and 1.5 million Iraqis left the country.

We left a legacy of torture at Abu Ghraib and other black sites. We got rid of Saddam but the country remains a kleptocracy with millions mired in poverty. Food scarcity and lack of clean drinking water are common. Corruption is rampant and dangerous militias roam the streets and threaten perceived enemies. Women remain enslaved by extremist religion and lack freedoms. The only winner appears to be Iran whose influence has increased.

The American perpetrators of the Iraq War, including war hawks like Bush, Cheney,  Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Paul Bremer, have faced no consequences. They have effectively been rehabilitated. They are not in the dock at the Hague waiting for war crimes prosecutions. It’s like America is in the grip of collective amnesia and delusion. There is no recognition or statement of regret or contrition for how the Iraqi war came about nor how it was conducted.

When our leaders critique Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine, they fail to recognize that we lack any moral standing in the eyes of most of the world because of our own imperialist misadventure in Iraq.

The lies of the Iraq War paved the way for a pathological liar and fascist like Donald Trump. Government lies conditioned the public to an acceptance of a war on truth. I wish I could say we have learned lessons from Iraq but we clearly have not.

The military-industrial complex and our capitalist system are heavily invested in war-fighting. It remains to be seen whether our policymakers will avoid future disasters as foolish, unnecessary, and destructive as the Iraq War.