It seems like only yesterday that our Iraq War was just a squealing infant of a regime change. Now, just look at it! Our little baby of Shock and Awe has grown up into a big, healthy long-term insurgency. Happy Birthday, Iraq War! You are 5 bloody years old today! I hope you, dear reader, have already run out to Party City to get your celebratory decorations for your own Iraq War B-Day blast. I hear they're running out of those cute little I.E.D. goody-bag stuffers.
Could it really be almost five years since proud parent President George W. Bush landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier in full flight-suit regalia (that being the first time a U.S. president took a page from the playbook of a Russian autocrat—Vladimir “I've seen his soul” Putin did the same thing in 2000, flying into Chechnya) to announce that “The Mission”—the liberation of Iraq from the horrors of dictatorship—had been “accomplished.” Little did we realize the president was referring only to the delivery of this bouncing little bundle of long-crisis joy.
Or that the horrors of dictatorship would be replaced by the casualties of chaos. Number of Iraqis killed by Saddam Hussein during his 24 years in power: 200,000 to 600,000. Number estimated to have died violently since their “liberation”: 80,000 to 90,000—though The Lancet, the British medical journal, has estimated the numbers to actually be as high as 650,000. Would the Iraqis be better off, in the long term, had the U.S. left Saddam Hussein in power? No. At least now there is some hope that Iraq can evolve into a stable state. Then again, whenever Saddam eventually and inevitably shuffled off to his just punishment, regime change sans the massive chaos might also have ensued. Que sera sera. But to the question, Could the forced removal of Saddam have been done better? the only answer can be an ear-shattering “Yes.” If not, then perhaps we as a nation might consider getting out of the nation-building-through-nation-destroying business.
Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, must be marking off little ticks on his office wall to measure the growth of the fruit of his neo-conservative loins compared with that of our nation's other martial offspring. All parents should take pride in their children, after all. Just how big and healthy has our conflict in Iraq become? Well, let's look at it by the numbers.
Length: At 5 years of age, Operation Iraqi Freedom (aka Operation Overthrow Saddam and Have the Troops Home by the Fourth of July) now ranks as the fourth longest war in American history behind only Vietnam (nine years), the Revolution (eight years) and Iraq's older though oft-neglected sibling, Afghanistan (seven years and counting—Afghanistan is to Iraq what the sickly older brother is to his younger football-star sibling. “Hey, Iraq, wanna come to the party? Yeah, you can bring Afghanistan if you really have to). The Iraq War has now lasted a year longer than the Civil War, a year-and-a-half longer than the “Big One” (WWII) and 30 times longer than its runty uncle, the Persian Gulf War. We can have every hope that, with proper nurturing and mismanagement, this war could become the longest in our history.
Monetary cost: Here our little precocious wonder really stands out. To date, at $700 billion and climbing—to the ka-ching of a billion-and-a-half bucks per week—the Iraq War is the second most expensive war in our history behind only WWII's $3.2 trillion tab (in 2007 dollars). This war has cost about as much as every war from the Revolution to Korea combined. Now, as a father of four, I can relate to just how expensive it is to raise a young'un these days. And this war isn't even old enough to go to college!
Of course, like a well-planned investment (a negative one, in this case) that figure will only compound with age. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the ultimate price tag of the war, when you factor in long-term costs such as caring for the hundreds of thousands of fully or partially disabled veterans the war will likely generate, could top $3 trillion-plus. So take heart. Little Iraq can still take top billing in the war-cost competition someday.
Stiglitz's observation, however, reminds us that it takes more than money (and a few hundred bombed Iraqi villages) to raise this child. It takes tears, sweat and blood. And there has been a substantial amount of all three rained down upon Iraq.
Human (American, that is) cost: Actually, when compared with our other 11 major wars, Iraq has been less bloodthirsty. With around 4,000 military deaths to date, it ranks only eighth in lethality, way behind the all-time champion “nobody kills Americans like Americans do” Civil War (623,026), WWII (407,316) and even the Mexican (13,283) and Revolutionary wars (4,435). Only the War of 1812, Persian Gulf War and little Afghanistan have killed fewer U.S. troops than Iraq.
Of course, Iraq is unlike other wars in many ways, not the least of which is the ratio of wounded to killed in action. U.S. wars have historically generated casualties at a ratio of about one combat death for every three or four wounded. Thanks (and, indeed, many thanks should be given) to tremendous advancements in battlefield medicine and the evolution of more efficient body armors and other protective technologies for soldiers, the Iraq War is producing closer to 10 wounded for every soldier killed. That these wounds are more likely to be limb-maiming and -eliminating or catastrophic brain injuries is neither here nor there (except in terms of the massive amounts it will cost to care for these badly wounded soldiers over time and the life-shattering impact they have).
The official tally of American service personnel wounded in Iraq is about 30,000. So, if Iraq were being fought under the same technological conditions as previous wars, the number of casualties would be closer to 7,000 or 8,000 killed. That would bump it up a notch to seventh place in the kill category. It would probably also bump up the level of public discontentment with the war. But, then, all children bring both hopes and disappointments.
Robin Williams once said that all parents dream of hearing their child say, “I want to thank the Nobel Academy” and fear them ending up saying “You want fries with that?”
Every childhood has its problems. Sure, our little Iraq War has grown to be bigger and more expensive than many of our others. But it may well turn out to be the only war in American history to leave the nation in a significantly worse strategic position.
The Revolution gave us a country and 1812 solidified control over New Orleans and the mighty Mississippi. The Mexican War added huge amounts of land, the Spanish-American War showed the world the U.S. was a rising power (think of it as a kind of debutante ball with attitude) and the two world wars transformed us into a superpower. Korea at least laid the ground rules for hot wars during the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War knocked Saddam out of Kuwait. Even the Vietnam War—casualties notwithstanding—did little to detract from America's overall global position. Not this war. The journal Foreign Policy reported in its March/April edition that a survey of 3,400 active and retired senior officers found the U.S. to be “stretched dangerously thin” and “ill-prepared” to deal with crises around the world due to the massive amounts of manpower and equipment tied down in Iraq. Should the North Koreans become bored listening to the Gershwin CDs the New York Philharmonic left them and decide to head down to Seoul to raid the record stores, the U.S. might find itself hard-pressed to decisively respond.
Meanwhile, the nation that may well end up the biggest winner in the U.S. gamble on Iraq is Iran, with its influence in a country that had been its biggest nemesis under Saddam Hussein skyrocketing. Witness the VIP treatment heaped upon Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited Iraq a fortnight ago. Iranian influence in the Middle East is also on the rise, giving potential life to the worst-case scenario American policymakers have feared since 1979: radical Iran ascendant as the dominant power in the region (which was why Donny Rumsfeld shook hands with Saddam back in the 1980s and helped fund his war against Iran). Iraq may turn into a child that turns on its parents, and the legacy of the Iraq War may well end up being similar to how WWII would have looked if it had resulted in the Soviets dominating Europe. But children are children, and parents can still dream.
Which brings us to what we should give our little war that could but, so far, hasn't fully.
The Bush administration is celebrating the milestone birthday of this offspring of ideology by adding another layer or two of barbed wire around the Green Zone and dumping a few thousand more tons of reinforced concrete into the $600 million U.S. Embassy complex—the largest in the world—inside said zone. And, probably, stringing celebratory “Mission Kinda Accomplished” banners around the more than 100 military bases it has created in Iraq during the last five years.
Meanwhile, Papa Dick Cheney and Mama George W. Bush (lest there be any doubt about who wears the pants in that house) may have even grander plans for their prodigy. The appointment of Admiral William Fallon as Central Command proconsul a year ago triggered speculation as to why a Navy guy had been put in charge of two land wars. One possible answer was because any attack on Iran to destroy its nuclear-weapons program would probably largely be done with sea-based missiles and aircraft. Fallon's abrupt resignation last week for, at least in part, his very public disagreement with the administration over using military force against Iran has generated new speculation. Fallon's departure through the Pentagon door marked “Reserved for the many senior officers who have disagreed with the administration on Middle East policy” has raised the specter—officially denied, of course—that the administration wants a yes-man in place at CentCom should the “Go” order on Iran be given.
So maybe Dick and George—one of America's more interesting same-sex sets of parents—are thinking about giving their martial child a new playmate. After all, what better gift to give 5-year-old than a brand-new bouncing baby war—against Iran. And what better gift to leave any incoming administration than an expanded regional conflict even more unstable and difficult—if not impossible—to disengage from?
The sad fact of all this, sans sarcasm, is that the original goals of the Bush administration in the region (beyond whatever role oil and avenging Daddy played)—that of helping foster the growth of democracy in the Middle East—was and is a worthy goal. That the administration has proved itself to be completely incompetent as a midwife of Democracy should not and cannot sway future administrations from trying to bring precious new freedom into this world. The tragic—and dangerous—legacy of this administration is that its offspring may grow into a monster that seeks to consume its own parents, leaving a future administration with neither the resources nor luxury of maintaining America's role as the bastion of global democracy.
But don't let such dark clouds rain on your Iraq War birthday cakes. You've spent almost a trillion dollars on this kid. Might as well make the best out of it you can.
And Iraq War: Happy birthday, li'l fella. Forgive me if I hope you don't live long enough to get a driver's license.