Why the War in Iraq Isn’t Really Over
By Matt Southworth on 12/19/2011 @ 11:30 AM
A Veteran’s Perspective
As the last U.S. soldiers leave Iraq, our nation is reflecting on the legacy of this war for returning veterans, for taxpayers and for U.S. relations with the rest of the world. But nine years later, I’m concerned that as a nation we are simply trying to put Iraq behind us rather than learn some lessons from this conflict. Let us all not forget the biggest lesson of all: the Iraq war was a mistake.
When I deployed to Iraq in 2004, our government argued we were in Iraq to break Saddam Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda, to continue the search for weapons of mass destruction and to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people. Today, very few people argue there were strong links between Iraq and al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion (al Qaeda moved in after the invasion). The CIA has acknowledged that it was the United Nations and the international community that blocked Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction. And looking at the headlines from Iraq, freedom and democracy still seem a long way away for the Iraqi people.
Yet as a nation we can’t seem to learn much from this record. Our military forces are still operating in Afghanistan in a way that few people believe will succeed in bringing peace or stability to the country or region.
For many of us veterans, however, the costs of the Iraq war are very personal. I lost my first friend to an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in February of 2004; I lost my most recent friend to suicide in September of this year. The war in Iraq, for me and so many other veterans, will be a life-long battle. Between 2005 and 2010, approximately one service member took their own life every 36 hours. There have been 2,293 Active Duty suicides since 2001 and more suicides than combat deaths in both 2009 and 2010.
Far too many of the veterans who have served will forever bear the scars of their experiences. Over one million service members have deployed to Iraq since 2003. The Veterans Administration (VA) is treating more than 400,000 Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury claims right now. A recent RAND Corporation study estimates that more than 620,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans have some form of Traumatic Brain Injury or Post Traumatic Stress. Combat stress from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has a profound impact on those who endure it.
The financial burden from two decade-long wars will also hinder the U.S. economy for at least the next several decades at a time when our economic security is integrally aligned with our national security. As Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted, “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Nonetheless, between 2003 and 2012 the U.S. spent over $820 billion on operational costs for the war in Iraq. This price tag does not include the interest compounded on our debt, nor the long-term cost of care for returning veterans. According to Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, authors of “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” long-term costs are likely to run between $4 and $6 trillion—all added to our already-bloated national debt.
Into this mix, policy makers are also threatening a new conflict. The steady escalation in rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran does not bode well for the future of regional stability and cooperation either. The U.S. construction of its biggest embassy in the world in Iraq and the new arms deals for the Iraqi government sound like the return of a bad movie from a decade ago. As a country, we cannot forget that the policies of arming Iraq and heightening tensions with Iran in the 1970s and 80s delivered neither peace nor stability then and they will not now.
The U.S. war in Iraq will not end with troop withdrawals—it will only end with the abandonment of the mindset that led us into this war in the first place. One of the ironies of my experience as a civilian working to lobby Congress to end war is that many people tell me of the necessity of military force to solve conflicts. It is often the soldiers and the military who are most reluctant to use military force and most wary of the unintended consequences of military action.
If a new day is truly upon us, then President Barack Obama should return to the policies he advocated when he was elected. This includes focusing on a U.S. foreign policy of engagement with the rest of the world rather than domination through military force, a draw down of troops from Afghanistan, and seeking diplomatic solutions with Iran instead of another ill-advised war. If the Obama administration wants the public to believe the war in Iraq is over, President Obama must also demilitarize U.S. engagement around the world.