Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five years after

The Defense Department announced today the death of an American soldier.

“Spc. Lerando J. Brown, 27, of Gulfport, Miss., died March 15 in Balad, Iraq, from injuries suffered in an incident currently under investigation. He was assigned to the 288th Sapper Company, 223rd Engineer Battalion, Mississippi Army National Guard, Houston, Miss.”

It is a succinct statement, but one profound in its communication of a national agony. Today we mark the anniversary of when those letters began.

Today five years ago — perhaps $600 billion, 3,991 American lives, at least 85,000 Iraqi lives, 29,400 combat injuries, and countless color-coded terror alerts ago — the United States embarked on what would become its longest war, a conflict that may yet prove to be its most inconclusive.



There's more than one measure of its cost. There’s the human cost. For a truly comprehensive breakdown of the known casualty count, check out the excellent icasualties Web site. There in columns and rows of numbers are the figures that represent the human toll, the first most awful currency of the disaster of war. That tragedy, household by household, family by family, speaks eloquently for itself.

There’s the financial cost. The National Priorities Project, an independent organization that analyzes and clarifies federal data to help Americans understand where their tax dollars are going, has a Web site with a counter that brings the issue home before your very eyes. The project estimates the cost of the war to date at almost $504 billion. By the time you read this, the figure will be higher than that.

It may be a lot higher. News outlets such as CBS and NBC today reported the actual cost at $600 billion.

With numbers that astronomical, you need some smaller metric to get your mind around it. How’s this: CNN reported in November that “every minute troops are deployed in Iraq, the American public pays $200,000 to keep them there.”

And that just tallies up what we’ve spent already. Some economists supported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office have estimated the eventual war’s cost at about $1.7 trillion through 2017.

But other economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and adviser to the Clinton administration, and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes have calculated that the real price tag may be closer to $3 trillion.

Stiglitz and Bilmes, who co-authored "The Three Trillion Dollar Conflict: The True Cost of the Iraq War," wrote that projections under $2 trillion don’t include peripheral issues — collateral damage — such as the need to “reset” the U.S. military, basically the cost of repairing or replacing the material and man/woman power the current conflict is exhausting at an unsustainable rate.



Then, to these mind-bloggling expenses of life and treasure, add the intangible but real cost of the United States’ sense of itself.

Since the war started — and certainly since the singular catastrophe of Sept 11, 2001 — this nation has so deeply embraced a defensive psychological position concerning Islamist terrorism — the United States as victim — that it has thoroughly conceded control of the perception by which victory, or anything like it in the context of asymmetrical war, is to be determined.

Often we’ve been told that to leave Iraq with a publicly-known timetable would be an implicit admission of defeat, a strange and presumptuous concession that lets “the enemy” decide the terms of victory and defeat.

But who’s conceding anything to the shadowy “enemy”? Who says they won — even if they say it?

Just as convincing, and even more logical in the classic calculus of war, is the idea that, when the United States exits Iraq it will have won the war, having achieved most of at least its initial stated objectives, and having realized that the objectives left unfinished can mainly, properly be achieved by the people of Iraq.



The conservative obsession with leaving Iraq “with honor” has parallels with the Vietnam experience that should be concerning, if not alarming, to the Republicans. It forces this nation into a victimology that is at odds with everything it stands for. It overlooks many of the usual benchmarks by which a war’s winner and loser are decided.

When you leave the field of battle and the people in a conquered land are working for you instead of against you; when the might of your military has been absolutely validated; when you have vanquished or executed the old regime; when you have helped establish at least the foundations of a participatory democracy … you’ve won. No matter what “the enemy” says.

The defenders of America’s ongoing role in Iraq have fashioned a rationale by which that war, and our personal and financial obligation to it, should stretch on indefinitely under the gauzy pretext of national security. It’s this principle that animated John McCain’s recent, celebrated vow that, if he were president, this country would fight in Iraq for “a hundred years” if necessary to achieve American objectives. War without end, amen.

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One of the bigger unresolved problems for the United States is coming to terms with a concrete definition of “victory” in the context of an asymmetrical war whose boundaries are less geographical than they are religious and philosophical.

Talking with NPR’s Alex Chadwick, Gen. David Petraeus offered his own definition, saying that victory would mean "an Iraq that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, that has a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry and is a contributing member of the global community."


"There is a degree of hope in the Iraqi population that probably was not present back at that time," Petraeus said, adding that, success would hinge on "progress in the security arena, providing basic services to the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government getting their ministries functioning in a way that they are not right now, and getting the economy overall growing so that it can employ what is a fairly substantial unemployed and underemployed population.”

While the Petraeus explanation seeks to be a thoughtfully comprehensive one, there are flaws built in. An Iraq “at peace with itself” and “with its neighbors” is beyond the scope of the American military to oversee. With tribal strife between the Sunnis and Shiites that comprise the majority of the population going back not decades but centuries — centuries before the United States existed — an Iraq “at peace with itself and neighbors” can only be achieved on the terms of those who live there.

The United States can no more broker a truce in an 800-year-old tribal dispute than any other foreign power could come to the United States and militarily preside over a resolution of the racial divisions that stretch back in our history only 230 years. And for most of the same reasons.

An Iraq with “a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry” has already been achieved. The coalition and its diplomatic proxies helped usher in Interim and Transitional Governments until 2006, when they were replaced with the country’s permanent government, after an election that international monitors deemed free and fair. CNN reported that about 10 million of 15 million registered voters participated in the election for the Council of Representatives — the first such referendum since Saddam Hussein was removed. Pictures of Iraqis holding high fingers stained with the purple ink signifying their status as voters are still powerful symbols both of Iraq's democratic reality and its possibilities.

With the basic structure of a government in place, then, the role of the military gives way to a need for diplomacy and economic intervention as a way to establish and solidify the government’s aspirations to be “a contributing member of the global community.”

The principles of democracy ultimately can’t be enforced at American gunpoint. We’ve observed before: The surest sign of a viable democracy is what happens when you take away the guns you need to start one. If those democratic principles have any traction with the people who live there, those principles and ideals will take hold and flourish on their own. If they don’t, that form of democracy was never meant to be there, and won’t be imposed there by an occupying army. Whether that army stays for a year or five years or fifty.

Or even a hundred.

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Other items on the Petraeus laundry list may well be the work done by a true global coalition — the sort of WWII Allies-style congregation the Bush administration has conjured for years — or by the Iraqi people.

"Progress in the security arena” will happen on its own terms, again depending on the ability of Sunnis and Shiites to themselves set aside differences in deference to an Iraq resistant to terrorism and extremists. The process of “providing basic services to the Iraqi people” is more a job for the Army Corps of Engineers than for 158,000 combat troops. Later, that effort properly gives way to private companies like Bechtel and Fluor to transform an infrastructure that, at this writing, only affords Iraqis eight hours of electricity a day.

Other tasks — such as aiding the Iraqi government in overcoming ministerial and constitutional gridlock, and bolstering the economy — are more properly achieved by the elected government’s work with coalition partners, any number of experts from the United Nations, officials of the European Union, and leaders in businesses and industries from around the world.


"On this grim milestone, it is worth remembering how we got into this situation, and thinking about how best we can get out," said Democrat congressman John Dingell on Tuesday. "The tasks that remain in Iraq — to bring an end to sectarian conflict, to devise a way to share political power and to create a functioning government that is capable of providing for the needs of the Iraqi people — are tasks that only the Iraqis can complete."

◊ ◊ ◊


Sometime in the near future — maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe as soon as tomorrow — the Defense Department will announce the name of the 4,000th American military casualty of the Iraq war. The commentators and pundits will bow their heads; the editorialists will weigh in with assessments (much like this one); the members of some family somewhere in the United States will witness a military vehicle pulling into their driveway, and scream to themselves, if not out loud.

And a nation consumed with its future and grappling with the present will be forced to confront again a lesson from its recent past:

There is no war more unwinnable than a war that should never have been waged.
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Image credits: Iraqi woman: Sgt. Tierney Nowland, U.S. Army, 2007 (public domain). David Petraeus: Robert Ward, Defense Department (public domain). Marine casualty: Alicia M. Anderson, USMC, 2003 (public domain)

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