The original op-ed was published at The Nation
Who remembers anymore that, in 2003, we were Vladimir Putin? Today, our cable and social-media news feeds are blanketed with denunciations of the president of the Russian Federation for his lawless and brutal invasion of Ukraine. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken met briefly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi on March 2nd, he told him in no uncertain terms, "End this war of aggression."
Putin himself, however, has a longer memory. In the speech that launched his "special operation," he pointedly denounced the United States for "the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds." Then he added, "We witnessed lies made at the highest state level and voiced from the high UN rostrum. As a result, we see a tremendous loss in human life, damage, destruction, and a colossal upsurge of terrorism."
Yes, it's true, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, that war is long forgotten here. No one in the Biden administration today cares that it ruined what credibility America had as a pillar of international order in the global south and gave Putin cover for his own atrocity. So, sit back for a moment and let me take you on a little trip into a long-lost all-American world.
On May 1, 2003, arrayed in Top Gun gear, President George W. Bush sat in the co-pilot's seat of a fighter jet and was flown to the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier then stationed just off the coast of San Diego. No rationale drove this high-priced jaunt save the visuals his propaganda team hoped to generate.
Then, from that ship's deck beneath a banner that proclaimed, "Mission Accomplished," he made a televised speech about the invasion of Iraq he had ordered less than two months earlier. Bush proudly announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." Of course, neither assertion would prove faintly true. In fact, some 2,500 US troops are still stationed in Iraq to this day, aiding in the fight against leaders of that country's former Baath Party government who have now become fundamentalist guerrillas. And keep in mind that those troops remain there even though the Iraqi parliament has asked them to leave.
The rest of Bush's speech deserves more infamy than it's attained. The president declared, "Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians." Dream on, but of course Bush gave that "Mission Accomplished" speech to whitewash a war of aggression as a routine instrument of presidential policy. Describing the ramshackle, fourth-world country of Iraq then as "dangerous" and "aggressive" was as hyperbolic as Putin's categorization of Volodomyr Zelenksy's Ukraine as a "Nazi" state.
Note, however, that one phrase was missing from Bush's Napoleonic screed about forcibly spreading "democracy" and "freedom" with that new tool, "precision warfare," and that was, of course, "international law." At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the International Military Tribunal had observed,
War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.
And, of course, the United Nations charter forbids military aggression. It allows war only in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it.
On the deck of that aircraft carrier, however, Bush had the nerve to say: "When Iraqi civilians looked into the faces of our servicemen and women, they saw strength and kindness and goodwill."
In fact, Iraqis had spent a significant part of the 20th century trying to get British colonialists out of their country and it was hardly surprising that, in 2003, so many of them didn't see such virtues in the forces that had invaded their land. The US military personnel on the ground I talked to, then or later, often spoke of the sullen, angry gazes of the Iraqis they encountered. One acquaintance of mine, Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman, sent me a message that very summer in which he described sitting in the back of a troop transport with other American forces on a road in southern Iraq and being passed by a truckload of armed Iraqis. One of them squinted sourly at them and lifted his rifle menacingly. Kylan said he just patted his M1 rifle, returning the threat.
A Navy reservist and Middle East specialist, he planned on a post-military academic career, having completed a PhD in history. Insightful and easy-going, a crafter of exquisite haiku poetry, Kylan promised to be an exciting colleague for me. He told me he was being sent from Bahrain to brief the military brass in the city of Hillah in southern Iraq. On the evening of August 21, 2003, as I was watching CNN, on the scroll at the bottom of the screen I noticed an American had been shot dead in Hillah and that left me uneasy. The next day I learned that Kylan had indeed been the victim, killed by a young Iraqi as he waited in a jeep at an intersection. It was an elbow to the gut that left me in tears—and it still hurts to tell the story.
He was, in fact, one of more than 7,000 US military personnel to die in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other War on Terror locales, along with 8,000 Pentagon contractors. And that's not even to mention the more than 30,000 veterans of those conflicts who later committed suicide. One of them took my class on the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan. Well-informed and good-natured, he nevertheless couldn't survive to the end of the semester, given whatever demons his experiences over there had burdened him with. In fact, for those still thinking about Iraq, the gut-punches of that war never stop.
And don't forget the more than 53,000 American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan who were injured badly enough in battle to end up in a hospital. About 10% of them had wounds on an injury severity scale of nine or greater, suffering, according to one National Institutes of Health study, from horrors that included traumatic brain damage, open wounds, chronic blood-clotting, and burns.
And all of that was nothing compared to what the US military did to Iraqis.
It should come as no surprise that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the other architects of one of America's biggest foreign-policy fiascos in its 246 years of existence could support the bald-faced lie that they had invented a new kind of warfare that didn't produce significant civilian deaths or casualties. Mind you, they also told serial whoppers about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nonexistent ties to the Al Qaeda terror group and his supposedly active biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Contrary to President Bush's glib assertions, the death toll in Iraq only burgeoned as the fighting went on. American planes routinely struck targets in densely populated Iraqi cities. Some American troops committed massacres, as did Blackwater mercenaries working for the US military. During the civil war of 2006–07 that emerged from the American occupation of the country, the Baghdad police had to establish a regular corpse patrol dispatched at the beginning of each workday to load up carts with human remains tossed in the streets overnight by rival sectarian militias.
In the years just after the Bush invasion, one Iraqi widow from the southern port city of Basra told me that her family barely avoided being attacked by members of a destitute, displaced Marsh Arab tribe then running a protection racket in the city. The family's escape cost them all the cash they had on hand and required them to provide a feast for the tribesmen. Determined to try to improve the situation, the man of the household ran for public office. One day, he had just gotten into his car to go campaigning when a masked assailant suddenly appeared and shot him point blank in the head. His tearful widow told me that she could never get over the sight. And such events were hardly uncommon then.
By the time the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the terrorist cult that emerged from the US occupation of the country, finally went down to defeat in 2019, Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates that some 300,000 Iraqis had died "from direct war-related violence caused by the United States, its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces." Several times that number were wounded or crippled. Hundreds of thousands of widows lost their family breadwinners and some of them were reduced to a lifetime as beggars. Even larger numbers of children lost one or both parents. And keep in mind that such figures don't include Iraqis who died from indirect but war-related causes like the breakdown of the provision of potable water and electricity thanks to US bombing raids and damage to the country's infrastructure.....
Read the full op-ed at The Nation.