The U.S. war in Iraq ended just before Christmas, and if you blinked you probably missed it. TV news coaxed some seasonal sentiment out of the troops getting home for the holidays, but the Sunday morning talk shows—where news of consequence is usually autopsied—barely noticed. The Beltway sages had weightier matters to discuss, such as the Gingrich ascendancy and the latest Congressional standoff.
The silence was understandable because the topic is so awkward. The Iraq war wasn’t a defeat, like Vietnam. But it wasn’t a win either: Saddam Hussein is long gone, but the strategic menace the invasion was meant to thwart was bogus, the installation of democracy seems shaky at best, and the country seems on the verge of tearing itself apart again.
Besides, the Iraq victory lap was used up back in 2003 when George W. Bush, in a supreme moment of presidential buffoonery, pranced across a carrier deck in flight regalia to declare peace just as a calamitous civil war was starting.
So while the news media might like to imply that the war concluded successfully, that’s a hard case to make, especially with our Iraqi friends referring to it as a “foreign occupation.” And faced with a perplexing moment of historical ambiguity, the media did what they do whenever a clean story line eludes them—change the subject.
Our country isn’t unique in making war needlessly, but we may be unique in our insouciance. Attention really should be paid. After all, destroying another country is a big deal. Between 105,000 and 130,000 Iraqi civilians died violently, and half a million more were lost to degraded infrastructure, lousy healthcare and other miseries caused by years of murderous strife uncorked by the U.S. invasion. Some 2 million Iraqis are now refugees, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary lives have been mutilated.
You’d think some sort of examination is in order: Congressional hearings? A truth and reconciliation commission? At least, an extended segment on 60 Minutes? The events of 9/11 triggered hearings, commissions, reports, reappraisals, soul-searching, reorganizations, sweeping legislation. But the immeasurably greater catastrophe of the Iraq war has brought no comparable reckoning.
Forget apologies. The U.S. doesn’t do apologies. The closest our media have come to voicing regret is lamenting the war’s trillion-dollar cost and the torments of our own combatants, the 4,500 military personnel killed and many thousands maimed physically or psychologically. It’s estimated that of the 2.8 million who have served since 2001, some 30 percent will live with physical or psychological disability. These young people heeded the country’s call to duty, but the media do little more than pander to them as “returning heroes,” rather than honor their service by demanding to know why anybody thought it was necessary.
What was that all about anyway? Shouldn’t we ask? The media got plenty of criticism for swallowing the lies and stoking the fires of war beforehand. But what about now? Are there no lessons to be learned?
This isn’t the first U.S. war in living memory that was shoved under the carpet. President Ford inaugurated the modern policy of “never mind” after Saigon fell in April 1975 when he declared: “This action closes a chapter in the American experience. I ask all Americans to close ranks, to avoid recrimination about the past …”
Ford’s approach became a classic of U.S. official spin. It holds, first, that even if the harrowing cost of a policy blunder falls overwhelmingly on other people, it’s still an “American” experience. (An arrogant perspective, to be sure. How many foreign deaths does it take for them to get their own “chapter?”)
And second, Ford warned, no “recrimination.” That admonition defies a fundamental tenet of democratic systems—the indispensability of holding leaders accountable. Policy failure should be examined carefully, and responsibility assigned accordingly. That doesn’t prohibit forgiveness, but it insists that mistakes be understood so they aren’t repeated.
We’re seeing none of that. The political elite won’t touch this war. Nobody’s pushing them to (not even the street protestors), and they have nothing to gain. The Republicans don’t want to remind anybody about Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. The Democrats fear that anything they do would be attacked as a partisan stunt, and that their own complicity in the debacle would be exposed.
The only public institution that could initiate the kind of broad-gauged examination that a disaster of this magnitude demands is the media. From the strategic folly, to the use of torture, the destruction of civilian life, the profiteering, the political miscalculation—the years of ineptitude need to be exposed and explained, and those responsible made to answer.
If the media’s core civic duty is to serve as a check on power, surely no abuse of power calls forth that duty more urgently than the needless infliction of war.