Editorial: A decade later, hard-learned lessons from Iraq

Ten years after the start of the Iraq Ten years after the start of the Iraq War faith in our leaders and institutions has been weakened. We are not better off. Hopefully we are wiser. Photo Credit: Dave Granlund

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Ten years later, weary of war, with Osama bin Laden dead and an economy burdened by recession and debt, it's easy to forget the emotionally charged environment that led us to battle in Iraq.

We must try, though, to examine this national drama and trauma, and its lessons. The purpose is not to cast blame for the past, although there is plenty to go around, but to prevent history from repeating itself. The mistakes surrounding the war in Iraq, made by politicians, the media and ordinary citizens, were astonishing. The results were disastrous.

By March 2003, 18 months had passed since the Twin Towers collapsed under the weight of terrorist attacks that also hit the Pentagon and targeted the White House. Almost 3,000 Americans died, leaving us shaken and anguished.

Attempts to bring to justice the architect of the plot had not yet borne fruit, and bin Laden regularly taunted the United States with audiotapes calling for our destruction. Anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan ground on, often successful but never providing the catharsis that big victories in traditional military battles would have brought.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their national security team changed that by creating a new target in an old nemesis, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He seemed perfect.

The United States had taken on Hussein 12 years earlier, pushing Iraq's troops out of Kuwait. We had a quick, easy victory. Hussein, though, never really cleaned up his act, and in 2002, Bush got congressional approval to use force against Iraq. Hussein repeatedly blocked United Nations weapons inspections and rattled his saber at the United States. He intended to convince the world he was still to be feared, in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, he succeeded.

Our leaders said Hussein had or was trying to get chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons. They said he was in cahoots with bin Laden. They said a war to topple Hussein would be quick, our military would be greeted as liberators, and Iraq would use its own oil wealth to rebuild. Fast, cheap, easy, just and with a bad man as the target: It was an easy war to cheerlead. But little of what we were told was true.

And too many went along with the story, in the media (including this page), in the government, and around the dinner table. Those few who questioned were often shouted down, treated as cranks and branded unpatriotic.

What was truly un-American was that response. Our leaders were never required to make a case for how Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States or its interests. They weren't required to justify the rush to attack, or defend intelligence saying Iraq had WMDs.

There was jingoism and anger at the Arab world behind this lack of dissent, but blame too the all-volunteer military system. With no compulsory service and those with power and money not fearful of a draft, war didn't create the personal dread it once did.

Yet none of these factors excuse the widespread failure to ask dogged questions on the most basic issues. How imminent was the danger, and to whom? Was there any intelligence contradicting the belief Hussein had WMDs? What was the battle plan? The post-battle plan? The timeline for withdrawal? Who would rule Iraq post-Saddam?

Our leaders in Congress had a responsibility to demand answers. So did journalists. Too few tried, and those who did were too often pilloried by the rest.

 

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a bad decision, based on incorrect assumptions, sold to the public through deception, and poorly executed. It took the lives of more than 4,500 U.S. service members and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians. It has cost about $2 trillion so far, or $80,000 for each man, woman and child living in Iraq in 2003.

And we aren't done tallying the bill, as Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pointed out last week when she said the annual cost of caring for 32,000 service members wounded in Iraq would be $8 billion. Duckworth speaks with authority on the subject, having lost both her legs in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot.

There's been a lot of questioning about whether we've made Iraq a better place. Or whether the path we pursued then will look wiser decades from now. More important to Americans is what state the war left our nation in. We are poorer, and have suffered too many deaths and injuries. For some, faith in our leaders and institutions has been weakened. We are not better off.

Hopefully we are wiser.

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