For so many reasons, watching Iraq descend into chaos is profoundly disheartening. Iraq is today and always has been a Gordian knot that cannot be unraveled. To believe that democracy can be imposed on this ancient, Byzantine place (others have tried, including the British), its history rife with sectarian animosity, is hubris in the extreme.
And despite our tortured and tragic experience in Vietnam — lessons we ignore at our peril, the cost in lives and treasure still breathtaking — we were convinced by a duplicitous administration that Iraq posed a clear and present danger. And with a straight-faced urgency and conviction, the neocons sold a fraudulent rationale to the American people, one buttressed by images of mushroom clouds and weapons of mass destruction, while insisting that a war of choice, not necessity, was essential to our national security.
We have spent more than $2 trillion — $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi army — wanting democracy more than the Iraqis. Inexplicably, we built an embassy of five million square feet in Baghdad, the largest embassy in the world, nearly as large as the Vatican, at a cost of more than $750 million. Imagine devoting such resources to rebuilding our schools and preschools, hiring more counselors and nurses and teachers, leveling the playing field in our inner city schools, while rebuilding our infrastructure, meaning roads and water treatment plants and bridges and libraries and our air traffic control system. We could employ hundreds of thousands of unemployed or underemployed affected severely by the Great Recession.
But now, for all the hyperbolic, cliché-driven stand up rhetoric — George W. Bush was fond of saying, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" — when tested by a relatively small band of extremists, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), we watched as the Iraqi police and soldiers took off and discarded their uniforms and handed over their weapons and Humvees, relinquished bases with millions of dollars in materiel and vanished into the crowds that fled from Falluja, Tikrit and Mosul.
It is impossible to watch these events unfold in Iraq and not think of the thousands of families who have lost sons and daughters, fathers and brothers. Like us, they are now observing the implosion of Iraq and asking themselves, with throats tight with rage and an abiding sadness, "For what?" Their heartbreaking grief has been unremitting (we can only imagine), and, of course, they wish above all else to believe that those 4,500 soldiers killed, whose pictures sit on mantels and tables, next to a folded American flag, gave their lives for something of value, something essential. As a nation, what do we say to them?
And painfully we must remember the sacrifice made by the more than 32,000 troops who returned to America from Iraq horribly wounded, whose lives will forever be scarred, be it physically, mentally or both. Many, who once stood straight and stepped forward, have returned with traumatic brain injuries so severe that they must reach deep inside for the courage to move forward each day. Others, profoundly damaged, have found their ultimate refuge is suicide, and are taking their lives at an alarming rate (estimated to be 22 per day). For those who loved them, it is often more than they can bear.
Our soldiers went and fought and lived and struggled to survive in the most remote and unforgiving outposts, believing in good faith that there was a reason for this war, or why else would those in Washington have sent them into harm's way? It has proved to be a stunning betrayal, and its magnitude defies comprehension.
As an aside: I recently watched a clip of G.W. Bush appearing on Jay Leno. He sat there, taking his ease, and presented Leno with a portrait of the host. W. explained to Leno that he had found in art new purpose and now spends his days standing before an easel. I had the thought — decidedly unforgiving — that there were countless soldiers whose suffering and pain will never allow them to paint even one stoke.
Instead of painting, I would wish for W. that he spend the rest of his life seeking redemption and doing whatever he can, using all his resources and contacts and influence, to make the lives of those wounded, if only by degree, better. Whatever it takes. Ditto for Dick Cheney.
Not surprisingly, the architects of the Iraq conflict, those neocons who insisted that America would be cheered in the streets of Baghdad, have reappeared to once again burnish their credentials and repave the road to war, all from the safety of their offices. It is jaw-clenching déjà vu all over again. Hopefully this time we will turn away and refuse to listen.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.