Hard Lessons From Iraq


This week marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. As one of the longest and one of the most costly wars in U.S. history, the true costs in dollars, lives, environmental contamination and opportunity costs may never be fully appreciated.  This “preventive war” waged on our behalf has forever tainted the world view and standing of the U.S. Disregarding international and domestic public opinion and international law before the war, this illegal war was destined to happen regardless of that opinion. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the war is the identification and clarification, a “How To” of what doesn’t work in resolving international conflict. Namely war itself.

Dollar estimates of the combined war costs range from $1.4 trillion to $4 trillion dollars spent and obligated or a bill of between $4,500 and $12,742 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.  The human costs and death toll are immense. It is estimated that between 225,000 to more than 1,000,000 have been killed when taking into account all the lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To this tragedy are added the tens of thousands injured here at home with similar numbers in war zone countries. Significant brain and spinal injuries to coalition forces approach 20 percent and PTSD 30 percent of soldiers. The costs of treating these problems will continue for decades to come.

In a part of the world where poverty and oppression are the norm, identifying and addressing the root cause of conflict is far better than bombs at preventing terrorism and is far less costly.   The respected international mediator John Paul Lederach suggests that going to war to defeat terrorism is like hitting a mature dandelion with a golf club—it only creates another generation of terrorists. That graphic image is very telling in a part of the world where the mean age ranges from17.9 in Afghanistan to 21.1 in Iraq. How will these future generations who lack the meeting of basic human needs respond to our war?

We have fallen victim to the idea that the “ends justify the means” when in reality the means are the ends in the making. Today’s means and realities will determine tomorrow’s reaction and outcome. The continuation of suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan are the desperate response of an occupied people. In his book, Dying to Win, Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago examines in depth the phenomenon of suicide bombing. His research reveals that though religious conviction or revenge may play a role, the vast majority (>95 percent) of suicide bombings always include the primary motivation of trying to push out foreign occupiers.

In a way to somehow sanitize or numb ourselves to the horrific effects of this war we have seen an entirely new lexicon added to our language. From drones (remote spying / assassination unmanned aerial vehicles) to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury – the signature injury to U.S. forces) to collateral damage (killing innocent civilians) to enhanced interrogation (torture) to rendition (torturing prisoners in outsourced countries like Egypt on behalf of the US) to Suicide Bombers.

We are now even marketing drones as a jobs program at home.

We have written whole gymnastic legal treatises to sooth ourselves, and to justify our use of terrorism and assassination of even our own citizens. In the use of these methods, machines and practices have we not become the embodiment of “the enemy”?  What happens when the entire world has the same capabilities and beliefs? What have we created?

These are some of the realities 10 years after launching an entirely preventable war. During this same period we have fallen into financial disarray at home with a significant contribution from these wars. The robbing of our own social fabric to cover these costs will play out for years to come. And yet there are those who would continue to dismantle our social infrastructure to continue this war effort and that of future wars at any cost. These are the facts after 10 years of “preventative war”. How we address the facts at hand will determine our future and that of the world. Indeed conflict is inevitable. War is optional—and a poor one. We have the necessary means to address conflict without war. The means are the ends in the making.

Robert F. Dodge, M.D., serves on the boards of the Nuclear Age Peace FoundationBeyond WarPhysicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, andCitizens for Peaceful Resolutions, and writes for PeaceVoice.

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