Friday, October 12, 2007

Supporting Our Troops in Iraq

When George Bush et al. were first talking about sending American troops to Iraq, my reaction was that there did seem to be good reason for it, but that I couldn't endorse it without an opportunity to go to Washington and ask my own questions of the President, Donald Rumsfeld, and others who supported that approach. I realized, of course, that there would be no invitation for me to do so. With earnest effort, I might have gotten to the point of obtaining an interview with an undersecretary of something or other. That would not have been sufficient; I would have wanted to go right to the source. Even then, as we have since learned, I probably wouldn't have received accurate information. It took years for reporters to uncover the gap between the claims and the reality -- to prove, in the end, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, nor even good grounds for suspecting their existence. If the sources were not being honest with the reporters, they were not likely to be honest with me either; and if they had been honest with the reporters, there would have been no need for me to undertake any such factfinding trip. This brings us to the next phase, where we find ourselves with an eighth of a million American troops in Iraq, three thousand of whom have come home in coffins, and tens of thousands who have suffered significant, in many cases lifelong physical, mental, and emotional damage, for which we (and they!) will be paying for generations. Speaking of paying, there are the long-term cost estimates which, everything included, run at least into the hundreds of billions of dollars. It really would have been cheaper to be honest with the reporters. Those soldiers are not just sitting there and dying. They are killing Iraqis. That includes intentionally killing bad guys and people who got confused with the bad guys. It also includes unintentionally killing innocent civilians. Worst, it includes intentionally murdering innocents, not only in the heat of battle but also, in extreme cases, in random criminal acts. The people doing these various forms of killing include American soldiers but also, separately from the foregoing counts, they include mercenaries who work for private security firms who are under contract with the U.S. government. The killing makes for bad feelings. These gut-level bad feelings, born of onsite circumstances, join the global chorus of offsite bad feelings that have been years in the making. That chorus first began to tune up when President Bush abused the outstanding international support for America that arose in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Somehow, a can't-lose situation of international support has turned into a can't-win situation of international abandonment: few nations of the 1991 Kuwait War coalition rejoined us this time, and most of those who did have lately been disentangling their soldiers from Iraq and flying them back home. We have offended a lot of people, in a lot of nations. That, too, has had a price. China has been grateful, I am sure, for the opportunity to extend a hand of friendship to those, around the world, whom we have alienated. Because we have been distracted and drained in Iraq, Iran and North Korea have had latitude to work toward acquisition and expansion of nuclear weapons programs. The nearly won struggle in Afghanistan looks a lot closer to being nearly lost. Concepts of democracy, justice, and personal freedom, espoused by the United States, appear insincere: these were not the principles that guided our nation's treatment of prisoners of war, or even of its own citizens, during these years of fear. Not to mention that few nations in transition are likely to think well of democracy after seeing the chaos we have wrought in democracy's name in Iraq. If there was any doubt about America previously, in the minds of potential future terrorists, we have done our best to dispel it and to paint them, and their cause, as the more noble. That was the second phase. My factfinding services, and those of the world's journalists, were not wanted, or for whatever reason were not successful in preventing the United States from making a damned fool of itself, and worse. The bad news is still unfolding. There are whole dimensions of it that I have not even mentioned, and there will probably be more new dimensions of it before we are done. But there is more to the story than bad news. As we go forward, there is also some good news, and it presently appears the ratio of good to bad may be improving. In the third phase, the phoenix emerges from the ashes. We discover that even the collapse of empires does leave a few pieces of usable plumbing in the rubble. With our hundreds of billions, we might have just made everyone in Iraq a millionaire; but as second-best, not even the destructive workings of chaos can completely obliterate the random chance of something good happening, every now and then; and what begins to appear in Iraq is that things are actually going quite a bit better than random chaos would dictate. What we see, most recently, is that some opinions in Iraq have changed. They all wanted us to leave, just not yet; and now it looks like the "not yet" part is going to be stretched out a bit. The American military seems to be behaving a lot more pragmatically under General Petraeus. Instead of blowing the hell out of everyone, there appears to be a premium on treating the Iraqis as actual people. I overstate the previous error, of course, but the news coming back was so bad, for so long, as to make obliteration seem like the erstwhile marching orders. Now, though, it appears that, in increasing numbers of sects and neighborhoods, the Iraqi people are well past the Saddam era and are even moving past the Death to Americans era. They get up in the morning; they go through their day; they have to think about how they might improve their lives; and for this purpose the Americans have a certain potential value. So there are collaborations and cooperations between us and them. It begins to sink in, this contrast between, say, a Nebraskan soccer mom and a jihadist who will behead you for misbehaving. All things being equal, the average Iraqi householder might incline, over time, to wish to see more of the former and less of the latter. The dust settles, the crappy nature of life stabilizes into an awful new form, and then people ask themselves, What next? What's next is that there will be a future, for Iraq and also for us. For Iraq, the future may come by way of a civil war, a war between Kurds and Turks, and an ultimate humiliating Vietnamlike departure flight by Americans who flee to escape the tides of warfare. Or it may come by way of gradual deescalation, capture and trial of criminal elements, in their forces and ours, and countless other small efforts to make things a bit better. For us, there will be costs and consequences of all the bad news, as mentioned above. But in the phoenix phase, one piece of good news is that the American military will be -- has been -- permanently changed and brought into the 21st century. Future defense budgets will surely be drawn up with a much sharper awareness that preparing for a war against a Soviet Union does not begin to address the situations in which the U.S. Army might find itself. Depending on how it turns out for us, the post-Iraq climate stateside may recoil for years to come -- Vietnamlike, again -- against any possibility of sending significant numbers of troops abroad. But Vietnam ultimately may not provide the guiding analogy. At some point, the ridiculous George Bush will be gone and will be heard from no more. Memories will fade in light of new events. If this war differs from Vietnam -- if, for example, it tapers off gradually and with some sense of pride and achievement -- then the idea of being an American soldier in a foreign country may be accepted, honored, and supported. We might even become one of those nations that gladly sends thousands of soldiers to participate in United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Sudan, for instance, or in the Congo, where God knows they are needed. If some sense of honor emerges from this whole military undertaking, as measured ten or more years from now, then conceivably our warrior culture could ennoble itself by effecting an exact opposite of the Bush Administration's go-it-alone mentality: we might finally become more a part of the world, and be more welcomed into it. The Chinese, who have capitalized mightily upon the opportunity we have provided to them, might yet emerge as the possessors of an environmentally destroyed, obscenely overpopulated, and persistently oppressive concept of society. They, too, will have their experiences of military hubris, humiliation, and global condemnation. Depending in part upon our learning from Iraq, the judgment of the first half of the 21st century may yet continue to favor the U.S. as a destination of choice. Now that we have been in the basement, let us not underestimate the positive directions in which tomorrow's America, cleaning its own house, can build something good out of devastation.