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”
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
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“…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
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WE AMERICANS ARE A CURIOUS PEOPLE…
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
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.