Learning Nothing from the Iraq War

W.J. Astore

20 Years Later, Basic Truths Remain Unspoken

What has America learned from the colossal failure of the Iraq War? Not what it should have learned, notes historian (and retired U.S. Army colonel) Greg Daddis at War on the Rocks. Daddis recently attended a 20-year retrospective symposium on the Iraq War, where he heard two distinctive narratives. As he put it:

Most, if not all, veterans of “Iraqi Freedom” told an inward-facing story focusing on tactical and operational “lessons” largely devoid of political context. Meanwhile, Iraqi scholars and civilians shared a vastly different tale of political and social upheaval that concentrated far more on the costs of war than on the supposed benefits of U.S. interventionism.

In short, the U.S. view of the Iraq War remains insular and narcissistic. The focus is on what U.S. troops may have gotten wrong, and how the military could perform better in the future. It’s about tactical and operational lessons. In this approach, Iraq and the Iraqi people remain a backdrop to American action on the grand stage. Put differently, the Iraqis are treated much like clay for Americans to mould or discard should they refuse to behave themselves under our hands.

So the “lessons” for America focus on how to become better, more skilled, manipulators of the “clay” at hand. Issues of right and wrong aren’t addressed. The morality or legality of war isn’t questioned. And Iraqis themselves, their suffering, their plight, even their say in determining their own futures within their country, is pretty much dismissed as irrelevant. And the same is largely true when considering the Vietnam War or the Afghan War; we matter, they don’t, even when we’re fighting in their country and spreading enormous destruction in undeclared and illegal wars.

As Mike Murry, a Vietnam veteran who comments frequently at this site, has said: you can’t do a wrong thing the right way. America’s Vietnam War was wrong; the Iraq War was wrong. There was no “right” way to do these wars. Yet, far too often, U.S. military officers and veterans, joined by far too many Americans who lack military experience, want to focus on how to wage a wrong war in a better, smarter, often more ruthless, way

Indeed, the narrative at times is reduced to “We lost because we weren’t ruthless enough, or we were about to win until the U.S. military was betrayed.” I wrote about this back in 2007 after I heard Senator John McCain speak on PBS.  Basically, his point was that if America lost the Iraq War (which we already had), it wouldn’t be the U.S. military’s fault.  It would be the fault of anyone who questioned the war. McCain, in other words, was spouting yet another exculpatory stab-in-the-back myth.

What can we learn from the Iraq War, then? Let’s start with these basic lessons: Don’t fight a war based on governmental lies and unfounded fears. Don’t fight illegal and immoral wars. Don’t fight undeclared wars. Don’t meddle in the societies of other people where you are seen as invaders and about which you are ignorant. Don’t wage war, period, unless the domestic security of the U.S. is truly threatened.

Those seem like the right lessons to me, not lessons about how to recognize insurgencies or how to respond more quickly to asymmetries like IEDs and ambushes.

In sum, learn this lesson: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, were and are countries with rich pasts and proud peoples who were not about to submit to American invaders and agendas, no matter how well-intentioned those invaders believed or advertised themselves to be.

3 thoughts on “Learning Nothing from the Iraq War

  1. (CNN) — When the Gulf War began in 1990, many were worried about “another Vietnam,” but few of those were in the military.

    The war chiefly showed how easy it is to run over an enemy who has little in the way of effective defenses, strategy, tactics, planning, morale or leadership. When it ended, President George H. W. Bush, triumphantly exclaimed, “By God, we’ve licked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” By John Mueller (March 12, 2011)

    I’ll never forget Deputy Dubya’s daddy and his ignorant, arrogant proclamation pimping for ever more amnesia regarding America’s once and future Vietnam debacles. Or, phrased somewhat differently . . .

    Syndromes of Wisdom

    “You must not invade Mother Russia,” it’s said
    In the vast, bitter wintertime cold
    Napoleon, though, thought he’d figured a way
    So did Hitler, or so we are told.

    “Do not get bogged down in an Asian land war,”
    So they once taught cadets at West Point
    Not that France or America listened, of course
    Till their noses got wrenched out of joint

    “Do not spit to windward,” the sailors will say
    Or you’ll get the snot back in your face
    Not that landlubbers heed these instructions so wise
    Which accounts for their loss with no trace

    “Do not use a puppet to run your affairs”
    If you don’t know the nature of string
    With two ends, you know, it can pull either way
    As the bad puppet chorus will sing

    As they train the young dogs not to shit where they live
    And the cats not to pee on the rug
    So America ought not to jump in the hole
    That it has only recently dug

    Latrines have their uses, but swimming ain’t one
    Not unless you like stinking and slimed
    So America ought not to dive in the ditch
    Out of which it has only just climbed

    We haven’t yet found our way out of this mess
    Still, before any learning can start
    All the ones who so brazenly lit the last fuse
    Seem to fear that we might lose the art

    They’ve gone back again to the tried and the trite
    Seeking slogans to mask their retreat
    In a panic that soon we won’t do this again
    “Isolationist!” now they repeat

    In the land of the blind rules a king with one eye
    Whose perspective is greatly obscured
    Like the fabulous realm of the learning impaired
    Where the people know only one word

    The sunken investments run deep, far, and wide
    And to give them up now would be bad
    Never mind all those kids with the lost legs and arms
    We must not make the stockholders sad

    The headstones grow grim in the grass ‘round their graves
    As the rows of their ranks slowly fill
    While the numbers and dates tell a story of lives
    Ended short, not for good but for ill

    What remains of their bodies lies buried away
    While their souls through eternity fall
    Leaving only their memories fading in friends
    And their names on a black-granite wall

    They bang the drum slowly; they play the horn sad
    They preach and console and reprise
    Their denials that youth really dies for the old
    While the story the statesmen revise

    Now furious fear flings more sand in the face
    As the trial balloons litter the sky
    Once again it’s a “syndrome” to think of the waste,
    To remember, and understand why

    What kind of a people would coin a cliché
    Using “syndrome” to lie and appease
    All to cover a wish to make wisdom passé
    Just a symptom of one more disease?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “…remarkable, considering how long the war lasted and how intensely it was reported and commented upon, that there are really not very many lessons from our experience in Vietnam that can be usefully applied elsewhere …” — Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1975 memo to President Gerald Ford (quoted by Andrew Bacevich in Washington Rules)

    In other words:

    Let’s Already Do It Again

    Let’s already do it again
    Let’s write with no ink in the pen
    On the paper no trace of the egg on our face
    Let’s already do it again

    Let’s start on our very next loss
    With a coin and some dice and a toss
    Let’s forget this here game where we’ve come up so lame
    The next time around we’ll be boss

    Let’s hurry to do it again
    With the chorus still shouting “Amen!”
    Before we can think of the fact that we stink
    Let’s pour on the perfume and then…

    Let’s you and him get in a fight
    Then we’ll get involved for a night
    Helping out here and there, we’ll of course gladly share
    What was yours that we’ve “earned” with our might

    The brass needs a billet or two
    And some soldiers in order to screw
    A few jumbo jets and they’ve got no regrets
    Not with CNN asking their view

    They “can do,” you see, though they can’t
    Rhetorically venting their rant
    They talk a good show then the battle they slow
    Making “long time” the footprint they plant

    A “journey,” they say, not a “race”
    Attempting to save naked face
    In four years and more, they’ve produced a “long war”
    Of their “victory” — no sign or trace

    Let’s unlearn our history now
    And not ask about why or how
    While still sort of numb and sufficiently dumb
    Let’s not any learning allow

    We failed in Vietnam before
    Despite all the blood, guts, and gore
    Yet no fortune’s vast for our leadership caste
    To squander on warbucks galore

    A syndrome we need to construct
    To conceal the true fact that we’re fucked
    Our governing group has just stepped in the poop
    Now they’ve got to deny that they’ve sucked

    We need war to prop up the few
    Who really have nothing to do
    Their lack of a skill means that others must kill
    To produce all the “metrics” they skew

    The Worst and the Dullest, they paint
    Every failure with their smell and taint
    In a rut or a groove, they have set out to prove
    What Tweedledee said “isn’t” ain’t

    We’ve got the worst leadership team:
    A truly mad, nightmarish scream
    But screwing the pooch while a backside they smooch
    To them seems like just a wet dream

    Wherever they came from, who knows?
    Incompetence in them just grows
    They get us bombed stiff then they jump off a cliff
    Demonstrating what already shows

    We just hung a man in Iraq
    Once gone, though, we can’t get him back
    Now without any rope, down the slippery slope
    Our excuses get ever more slack

    They talk of a “spike” and a “surge”
    All to cover a fear and an urge
    They’ve shot our last wad, now they’ve left it to “GAWD”
    To figure out where next to splurge

    They’ve had all the time that they need
    To knock off the bullshit and screed
    With their flat learning curve, they’ve one hell of a nerve
    To demand more sick bodies to bleed

    This ain’t good and it’s got to stop
    Whatever they try at they flop
    If left at the helm they’ll just wreck the whole realm
    In planting their dragon’s teeth crop

    So let us dismiss these vile men
    Now mainly less rooster than hen
    Before they can blow what at sundown they crow:
    “Let’s already do it again!”

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007

    Liked by 1 person


    As such, we demand, we need,
    we hunger and thirst for,
    we live and die by Answers.
    And not Questions.

    We depend for our livelihood and well-being,
    — for our sanity and security,
    for our sense of our Self and the Real —
    we depend on the expert, the anchorman,
    the spokesperson, talk show host,
    reliable source, and, ultimately,
    The Leader [or hero, savior, guru]
    who provides us with All the Answers.

    This way, we can make an immediate determination
    as to whether or not his [seldom her] Answers agree
    with ours.

    And, if they don’t, then, without having to bother
    with the process of thinking,
    We can dismiss his Answers out of hand
    and continue our search for The Answers
    that agree with Ours.

    A curious people indeed….

    A gnome, a pitiable creature of sorts,
    stopped looking for the right Answers
    to The Terror Event of September 11
    when he realized exactly how ready and able
    the government and its media were to provide
    exactly those Answers.

    That happened on the morning of September 12.
    And that happened again with Saddam’s WMDs in 2003,
    the 2008 financial “¢risi$,” The COVID Event,
    January 6, and most recently, Ukraine.

    So….. Instead, he chose to focus
    on finding the right Questions.

    Because, he reasoned, if you can ask the right Questions,

    you will ultimately get to The Truth.
    Because out of the right Questions
    The Truth must inevitably emerge.

    If, on the other hand, your focus is on finding the right Answers,
    all you can get are the Answers you were looking for
    in the first place.

    And what you will get are the Answers
    that the Answer-Man on the White Horse
    intends for you to embrace.



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