Surveying the vast trove of WikiLeaks Iraq documents, Steve Coll makes what I think is a great point about how “American understanding of the Iraq war has so far been distorted, in a way, by the heavy scrutiny of American conduct, generalship, politics, and domestic narratives of who won and who lost, who succeeded and who failed”:
The war we have absorbed much less of, but the one experienced by many Iraqis, is the one Jon Lee Anderson, among others, chronicled in this magazine in 2007. It was, particularly between 2005 and 2007, a war of nihilism, death squads, and elemental sectarian violence. The WikiLeaks archive seems to contain a lot of that war because it is weighted toward the frontline experience of the officers and soldiers sent to try to bring the sectarian violence under some semblance of control. The Times has organized its online selection of the documents into sections, one of which is entitled, “Country In Chaos.” An intelligence report under that heading has been labeled “Unchecked Torture.” It says, in the startlingly routine language of a forwarded office e-mail,
EVIDENCE OF UNCHECKED TORTURE WAS NOTED IN THE IRAQI POLICE STATION IN HUSAYBAH, IZ. LARGE AMOUNTS OF BLOOD ON THE CELL FLOOR, A WIRE USED FOR ELECTRIC SHOCK AND A RUBBER HOSE WERE LOCATED IN THE HOLDING CELL. ENCLOSURES
That is the Iraq war that will live on for a long time in the memories of families, militia commanders and political leaders — and by doing so, it will shape the future of the country in ways that are hard to predict, but are unlikely to be constructive.
To put in some perspective the role that 2005-2007 will play in Iraqi politics, my recent trip to Israel and Palestine, with my colleague Matt Yglesias as well as a number of other journalists, brought home once again the enormity of the challenge of overcoming the pain, resentment, and distrust that has calcified (both between and within the Jewish and Palestinian communities) in the decades since the expulsion and displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, amid the conflicts that Israelis refer to collectively as their War of Independence, and the Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba, the catastrophe. To be honest, I’m as pessimistic as I’ve ever been about the possibility of disentangling the various claims and counter-claims toward arriving a just accommodation (though also as sure as I’ve ever been that it’s imperative that President Obama continue to try).
But the point is this: between 2003 and 2009, in addition to the more than 100,000 Iraqis killed and many more wounded and maimed, more than 4.5 million Iraqis were expelled and displaced amid Iraq’s sectarian civil war — new, grim details of which are contained in the WikiLeaks trove. Around 2.6 million remain internally displaced in Iraq, unable to return to their homes. Another 1.9 million remain refugees, mostly in neighboring Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. It has utterly changed the face not only of Iraq, but of the region. If Americans are going to learn the right lessons from Iraq, and satisfy the huge moral debt we’ve incurred, we’ve simply got to regain our sense of shock about the enormity of what we have done there: Through a combination of hubris, idealism, incompetence, and plain ignorance, the United States facilitated, sponsored, and oversaw Iraq’s Nakba.
Since taking office, President Obama has endeavored to put the political arguments surrounding Iraq behind us. In terms of American political unity, I suppose that’s admirable. But, as we know — as Obama has shown that he himself knows — the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. Not in America. Not in Iraq. We will be paying the costs and grappling with the consequences of the Iraq war for decades. I see nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by refusing to squarely and publicly confront those costs and consequences.
Back in 2008, I did a video for my friend Mark Goldberg’s On Day One project, which allowed people to share what they would like the next president to do on his or her first day in office. I called for the President of the United States to announce support for, and full cooperation with, the creation of an Iraqi Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I’d like to repeat that now: