After 25 years of war on Iraq, the U.S. has what to show for it? A handful of dust. And at what cost in lives and property? It boggles the mind to consider the breadth and depth of the suffering.
Iraq was the great experiment following the Cold War for how the U.S. military machine could be used to make the world more free from tyranny — or so we were told.
Today, watching the crumbling of the house of cards, we see that the stated intentions of the world’s largest and most pervasive military empire has been brought down. And how? Solely by the aspirations of a diverse people united only by their determination to throw off the foreign yoke.
Does this mean that the Iraq mission has failed? Judging by the stated aims of four successive presidents, countless military commanders, and legions of wartime pundits, the answer is absolutely yes. But what this answer doesn’t consider is the advantages that war gains for the domestic government.
In times of unrest, instability, and impending upheaval, the ostentatious display of war is designed to remind the people who is boss. Nothing is more important to the state.
This was the whole reason that this Iraq disaster began. Recall that in 1989, the Cold War had ended very inconveniently, almost without warning. For forty years, Americans were told about their dangerous and implacable foe, the country and system that threatened all we hold dear. One morning we woke up and it was gone, revealing not ominous threats but burned out governments and demoralized populations.
And there was more going on. The world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of the outer reaches of the Soviet empire, and the inspiring sight of Eastern Europe finally entering the modern world. The images of brave protesters in China lifted hearts and minds all over the world to the possible dawning of a new model of freedom, peace, and prosperity for the world. Technology was connecting the world as never before.
At home, meanwhile, things began to get testy. If they can have freedom, why can’t we? The left was demanding a “peace dividend,” a sharp diversion of public monies away from building bombs to building schools — not an entirely unreasonable view. The right was rethinking its long-held attachment to the war model too, revisiting its past to discover that it too had a pro-peace tradition buried way back in history.
The consensus for retaining the warfare state was melting.
It was in the midst of this that President George Bush the first saw his chance. There was a complicated dispute over some oil properties on the border of Iraq and Kuwait. After getting a green light from the U.S. ambassador in Iraq (“we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”), Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait to settle some contractual disputes on drilling rights.
In normal times, this event would have been notable but not a concern for the U.S.. But in this case, all the necessary factors for a real war lined up. There were oil interests at stake. The president in office was unsure of his legacy. A presidential election loomed in the not-distant future. The military-industrial-congressional complex was worried for its future, seeking some new ideological template to rule the world.
Of all the problems that the ruling elite faced at the end of the Cold War, the most pressing was that the American people were dreaming of peace and normalcy, and increasingly intolerant of the overweening cost of being the world’s last superpower.
That was when the bombing began. We watched as people far away were fire bombed and murdered, how a mighty government was brought to its knees, how all the weapons built at our expense for decades could be used to subjugate a whole nation.
The U.S. drove Iraq out of Kuwait. It was seen as a victory, an impressive display of what the U.S. can accomplish through war. As for the tens of thousands of dead, among them many hundreds of innocents that were slaughtered through aerial bombings, the U.S. government said nothing more than: mistakes happen.
That was an ominous display.
I recall so well sitting on the lawn of the mall in Washington, D.C., during some patriotic display with tanks rolling around, bands playing, and fireworks shooting into the sky. Political pilgrims from all over the country, cameras hanging around their necks, were enthralled and swelling with pride for the glory of the American nation.
For me personally, that was it. The scales completely fell from my eyes. The elites in power had actually done in real life what seemed only possible in fiction. With one war, it had repurposed history’s largest and most deadly military empire away from fighting communism to fighting whomever it wanted anywhere in the world and for whatever reason it wanted to invent at the time.
It was suddenly very obvious to me that the whole thing was a ruse.
There was still another message that came from the beginning of this war. It signaled to the American people that democracy only goes so far. It’s one thing to vote for the candidate of your choice, to write your congressmen, to enjoy the spectacle of wrangling in the House and Senate. But when it comes to the real business of government, and especially its most extreme form in its right to unleash mass death anytime it wants, you have no say. Your insurrectionist impulses have limits.
The Gulf War of 1991 was said to have sent a message to the world against aggression (it’s hard to type those words without being overwhelmed at the irony). Its real message was scripted to hit closer to home. It was designed for us. The message was that there will be no reform, no peace, no real change, no end to empire, and there is nothing you can do about it.
What followed was ten more years of bombing and cruel sanctions, leading to another trumped up frenzy over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, followed by another invasion and the killing of Saddam, followed by another ten years of an attempt to set up a puppet government and train its military to maintain power in absence of a large U.S. troop presence.
A quarter of a century has gone by since the U.S. government set out to remake a foreign land under the slogans of freedom and democracy. That land is now wrecked completely, and in the midst of what seems like a 6-way civil war. The U.S. does have one good option of doing nothing, walking away and letting Iraq become the many different countries it probably ought to be. But that’s not what will happen.
Is there any consolation here for those of us who love liberty? There is this. Not even the world’s largest and most dangerous empire can control a country, not finally. No more is there such a thing as victory. The events in Iraq now are proof of that, and surely there is no one who can really believe that dropping more bombs is going to be the final ticket to bringing peace and stability to Iraq.
What, then, would be the purpose of yet another war on Iraq? The same purpose that war always has. It sends us a signal of who is in charge. It’s a war on you.
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