Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tenth Anniversary of the Start of the Iraq War


In the year leading up to the invasion support for war had been building. In his State of the Union Address in January 2002,  President George W. Bush first mentioned the “Axis of Evil” and we were warned that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Condoleezza Rice hinted that inaction meant mushroom clouds in our future.


For Fiscal Year 2001 the U. S. Defense Department budget was $291.1 billion. In the eight years to follow that figure would balloon to $515.4 billion.

(The federal budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2009 turned out to be $1.4 billion; and that budget was in place before Barack Obama took office.) 

Harder to remember, too:  In the days just before war began, Tim Russert asked Vice President Dick Cheney if he felt the American people would support a long and bloody conflict. Cheney, who managed to win five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, responded: “I really do believe we’ll be greeted as liberators.”

Bad call.

At the same time, Paul Wolfowitz, a leading neoconservative thinker, assured all who would listen that the war would cost the United States next to nothing. Expenses would be paid out of revenues from Iraqi oil sales.

Another bad call.

ON MARCH 19, 2003, U. S. FORCES launched the attack on Iraq, the only member of the “Axis of Evil” that had no credible nuclear weapons development program at that time. In years to come North Korea would develop real weapons of mass destruction. Iran would inch closer and closer as U. S. leaders looked the wrong way.

For all the good it did to invade Iraq we might as well have invaded the Tuvalu Islands.

Our troops did their job. Our leaders turned out to be clueless.

The hubris in Washington, a decade ago, was astonishing. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld overruled generals who asked for a larger force to carry out the mission. Rumsfeld’s press spokesmen explained: “We’re going to stand up an interim Iraqi government, hand power over to them, and get out of there in three to four months. All but twenty-five thousand soldiers will be out by the beginning of September.” 

Bad call, really bad call.

At first, all went well, as U. S. ground forces smashed their way through enemy defenses. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings soared to 70%. On May 1 Mr. Bush felt sure enough of success to personally land a jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. With the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging behind him as backdrop, he assured the American people: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

Worst call of all—and the consequences were terrible.

In the weeks to follow the neoconservatives who led us to war could do little more than watch in amazement as Iraq descended into chaos. In his book, The Assassin’s Gate, George Packer describes the results:
[Government buildings] had been looted down to the wiring and pipes; even the urinals had been unbolted from the bathroom walls…University classrooms and libraries across [Baghdad] and across the country were trashed and plundered, thousands of books and computers stolen, windows lifted from window frames, desks left lying in twisted heaps amid the dust and broken glass…The Iraqi state had collapsed, and there was nothing to take its place.

With scenes of widespread looting filling our television screens every night, reporters asked Secretary Rumsfeld if all the chaos concerned him. Rumsfeld responded gruffly, but with a twinkle in his eye:  “Stuff happens, and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”  

Untidy—and bloody—and bad things, indeed. 

On July 2, 2003 President Bush responded to a query during a news conference in his inimitable fashion: “There are some who feel like that the conditions are such [in Iraq] that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on.” 

At almost that exact moment, Jeffrey Wershow, a member of the Florida National Guard, was providing security for civilian advisers meeting with Iraqis on the campus of Baghdad University. He removed his helmet in the heat and entered the cafeteria to buy a ginger ale. A student pulled out a pistol, shot him in the head, and vanished into a crowd.

Untidy, yes.

Evidence built all that summer that the mission was not yet accomplished. On August 29, a car bomb outside the holiest Shiite mosque in Najaf killed a hundred innocent bystanders. Secular fighting spread, with Sunnis and Shiites slaughtering each other and a million Kurds added to the toxic mix. The death toll conntinued to rise. By 2008 the World Health Organization would estimate that 100,000 Iraqis had died violent deaths since the start of the war.

(The death toll might be twice as high.)

Invading Iraq turned out to be tough business for our troops.

On September 7 President Bush asked Congress to authorize $87 billion in extra war-related spending.  
(Republicans weren’t the least bit worried in 2003 about all this extra spending.)

That fall and winter car-bombs and “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) killed and wounded hundreds of U. S. soldiers. Not to worry said Rumsfeld. Such attacks were the work of a “few dead-enders.” Very bad call again.

On November 8, an IED, made from two 130-mm. artillery shells, exploded beside a Humvee. Seated on the right-hand passenger side, Private Kurt Frosheiser took a jagged metal splinter almost two inches long in the temple, just under the rim of his Kevlar helmet. By the end of the year 486 Americans, including Kurt Frosheiser, had died in Iraq.

The “the dead-enders” were still full of fight.

A new year dawned but the situation spiraled downward. No weapons of mass destruction were found, as we should all remember. Meanwhile, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, spread terror through large swaths of the country and launched hundreds of attacks against Coalition Forces. Hard again to remember:  We did have limited support from other nations. In 2004, nothing seemed to go right. A subsidiary of Northrop Grumman won a contract for $48 million dollars, to train 22 battalions of Iraqi soldiers.

They trained six and then half of the new soldiers deserted.

On March 31, 2004 four private security contractors working for Blackwater International were killed in Fallujah and their charred corpses hung up on a bridge for the entire world to see. Donna Zovko saw the gruesome pictures on cable television news and learned that same day that one of the victims was Jerry Zovko, her son. A Marine division was ordered to surround the city and the fighting intensified. In April 140 Americans were killed and 1,215 wounded. During a firefight in Fallujah, a Marine rifleman spoke of seeing an Iraqi race across an empty street. He and his buddies opened fire but the insurgent did a somersault and disappeared down an alley. “Just missed him,” the surprised Marine explained to a reporter. “Kind of [a] crafty move,” he added with respect.

The killing continued and we were not treated as liberators, and the week before Christmas 2004 a suicide bomber walked into a mess hall at a U. S. base in Mosul and blew himself to bits. Twenty-two Americans died in the blast and dozens were wounded.

Oceans of blood, sweat, and tears were poured into the desert sands and wasted. On January 26, 2005 a U. S. chopper crashed in a sandstorm, killing all 31 men aboard. One of the dead was Navy medic John House. Days before, via videophone, he had seen his newborn son for the first time. On June 23 a U. S. convoy passing through Fallujah (by then theoretically under U. S. control) was hit by a suicide car bomber. The blast killed one driver and several Marines riding in the back of his truck, including Ramona Valdez, 20, and two other females. The three had been on duty at a nearby roadblock, searching Iraqi females as needed.

On August 3 an armored troop carrier ran over a huge IED “2 km. s. of Haditha” as the military reported. The blast was so strong it flipped the 25-ton vehicle upside down like a garbage can lid and killed fourteen U. S. Marines inside. All of the dead were in their twenties, except Chris Dyer, the youngest at 19. Dyer had been a top student at Princeton High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, but enlisted in the Marines shortly after he graduated. Before heading to Iraq he reassured his father. “Don’t worry, dad,” he insisted. “I’m coming home.” 

But the young man was wrong.

At his funeral one of his teachers recalled that Dyer studied German for five years and played viola in the concert band. Talking with reporters afterwards Dyer’s father exclaimed sadly, “What a wonderful son he was.”

WE WERE LOSING ALL KINDS OF WONDERFUL SONS AND WONDERFUL DAUGHTERS, and still we could’t end the violence—not in 2005, not in 2006, either. It eventually became necessary to dispatch more troops to Iraq in 2007, the famous “surge,” or what the White House called the “New Way Forward.” David Finkel, in his masterful book, The Good Soldiers, wrote of that period:  “more and more roadside bombs were exploding now that the surge was under way, killing soldiers, taking off arms, taking off legs, causing concussions, exploding ear drums, leaving some soldiers angry and others vomiting and others in sudden tears.”  

Sgt. Michael Emory was shot in the back of the head during that fifth bloody spring of the war. Emory would end up in an army hospital, diapered and facing years of rehabilitation. A few days later Sgt. Jared Stevens was luckier by far, when a bullet “grazed his lip, butterflying it open from one side to the other.” Emory and Stevens were just two of 32,000 Americans wounded during this conflict.“We’re still at the beginning of this offensive,” President Bush explained to reporters at a press conference on June 30, 2007, “but we’re seeing some hopeful signs.” 

Meanwhile, U. S. servicemen and women were doing multiple tours of duty and for them the hopeful signs were harder to see.

Sgt. Adam Schumann, considered one of the best soldiers in his battalion, came home a broken man after his third tour in Iraq in 2007, more than a thousand days in a combat zone by his reckoning. Like many he had trouble forgetting the horrors he had witnessed and found himself tormented by thoughts of suicide. Studies later suggested that 1 in 5 veterans of the Iraq War suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On September 4 the blast of another IED, just one of tens of thousands, this time on the dusty streets of Rustamiyah, cost an American soldier both legs. Three members of his unit were killed. A fifth, Duncan Crookston, “lost both legs and an arm and most of his other arm” and suffered burns over what was left of his body. He lost his ears. He lost his nose. He lost his eyelids and lips. The young man would undergo thirty operations in coming months to save his life but would die nevertheless.

That same week, in a private meeting with the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Bush was asked how the war was going.

We’re kicking ass,” he responded.

Relative stability was finally achieved in Iraq—with most observers crediting the “surge.” But the costs continued rising. In March 2008, the total number of U. S. dead passed 4,000. The numbers kept climbing, slowly, but surely, through 2009 and 2010. Specialist David Emanuel Hickman, from North Carolina, is the last member of United States forces listed as killed in action in Iraq. He died in Baghdad in the blast of another IED on November 14, 2011.

The final costs of the war, according to a study done for Brown University are estimated to be at least $2.2 trillion.


IEDs in Iraq killed and maimed thousands of American troops.

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