With chaos prevailing in the Middle East and the future of that region very much in question, it is time to take a retrospective on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The United States invaded Afghanistan following the 9-11 tragedy because it had to. A viper—Osama bin Laden—resided there and had stated openly that he planned to commit more acts of terror. Once we took over the country we should have stayed there and allocated as many troops and time as necessary to help the Afghan people create a stable government, one that could resist the determined presence of the Taliban. Instead we marched willy nilly into Iraq. Why? Because President Bush wanted to.
George Bush envisioned himself a conquering hero who would go down in history as the man who eliminated a ruthless dictator and helped institute a genuine democratic government in an important Middle East country. Dick Cheney liked the idea. They were both encouraged by Iraq expatriates who assured them that our army would be welcomed with open arms and the transition to a new government would be seamless. So they manufactured the notion that Saddam Hussein was harboring nuclear weapons and sold it to the American people, and to Colin Powell, the only person who had the credibility to sell the idea to the United Nations and the world. There was nothing objective about their search for said nuclear weapons: they collected evidence supporting the idea and ignored the evidence that contradicted it. I have a friend who worked for the CIA at the time who stated unequivocally that Cheney was in their department regularly demanding evidence to justify the invasion. When told it wasn’t all that clear, he said, “This is our agenda and we expect you to get with the program.” Yes, folks, the decision had been made and they did not want to be bothered by anything in opposition to their plans.
Let us not forget that the United States went to war with Iraq despite having an international investigating force already in place there which had complete freedom to search anywhere in the country for nuclear weapons. Does anybody remember? Furthermore, eighty per cent of the American public supported this war when it was undertaken. “Preemptive strike” was the expression du jour. As an opponent of the war, I found myself genuinely afraid to express my opinion for the first time in my life. It was looked upon as treasonous. Few people in the media spoke out against it. Dan Rather did and was vilified. The French ambassador asked, “Why go to war when you already have inspectors on the ground searching for the very thing you are concerned about?” Americans, furious that the French were being disloyal, established a boycott of their goods and re-named French fries “Freedom fries,” among other things. Bill O’Reilly on Fox News once threatened to have Americans boycott Canadian goods because some newspaper editor up there didn’t agree with our decision. When we invaded, only two countries in the world supported our decision—Israel and somebody else.
We stepped into a complete mess. We won the war quickly but the aftermath was terrible. Veterans described it as the wild west—no law anywhere. Sunnis and Shites hated each other, killed each other with abandon, and the Kurds of the North just bided their time, semi-autonomous and waiting for independence. Forty-five hundred Americans died, many more were maimed, and came home to inept and incompetent treatment by the Veterans Adminstration. Catastrophic numbers of Iraqis died or were displaced, and the war dragged on as insurgents from various nations poured into the country to fight us. The amount of corruption was incredible.
Veterans whom I talked to at the time of the conflict felt they were doing good work in their attempt at nation building. They believed in their government and were willing to give their lives for the cause. An ever-growing number of veterans now feel they accomplished nothing and that they were sold a bill of goods by the Bush administration. The rich got richer and the poor were no better off. Ultimately, the veterans found, you couldn’t figure out who the enemy was. You were as likely shot by the Afghan or Iraqi soldier next to you as a sniper a half mile away. “They’ve never liked invaders,” one permanently disabled veteran of both wars told me recently. “That doesn’t change.”
Now, as I write this, Iraq is being torn apart with another war featuring an amalgam of fighters from Syria and Iraq, and the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds are being split apart again. I am certain this end product is far from what the Bush administration envisioned. And Afghanistan? They are electing a new president, we are removing the last of the troops from the country in the near future, and the Taliban is licking its lips to move in again. What will the result of all this be? If you read your history books you will find that these same scenarios have been playing out in these same countries for more than two thousand years and it is unlikely that outside intervention is going to bring a settlement to the region. But then, reading history books has never been one of George Bush or Dick Cheney’s passions. Scholars they are not. Yet in the hands of so few rest the lives of so many.
It has been said over and over that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So what have we learned? Well, the Iraq War will go down as one of the greatest blunders in American history. This conclusion is already becoming evident. We had to go into Afghanistan but will leave that a mess too. We’re still paying the price for Viet Nam. So what have we learned? Probably that Americans don’t read any more history than do politicians, so the same mistakes will be repeated. If Saddam Hussein had ever had nuclear weapons he would have used them on countries around him, not us. But, details, details. It would be nice if Americans would occasionally follow the counsel of other nations and not always assume we are right about everything. But we’ll continue to follow lock step whenever administrations concoct their nonsense. It is against our nature to see the obvious, or to read history. In other words, we’ll keep doing the same thing. We’ll never learn.