Fareed Zakaria on his show on CNN on Sunday asked neoconservative hawk and former Bush administration official Paul Wolfowitz whether the Iraq war was “worth the price in American lives and treasure.” Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Cotton, who “went from the battlefields of Iraq to the halls of Congress” were on CNN to answer whether the price of war was “worth it” to America. Numerous headlines for news stories or op-eds reflecting on the ten-year anniversary are framed in terms of costs versus benefits for America.
A poll circulating, which was conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post found “nearly six in 10 Americans say the war was not worth fighting.” Fifty-three percent, according to a Gallup poll, say the US “made a mistake sending troops to fight in Iraq.” (That percentage is actually down from 63 percent in 2008.
The United States government and tens of thousands of its people made an “investment” in Iraq. The invasion and occupation of the country inarguably cost trillions of dollars. It led to the deaths of over 6,600 Americans who deployed to Iraq. Over 671,000 have filed disability claims and those who fought in the war were predominantly young poor or working class Americans.
It cannot be said there was no cost or suffering for Americans, however, that should not be the focus of reflection. It should not matter whether Americans think it was “worth it” or not, whether those who engineered the war still find it to have been “worth it,” or even whether troops who served happen to believe what they did was “worth it.” The primary focus should be the cost to Iraqis.
Do Iraqis think it was “worth it” to be invaded in 2003 so the US could prevent Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction that did not exist? Was it “worth it” to be occupied by US military forces and private military contractors for eight years? Do they approve of the invasion, which really built on the Gulf War launched by President George H.W. Bush and the sanctions and air strikes against the country that occurred when President Bill Clinton was in office?
A Zogby poll of Iraqi public opinion in 2011 found 22% of Iraqis were happy, 35% were worried and 30% felt “both emotions.” Iraqis viewed Iran, the United States and Iraqi elites as key beneficiaries of the US invasion. “More than one-quarter of Iraqis” saw “al-Qaeda as a chief beneficiary of the war,” and “only 4%” thought “the Iraqi people benefited the most from the war.”
Let’s abandon this frame, which devalues Iraqi lives and the suffering Iraqis experienced. Let’s stay away from discussion of whether war was a “mistake” or not. It cannot be a “mistake” because the administration of President George W. Bush did not just happen to stumble into Iraq and bomb it with a campaign of “shock and awe.” The administration spent months constructing a case for war knowing there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein posed any imminent threat yet they fabricated arguments to convince government agencies, the political class, the press and the public that this was a war that had to be waged. All of which makes the war a crime, not a mistake.
There should be reflection on the crime that was the Iraq war. Throughout the week, government documents revealing the conspiracy and corruption should be highlighted. Stories from Iraqis who were subjected to bombings, torture, arbitrary detention, night raids, Iraqi security forces backed by the US that conducted themselves as death squads, abusive and exploitative private contractors, corruption that propped up Iraq’s ruling elites, etc, should all receive attention.
The American people do not know this war. They do not know what really happened or what has been happening after. The ignorance, to some extent, is chosen. Who really wants to know how their country destroyed a country? But, also, President Barack Obama’s administration, Congress and others in government do not want to see a real outpouring of empathy and remorse for what happened. That would undermine the idea of America, the myth of the country being a force for good in the world.
A conservative estimate suggests 123,000-134,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. A study conducted in 2006 by Lancet found over 650,000 civilian deaths had occurred as a result of the Iraq war. Then, there’s this reality:
Approximately 2.8 million people remain either internally displaced or have fled the country. This means that 1 in 12 Iraqis are still displaced from their homes. Unemployment is high. The health of women and children is the most vulnerable in Iraq and many Iraqis are hungry, and dependent on rations.
Amnesty International released a report ahead of the ten-year anniversary. “Thousands of Iraqis are detained without trial or serving prison sentences imposed after unfair trials, torture remains rife and continues to be committed with impunity,” according to the human rights organization. “The new Iraq is one of the world’s leading executioners. The government hanged 129 prisoners in 2012, while hundreds more languished on death row.”
Amid “intense political and sectarian rivalry and widespread lethal violence,” Amnesty reports, “Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been rounded up by the authorities; many of them have been detained for months or years without charge or trial in conditions that facilitate, even invite, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment).”
When prisoners have been brought before the courts, international fair trial standards also have been frequently and systematically violated. Many defendants have alleged that police or other interrogators tortured and coerced them to make selfincriminating statements while holding them incommunicado in pre-trial detention, and have repudiated such “confessions” at trial. Courts, however, have frequently accepted such “confessions” as evidence despite their repudiation by defendants, and used them as a basis to deliver guilty verdicts. Much of Iraqi justice still functions according to the principle that ”the confession is the master of evidence”, underscoring the pervasive nature of the “confession culture” that dominates the approach of the police and security forces to obtaining information as a basis for prosecuting suspects before the courts. [emphasis added]
This “confession culture” may have been fostered by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the reality that US forces used this culture to its advantage during the war and occupation cannot be ignored. In a country where America was supposedly there to “liberate” a population, it turned to a security regime built upon fear and terror that utilized torture and/or involved looking the other way as Iraqi forces brutalized people in secret prisons. Thus, it should come as no surprise that after the US left the Iraqi government continued to try and secure the country by relying on this culture, where crimes confessed during torture have many times led to defendants being sentenced to death.
Is it worth it that the US invaded and left behind a country where torture is pervasive? Is it worth it that the US only worsened sectarian tensions and even played groups against each other to get results desired and now that is fueling violence? Is it worth it that all war crimes committed in Iraq have gone unpunished; that few responsible for murder and torture have been held accountable, particularly those who were serving as high-ranking government officials and authorized or looked the other way when such acts were committed?
Not only did Iraq war hawks push America into war, but the House and Senate, including Democrats, authorized war. The media notoriously signed on to the war. People in power who could have spoken up and sections of society that could have been more outspoken were silent.
No persons have ever been held accountable for the war. The organization of a truth commission, where Bush administration officials and others complicit or responsible for the criminal Iraq war are exposed and shamed, has not occurred.
Like previous US wars, it could be decades later before the world really learns all that should be known about the crimes of humanity Iraqis endured. The truth of what happened is still being learned, but enough is known, however, to unequivocally conclude a massive ongoing eight-year crime was carried out in Iraq and, sadly, Iraqis are unlikely to ever get the justice, accountability or even the reparations they deserve.