The Leesburg Daily Commercial recorded America’s official withdrawal from Iraq with two pieces from the Associated Press (AP) and an opinion piece by Dale McFeatters. The surprisingly salient feature of the coverage was its recognition of the magnitude of the suffering inflicted upon the Iraqi people by the eight-year, American-initiated conflict. Finally, after years of daily reports about the death or maiming of American troops, we were allowed to know that “at least” 100,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. The coverage went beyond mere statistics to acknowledge the sense of injury felt by the Iraqi people, many of whom were profoundly insulted by Defense Secretary Panetta’s conspicuous failure to mention the damage done by the armed forces he felt obliged to praise. America may tell itself that the war is over, but the human costs can never be repaid. Sober reflection on the scale and scope of these costs raises a vital question for our nation: at what point, if any, is the United States willing to apologize for its actions? And if the answer to that question is “never,” what kind of country are we?
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
To say that it is long past time for the American media to discuss the Iraqi death toll would be an extraordinary understatement. As a nation, we’ve done meticulous work tracking the deaths of Americans, yet paid virtually no attention to the Iraqi death toll that is at least twenty times greater. The phrase “at least” is troubling in and of itself. Do we say “at least” because we don’t really care, or because we don’t really know? Unfortunately, both responses are correct.
According to IraqBodyCount.org, an independent organization that uses media reports to attempt to tabulate Iraqi casualties as accurately as possible, and which eschews exaggerated claims based on poor methodology, the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war ranges from 104,106 to 113,755, and could easily be 15,000 higher if some of the data from Wikileaks were added. This does not count those engaged in militia activities or sectarian violence; these are purely civilian casualties. This number also ignores the deaths attributable to the brutal sanctions regime imposed upon Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, which was intended to punish Saddam Hussein for his aggression against Kuwait but which, quite predictably, ultimately punished ordinary people who bore no culpability for that aggression.
Let us be very clear about this: these deaths are on America’s hands. None of this had to happen. The invasion of Iraq was instigated by an American Administration that confused the interests of the oil industry with the interests of the nation as a whole; that lied to the world and its own citizens about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq; that cynically manipulated American and international opinion in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack by implicating Saddam Hussein in a crime he did not commit; and that – most importantly in a nation that likes to consider itself Christian – cared not one whit about the human suffering its violence would inevitably cause. The war was unnecessary. The war was immoral. The war was inept and counter-productive foreign policy, stirring up hatred for America were none had existed before. And, with few exceptions, the American people and media supported it. We all, therefore, have Iraqi blood on our hands.
So how do we, as a nation, react to these awful realities? First and foremost, by ignoring them. We never talked about the Iraqi casualties, or compared the Iraqi lifestyle before 2003 to what it became thanks to us. But, worse than that, we simply tell ourselves lies. Saddam was an evil dictator who terrorized his own people and had to be removed. Really? Then why had we been so happy to prop up his regime, including selling him weapons, when he was on “the right side” of the seemingly permanent Iran-Iraq War? Beyond that, who are we to decide what constitutes appropriate political leadership in another country? And if Saddam deserved to be removed, how about Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a certifiably insane tyrant if ever there was one, or any number of other tin-pot dictators in Africa and elsewhere?
The lie we heard the most, of course, was that our brave troops were defending our freedoms from people who hated them. Really? The Iraqi people had no beef with America until we bombed their country – the cradle of human civilization – back into the Middle Ages. Iraq, from a realist’s perspective, was an essential counterweight against the more radical Iran. There were no anti-American “terrorists” in Iraq until we created a fertile breeding-ground for terror – one which will endure for many years after our withdrawal. We were, in other words, fighting monsters entirely of our own creation, a feat worthy not of praise but of condemnation for utter stupidity. But there are no medals for that, are there?
The Laurels Have Rotted
For decades, Americans have told themselves that they were a force for good in the world. While historians might argue the point, few would deny the pivotal and massive American contributions in World War Two and the Cold War that followed. But these two great conflicts gave rise to a military-industrial complex on a scale never before seen in global history, taking the nation away from founding principles that frowned upon standing armies and foreign entanglements. The attempt to contain Soviet communism was used to justify numerous military adventures and covert meddling, some well-known and some largely unrecognized. The Vietnam War, in particular, marked a nadir in American interventionism, inflicting deep scars on the national psyche, to say nothing of the mortal wounds of its victims. But it was preceded by American support for the Shah of Iran, whose CIA-trained secret police terrorized their own people, fomenting anti-American animosity that would come back to haunt us later. And it was followed by support for the Mujahideen resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, among whom was one Osama bin Laden. It is not necessary to recite the entire history here, but it is absolutely necessary to recognize that the causes of the 9/11 attacks were far more complex – and far closer to home – than our political elite was ever willing to discuss. On 9/11, the chickens came home to roost. Or, as the late, great historian, Chalmers Johnson, put it, we experienced blowback.
The 9/11 attacks represented an opportunity for America to take stock of its position in the world, and engage in some soul-searching about whether any of its actions might have precipitated such a violent expression of hostility toward our country. Instead, we reacted with all the forethought of a bull in a china shop, launching destructive military attacks against anyone we decided to label an antagonist, and shredding constitutional safeguards like the writ of habeas corpus with abandon. That reaction alone constituted a failure of national character. But, now that the damage has been done, and the seeds have been sown for even further trouble down the road, another question of character arises. Are we mature enough as a country to admit that we have erred? Are we big enough to apologize to those we have harmed, and to acknowledge a moral imperative to make amends? Are we, in any way, shape, or form, sorry?
The way the world now regards the United States has changed, and with good reason. Where once we were seen as reliable defenders of liberty against tyrannical aggressors, we are now perceived by many as destroyers of life, liberty, and property. Yet the American people as a whole seem no more aware of this catastrophic perversion of national principles than they are ashamed of their country’s behavior. In a remarkable feat of collective cognitive dissonance, they cling to tired old stereotypes that are decades past their sell-by dates, resting on laurels that have long-since rotted away in a fetid atmosphere of political corruption and moral degeneracy.
The issues raised here will strike many as unpatriotic, but that depends upon one’s conception of patriotism. A blind, unthinking, unquestioning patriotism – the kind of jingoism that can be and has been comprehensively exploited by deranged and corrupted political rulers – is inappropriate among the citizenry of a republic which supposedly derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. To the extent that we support or simply acquiesce in moral wrongs on the world stage, we demean ourselves as a nation and as a people. We allow ourselves to be redefined by actions that do not express the true import of our fundamental values. We become the very thing we claim to despise.
Withdrawal from Iraq presents us with another opportunity for national discourse about our purpose in the world, and the best way to express our wishes consistent with our professed values. I fear, however, that this opportunity, just like many others before it, will be missed. The arrogance that led to the Iraq War, dovetailing as nicely as ever with the commercial interests of certain sectors of the corporate oligarchy, still swells the breast of our national figures, particularly among the flag-waving Republican Party, whose presidential candidates promise never to apologize for America while selling themselves to Christian fundamentalists as morally upstanding leaders. Of course, we already know that Biblical commandments mean nothing to the G.O.P., but at what point does the hypocrisy become so rank that the nation gags in disgust? One would have thought that the words, “Thou shalt not kill,” would be taken seriously in a country that likes to consider itself Christian, but one would be mistaken. For we are not Christians. Nor are we Americans, in the sense that the framers would have hoped for. We are, quite simply, frauds. Unapologetic frauds.