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Dire Warnings from the Past


On May 1, 2003 President Bush donned a flight jacket, landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and before a “Mission Accomplished” banner announced that “major combat” in Iraq had ended. “The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror,” he said. “We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding.”

But faith did not alter reality. Bush teams searched vainly for Iraq’s WMDs and its links to Al Qaeda. US soldiers, told they would be greeted as liberators, soon became targets. The Coalition of the Willing became less willing to die for US mistakes.

Less the three months after “Mission Accomplished” the occupation was unraveling. That July US General Arbizaid, in a Department of Defense news briefing, described facing “what I would describe as a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us.” Pentagon experts blamed the violence on al Qaeda, foreigners, and Saddam loyalists, but it was far broader.

That September the President again proclaimed: “We have carried the fight to the enemy . . . so that we do not meet him again on our own streets.” In December, after Saddam Hussein was pulled from a hole in the ground, victory was again proclaimed. But the occupation of their land had turned Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious population into a full-blown, popular insurgency.

Today more than a thousand US soldiers are dead, at least 7,000 others have suffered severe injuries, 18,000 have been medically evacuated from the war zone, and 33,000 have sought medical care from the VA. Upwards of 13,000 Iraqis have died and most are women and children. Most casualties occurred after the war and the dramatic landing on the Lincoln.

Bush’s invasion removed Hussein but proved deadly and hollow for Iraqis. Abu Ghraib, his most brutal prison, became a symbol of American decadence and brutality throughout the Arab world.

Today as insurgent forces control Falluja, Samara, Karbala, Ramadi and parts of Bagdad, a New York Times opinion article stated, “One by One Iraqi Cities Become No-Go Zones.” [In Afghanistan a similar pattern emerged. If US selected President Hamid Karzai leaves his palace in the capitol of Kabul, he requires a massive US protective arm, and he cannot fly to another city without being fired on.]

Today the Pentagon claims that 5,000 are involved in the Iraq resistance, but less biased US sources place the number at 100,000. Insurgent targets are largely police, and local officials who serve the 140,000-strong US occupation. On September 16th USA Today reported, “Insurgents in Iraq Appear More Powerful Than Ever,” and the New York Times quoted a U.S. Intelligence report that “Shows Pessimism on Iraq’s Future: Civil War Called Possible.”

George W. Bush is not the first president to find that a war he launched with inspiring words can end in tragedy. Woodrow Wilson entered World War I promising “the world must be made safe for democracy” in a “war to end all wars.” Wilson also likened US intervention to a Christian Crusade against “wild beasts” who waged “warfare against mankind.”

On Armistice Day, 1918, President Wilson proclaimed victory in glowing words: “Everything for which America has fought has been accomplished.”

The results were hardly what Wilson wanted. Democracy in the world was severely weakened. Dictatorships rose in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and other countries in Europe, and fascist aggression began a march toward World War II.

In the United States Wilson’s administration assumed dictatorial powers, jailed hundreds of anti-war voices, and the Halliburtons of the day created the US military-industrial complex. Wilson’s Espionage Act and Sedition Act anticipated the US Patriot Act — and were wielded against war critics rather than foreign agents.

US Intervention led to the death of a hundred thousand Americans, and left more than double that number wounded. The cost worldwide was 12,000,000 slain, 20,000,000 wounded, the loss of $331billion in assets — and political chaos.

In September, 1919, when Wilson spoke to a St. Louis audience, he had reached a more somber evaluation of his crusade.

“Why, my fellow citizens, is there any man here or any woman, let me say is there any child here, who does not know the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry? The real reason that the war that we have just finished took place was that Germany was afraid her commercial rivals were going to get the better of her, and the reason why some nations went to war against Germany was that they thought Germany would gain the commercial advantage of them. . . . This war, in its inception, was a commercial and industrial war.” Forces unleashed by the war — religious fundamentalism, bigotry and the greed of war profiteers — were tearing at the fabric of US society. Like the dogs at Abu Gahraib, they again strain at the leash at home.

Wilson and Bush might have listened to fellow president Teddy Roosevelt, no stranger to imperial crusades. He called “the wealthy criminal class” of his day “the most dangerous of all dangerous classes.” During World War I, he said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Iraq and Afghanistan descend into chaos, Halliburton and other companies cash in, and wealthy criminals evade jail. But we are still free to act.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author forty books, and he adapted this essay from his new book, THE CRUEL YEARS: AMERICAN VOICES AT THE DAWN OF THE 20TH CENTURY [Beacon Press, 2003], from which this essay is adapted. His website is:



William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

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