Learning Little from the Iraq War

W.J. Astore

Military Invasions Don’t Produce Democracies

Military invasions don’t produce democracies—who knew? Whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, somehow the U.S. government worked to convince itself and the American people that democracy could be exported at rifle point. Not surprisingly, military invasions spread what they usually do: death, destruction and chaos while sowing seeds for further violence and conflict. Such is one of the many lessons of Bush/Cheney’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq 20 years ago this weekend.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003, I was still on active duty in the military. I was a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, or DLI for short. I can tell you this: the U.S. government expected a short and utterly victorious war, since there was no direction to us to expand foreign language training in Arabic. Only after Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” speech and the war’s subsequent degeneration into occupation, torture, battles of frustration like Fallujah, and subsequent quagmire did DLI finally get direction and more resources to expand training in Arabic.

Mission Accomplished! But the Iraq War had only just begun.

That led to my first and only interview as a military officer in May 2005, when a reporter for the CS Monitor asked me about the importance of language training for U.S. troops. Here was my glib reply:

“We are trying to win the peace, and it is very important for us to be able to communicate even at a basic level,” says Lt. Col. William Astore, dean of students at the DLI. “I would much rather have soldiers communicate using words rather than using a rifle butt.”

OK as far as it went, but by the middle of 2005 we had already lost the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan. For one thing, we simply had too few troops with language skills, and it took 16 months to train them to a decent level of competence in Arabic. So we resorted to those rifle butts—and worse.

Another minor controversy at the time was the loss of skilled linguists to the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As soon as a soldier said he was gay, he was basically gone, regardless of his language proficiency. A few troops gamed the system, finishing the bulk of their language training then self-reporting they were gay. That was enough to get them discharged.

Along with that mess, I recall a friend of mine, an Army major, being sent to Iraq in 2004 and working for the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority. He said he and his colleagues at the CPA knew Iraq wasn’t ready for the transfer of power overseen by the hapless L. Paul Bremer, but it went ahead anyway for political reasons. 

He also told me how the military filled billets at the CPA and in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Basically, Big Army tasked unit commanders for bodies. The DLI Commandant sent one of his best officers, an experienced and skilled FAO (foreign area officer). But many other commanders took advantage of this “draft” by sending their worst officers to Iraq, the under-performers. At the same time, the Bush/Cheney administration was recruiting inexperienced civilians for Iraq and vetting them based on their views on abortion, capital punishment, and similar hot-button issues within the Republican Party. Combine less-than-competent officers with unprepared and largely clueless civilians and it’s not surprising the CPA performed poorly.

My experience with the chaos of Iraq was indirect and limited, but I well recall an urgent tasking to DLI to help with the translation of a Peter, Paul & Mary song to promote tolerance within Iraqi schools. No, I’m not kidding. Some American in Iraq decided a smart way of defusing ethnic and religious tensions in Iraq was to translate a song for kids. So we gathered some of our best Arabic instructors and quickly learned the song was more than problematic. It was about American kids making fun of other kids with braces and glasses, but any Iraqi kid with braces or glasses would be fortunate indeed. Other lines of the song mentioned gays, lesbians, and a teenage mother trying to overcome her past — not a place we wanted to go.

The song just didn’t translate, just like much of the American effort “to win the peace” and build a stable democratic Iraq didn’t translate (if you accept for the moment that that was the true mission). Too many Americans were prisoners of their own illusions in Iraq, or trying to make a fast buck, while troops at the front were simply fighting to survive a ghastly war, a war that was obviously far worse for the Iraqi people.

In the first few weeks of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the U.S. military did its job fairly well, and by that I mean the narrow mission of destroying Iraqi forces and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. After that, it was one disaster after another, one lie after another, because once Saddam was removed from power and the Iraqi military was disbanded, all hell broke loose. Civil war was the result, and, as I wrote in 2007, you can’t win someone else’s civil war. What we got in place of a “win” were the lies of Bush/Cheney and of General David Petraeus about “progress” in the Surge. But as the weasel Petraeus always said, his “gains” were fragile and reversible, and so they proved.

Of course, the Iraq War was based on alarmist lies (those WMD that weren’t there, those mushroom clouds in American skies). It was then preserved by lies until the lies could no longer be countenanced (or until they proved no longer profitable). Yet the liars were promoted (whether in the military or outside of it) and those who warned of the folly of war 20 years ago or those who tried to reveal the truth about war crimes or profiteering during the war were punished. 

Though Donald Rumsfeld lost his job as Defense Secretary, few in the hierarchy were ever called to account for their crimes and blunders, so little was learned and much was forgotten.

So, it’s on to the next war, this time with China or Russia or Iran or whomever, but not to worry, the experts that brought you Iraq and Afghanistan and all the rest will get it right. Just look at their track record and how much they’ve learned!

13 thoughts on “Learning Little from the Iraq War

  1. The subtitle is quite accurate. But after all, the perpetrators of most of these wars were never really keen on democracy, were they? For if they were, more than a few of the ‘interventions’ would not have been about creating regime change and eliminating those leaders who may have too well represented their peoples’ aspirations.


  2. It was lies that got the US into the2003 Iraq WAR, and I suspect the video released by the Pentagon showing the Russian fighter bringing down the Reaper drone is computer generated.

    This is the Pentagon video and I can’t see the US drone anywhere in it. It’s entirely possible with computers to modify the propellers.
    Besides, as incompetent as US Propaganda says the Russians are, that pilot was more experienced and competant than the US Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds to be able to hit that very small propeller at the rear end of the drone and land safely.

    Am I missing anything in the Pentagon video? I don’t see any drone anywhere in it near the Russian jet. Would someone please point it out to me if you see it?


  3. As Tallyrand said of the French Bourbon Kings: “They learned nothing and they forgot nothing.” An appropriate observation regarding US presidents, Congresses, and Courts, too. Hence . . .

    The Good Ship Memory Hole

    One dark and stormy night this tepid tale
    Began, and waking from a dream, it ended.
    Unmoored, the uncrewed Fantasy set sail
    On twilight seas where day and nighttime blended.
    The empty sky complained to no avail
    About the disbelief it had suspended.

    The tide went out and with it went the boat
    Adrift and rudderless, no one commanding.
    The fog rolled in and swallowed in its throat
    The strangled cry of something dim demanding
    To know the reason why the fishes gloat
    To see a thing beneath their understanding.

    The wind, that vagrant quantity, died down,
    And then arose to drive the ship before it.
    No Ahab paced the deck to rage and frown.
    No fickle fate consented to abhor it:
    That nightmare stream in which the dreamers drown;
    The mind awaiting waking to restore it.

    The whales and dolphins swam along beside.
    The albatrosses soared, the sea gulls glided.
    The barnacles hung on to bum a ride.
    The turtles temporized, their time they bided,
    Until the seals would cease them to deride;
    Till someone, somewhere, sane, this scene decided.

    The ocean rudely rolled, the eyes they crossed,
    As stomachs down below grew sour and trembled.
    The passengers turned pale; their lunch they lost;
    And wondered why they ever had assembled
    To voyage to the void at such a cost —
    And who the ticket-selling fraud resembled.

    No Ishmael survived the trip who knows
    Why thought reflected off the waves and scattered,
    Absorbed into the swirling ebbs and flows
    That left the crazy craft careened and battered
    Upon Amnesia reef where nothing grows
    Except forgetfulness of things that mattered.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2009


  4. America has not won a war in 77 years for the simple reason that we don’t start wars to win them, but to enrich the MICCIFMATT and to plant the seed for the next war.

    And every one of those wars we have started we started with a complete and total LIE: Tonkin Gulf, Kuwaiti Incubator Babies, a bunch of ragheads living in caves in Afghanistan who did 9/11, Saddam’s “WMDs”, Assad’s chemical attack, and most recently, Russia as the imperialist aggressor in Ukraine.

    One can only imagine what Lie will be told to get us into war with China. And i’m sure the folks at the White House, Pentagon, NSA/CIA, and State Department already have it in Final Draft, ready for signature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes to all that. Coming up soon, yet more of the usual . . .

      Déjà-vu, Redux
      (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

      The changing of the guard brought no relief
      To those who thought they’d voted out the old.
      Instead, the ones who hoped soon came to grief

      As pointless wars dragged on, with “new” lies told
      That sounded like a replay, word-for-word,
      Except for better syntax smoothly sold,

      But meaning just the same as ever heard:
      The status quo before and after shuns
      The merest hint of change, however slurred.

      The ones who “lost” kept winning while the ones
      Who “won” soon found that they had really not;
      That they had bought no butter – only guns.

      You’d think that they could figure out the plot:
      Not change they wanted, just the same they got.

      He said that if elected, things would change;
      So, once in office, change he did – and fast.
      He pitched his voice just slightly out of range

      So that which he had promised in the past
      He afterwards could claim he didn’t say.
      And, anyway, what virtues ever last

      When power won intoxicates all day
      And through the night, as well, until the dawn?
      The devils, round the clock, come out to play

      While sycophants and jesters kneel and fawn.
      Our new Prince Charming revels in command
      Of armies quartered overseas that spawn,

      Through pointless violence, a deadly sand
      That now blows back, eroding our own land.

      The Law of Karma has a truth to tell:
      That actions taken with a bad intent
      Reap only consequences bad as well

      And he who bombs the poor and won’t relent
      Will find himself defending what he can’t
      With all the lies the clever can invent.

      No matter how well spun the bogus slant,
      The recrudescent, bald resort to threat
      Will always mark reactionary rant;

      And tiresome war waged only on a bet
      Has long since raised the overdue alarm.
      The bankrupt deadbeat nation now must fret,

      That having lost a hand, a leg, an arm,
      It now looks poised to lose the whole damn farm.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2009

      Liked by 1 person

  5. On Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” 40 Years Later

    Some of Y’All may remember President Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech from forty years ago. According to Wiki:

    <<<The “Evil Empire” speech was a speech delivered by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS on March 8, 1983 at the height of Cold War and Soviet-Afghan War.

    <<<In that speech, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and as “THE FOCUS OF EVIL IN THE MODERN WORLD”.

    <<>> [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_Empire_speech ; EMPHASIS added.]

    Given what the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did all over the Planet since the end of World War II [and before, in places like Ukraine]; and given what the United States of America has done all over the Planet since the end of World War II, and particularly since the demise and disintegration of the USSR and European Communism ~ and most particularly since 9/11 ~ a very strong argument can be made that The Evil Empire on the Planet today is the good ole USA.

    And a stronger argument can be made that what this Planet needs most of all is a similar demise and disintegration of the United States and ITS Totally Evil Empire.

    What the United States has perpetrated and perpetuated since the end of first World War II and then 9/11 was, is, and will ever be not merely “wrong,” but EVIL. As in Bullet-Hits-The-Bone EVIL.

    How many civilians has the United States killed, maimed, orphaned, widowed, widowered, and/or rendered childless, homeless, hopeless, and helpless in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and most recently Eastern Europe? And how much money has America’s MICCIFMATT and its Devotees made off all that carnage?

    What is needed is for the entire Planet ~ including Americans ~ to be able to do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3retodS7OY .

    And this would be even better: https://www.google.com/search?q=there%27s+a+party+going+on+right+here&rlz=1C1CHZN_enUS1046US1046&source=lnms&tbm=vid&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwinw6Ljs-T9AhUdDjQIHbYpBC0Q0pQJegQIBRAC&biw=1600&bih=789&dpr=1#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:e615fc6d,vid:8Lu41LulQos .


    Liked by 1 person

  6. ON THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF INVASION OF IRAQ IT MUST BE CLEAR: The U.S. Is The Greatest Threat To World Peace And Collective Humanity by Ajamu Baraka / Global Research 031723

    History teaches that the greatest threat to peace today is the United States. No other nation creates dangers as great as those emanating from the U.S. commitment to the doctrine of Full Spectrum Dominance.

    As anti-imperialist and Anti-war activists are preparing to mobilize in Washington D.C. on the 20th anniversary of the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and its Western colonial allies, it is imperative that authentic anti-imperialist forces and those earnestly committed to an Anti-war principle recognize two things: the U.S. based transnational ruling class is fully invested in the doctrine of U.S. “Full Spectrum Dominance,” and as a consequence THE U.S. STATE HAS BECOME AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO COLLECTIVE HUMANITY ON OUR PLANET.

    The recognition of these two “facts” are the only basis of a politics that can unite Anti-war and anti-imperialists and mitigate the ideological and political confusion that permeates progressive politics in the U.S. that has resulted in progressives and even self-defined radicals supporting pro-imperial policies under the guise of humanitarianism and anti-authoritarianism. The Eurocentric and social-imperialist left has played a nefarious role also providing left ideological and moral cover for those same politics under the guise of opposing “authoritarianism,” usually in the global South, and in Russian or Chinese imperialism.

    Continued at https://www.globalresearch.ca/twentieth-anniversary-invasion-iraq-it-must-be-clear-us-greatest-threat-world-peace-collective-humanity/5812280 ; [EMPHASIS added.]


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