The Iraq War’s fallout persists, and harsh consequences are still to come

What - if anything - has the United States learned from its 2003 invasion of Iraq?

Shock and awe: An explosion hits Baghdad on March 22, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq as hostilities between U.S. led Coalition forces and the Iraqi Regime began. CREDIT: Mirrorpix/Getty Images.
Shock and awe: An explosion hits Baghdad on March 22, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq as hostilities between U.S. led Coalition forces and the Iraqi Regime began. CREDIT: Mirrorpix/Getty Images.

It’s been 15 years since President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. That’s when the American people were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (false); that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators (false); and that overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would bring democracy to Iraq and security for the United States (both debatable).

Here’s what the United States has accomplished: As of the end of February, the number of Iraqi civilian deaths sits at 202,757. More than 2.7 million have been displaced internally (2.42 million, down from a peak of 6 million) and externally (280,014). American troop casualties rest at 4,540, and with over 1.5 million U.S. servicemen and women cycling though Iraq, we’re looking at costs — human and financial — that Americans will have to bear for generations to come, with over a trillion dollars being added to U.S. debt.

A picture taken on March 14, 2018 shows a view of destruction in the old city of Mosul, eight months after it was retaken by Iraqi government forces from ISIS forces. CREDIT: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.
A picture taken on March 14, 2018 shows a view of destruction in the old city of Mosul, eight months after it was retaken by Iraqi government forces from ISIS forces. CREDIT: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.

“I haven’t yet been convinced that anything positive has come out of it,” said Neta Crawford, professor of political science at Boston University and co-director of the Cost of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute.

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However, she added, “…[T]he idea that the United States could go to war for preventive purposes has stuck, as has the view that the implementation of the war was botched.” But, Crawford said, the cause of the war is not seen as an issue.

A “preventive” war or strike is not to be confused with a “pre-emptive” war — in the case of the latter, a country must feel an imminent threat. Not so with the former, which is when a country strikes another before a threat or attack becomes imminent.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told ThinkProgress that other than overthrowing Saddam, there haven’t been any net benefits to the invasion.

“In fact, Al Qaeda in Iraq grew in response to our invasion and that eventually morphed into ISIS because of the chaos in the region. We helped set up a sectarian government which cracked down on the Sunnis and was also so unpopular that their own armed forces couldn’t even get their act together to fight ISIS,” he said.

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Plus, the invasion failed to do what some in the Bush administration hoped it would do in theory: To show other states in the region what would happen if they didn’t bend to the will of the United States.

“We’re at war in at least seven countries now — with drone strikes and Special Forces and in some cases larger deployments, like Iraq and Syria … because they’re not as visible and the troop numbers aren’t as high, they’re not on the same level of debate, maybe with the exception of U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, which might be up for a vote [this week],” said Hartung.

Those seven countries, by the way, are: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, and Niger.

Decades of suffering for veterans

The wars against Iraq (and Afghanistan) have been paid for by raising the national deficit, so the United States has put off actually paying for these wars for nearly two decades (the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001).

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“That is tremendously bad for the economy,” said Crawford, adding that the military spending has continued to increase despite the troop drawdown, while increasing the burden on the agencies that care for veterans after they return — for decades.

“The United States has not, in fact, seen the peak of the expenses from the Vietnam war yet — the peak expenses for these veterans [fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan] will occur in 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” she added.

But veterans themselves are paying a heavy price now, with injuries (including traumatic head injuries), PTSD, depression, and high suicide rates.

Hipolito Arriaga, who was twice deployed to Iraq, told ThinkProgress that in addition to suffering shoulder, back, and knee injuries, he’s also been dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress and “the moral implications of destablizing a sovereign country and terrorizing their communities.”

In 2003 at 19, Arriaga joined the marines too, hoping to travel and get far away form his neighborhood in New York’s South Bronx, where he saw “despair and desolation.”

But Fallujah was still burning when Arriaga got there in 2005.

A young boy watches as soldiers enter his family's apartment during an  operation to search the apartment complex and take a census of the residents August 2, 2005 in Fallujah, Iraq. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images.
A young boy watches as soldiers enter his family's apartment during an operation to search the apartment complex and take a census of the residents August 2, 2005 in Fallujah, Iraq. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

“I felt like I was oppressing these people — these poor people, these people of color,” said Arriaga, 34, noting that being of Puerto Rican descent and with a darker complexion, he felt he looked a lot like the people he was hurting — patrolling their neighborhoods, entering their homes, pointing weapons at them on the streets, because “if they got too close, they got killed. That’s just how we did things … that was the protocol.”

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“I felt useless. … I wasn’t serving anything except for the agenda of those above us who had no direct connection to what was happening, to the terror that we were inflicting upon people,” he said.

He left the Marines in 2007 and now lives in Florida. Still on disability, he is a member of The Combat Hippies, a veteran performance troop, and leads veterans on outdoor expeditions with the nonprofit organization No Barriers.

“I’ve battled with depression and moral injury in dealing with the things that I did when I was over there … I’ve wanted to die so many times since I’ve been back. Like I don’t deserve to live. Like I’m an evil person,” said Arriaga, adding, “My job was about destruction.”

While there are many veterans who certainly do not see their service in Iraq in the same light, what’s clear is that even the proudest soldier suffers trauma.”We are a traumatized generation. The United States has basically produced an entire generation of traumatized veterans and is still continuing to do that,” said Emily Yates, who joined the army at the age of 19, after she was contacted through a recruiter at her community college in Syracuse, New York in 2001. Having no means of paying for school, she signed up shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

She was stationed in Fort Stewart, in Georgia where she started her career as “a propagandist … my job was to deceive the American people.”

“My job was to deceive the American people.”

“I was a public affairs specialist — it was my job to produce news-like articles … basically like, morale-building stories to distract people from the fact that we were in the middle of a futile quagmire,” Yates told ThinkProgress. She worked on the newspaper distributed on the base, and was not allowed to write anything that shed a negative light on the effort.

But she started seeing her colleagues come back from Iraq with injuries to mind and body.

“Most people who join the military — whether or not we know what we’re getting into — have good intentions. And as soon as you realize your good intentions are being deeply exploited, you start to undergo a lot of psychological distress,” said Yates.

She ended up going to Iraq twice — in 2005 with the 3rd Infantry Division, and then again, as part of the surge, in 2007, when she was “stop-lossed” (her contract was extended against her will) and spent another 14 months in Iraq, where her duties included making sure soldiers never said anything negative or revealing in front of embedded journalists.

For her, the realization was, “Oh my God. My job is to bullshit my fellow soldiers … when I’m looking around and seeing my friends dying for no reason … it didn’t seem like there was a strategy, it didn’t seem like there was an endgame in sight.”

She left the army in 2008, got a degree in Near Eastern studies at the University of California in Berkeley, and now lives in Colorado, where she writes, plays music and, like Arriaga, gives back to the community. Yates volunteers with About Face: Veterans Against the War Iraq, and often speaks out about how she sees the war as a policy of “mass destablization.”

Lessons learned (or not)

It remains to be seen what we’ve learned from this war, because all we really learned from the Vietnam War, said Crawford, was that “you just go in harder, faster, and more decisively.” But, she added, the United States keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.

“Force is a very crude tool — difficult to get people to roll over and play dead. In fact, usually, they don’t. And it’s difficult to use with precision,” she said.

For Iraq, the road to recovery will be brutal.

Crawford pointed out that Iraq has been hit hard for some time, and that the country has been in war in some measure since the 1980s: With Iran (from 1980 to 1988); two Gulf Wars (in 1991 and 2003); and then with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

“The U.S. sanctions in the 1990s were not kind to Iraq either — they had similar effects to war, with a lot of indirect morbidity and mortality because of the failure of Iraqi infrastructure to recover after the 1991 Gulf War. So for Iraqis, it looks pretty grim, ” she told ThinkProgress.

It’s also not clear how the United States will proceed when it comes to mending its relationship with Iraq.

There are now “doubts about this sort of regime change, about trying to rebuild its image through the barrel of a gun.”

“We’ve dug a very deep hole for ourselves, both in terms of how we’re perceived in Iraq and just the destabalization of Iraqi society — and it’s very difficult to come back from that,” he said.

Whether the administration of President Donald Trump — with the hawkish Mike Pompeo as its top diplomat, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster reportedly on his way out (with no clear replacement), and Gina Haspel, a supporter of using torture in terrorism investigations, named as CIA chief — has what it takes to navigate the delicate U.S. relationship with Iraq while minding Baghdad’s close relationship with neighboring Iran remains to be seen.

“Perhaps this notion of sending hundreds and thousands of troops into a country to reshape its politics is less on the agenda, but the idea of using intervention as a leading edge of your foreign policy seems to be still very much in the mix,” said Hartung, who points out that Trump has at least “not expanded the chessboard” for war in the region. For now.

Crawford hopes that there is a lesson that can be learned in the excessive use of force.

“You think, in this environment, that you can prevent excessive civilian casualties — so you go to war with precise weapons. We’ve seen that all of these rosy views of the efficiency and effectiveness of military force are once again shown to be wrong,” she said.

M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank crew prepares for combat patrol in Ramadi, Iraq. CREDIT: Getty Images.
M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank crew prepares for combat patrol in Ramadi, Iraq. CREDIT: Getty Images.

Possibly the only lesson learned in all this bloodshed is that there are now “doubts about this sort of regime change, about trying to rebuild its image through the barrel of a gun,” down the line, said Hartung. It could have also informed the reluctance of the Bush and certainly the Obama administrations to invade or to try to strike the country’s nuclear facility.

“You heard at the time people say, ‘If you think Iraq was a disaster, you haven’t seen anything until you can imagine us involved in any serious intervention in Iran’ … I think there were some lessons learned, or reinforced for our military leadership, which would have contributed to them holding back however strong that impulse was to take military action against Iran.”

“The problem is [Pompeo’s] hawkishness and almost demonization of Iran. I think a lot of the problems in the region will require some sort of engagement with Iran, and if Iran is defined as the enemy and if we side with the Saudis, then a lot of these problems are going to be hard to untangle. So he’s going to need a more nuanced approach than he’s demonstrated so far,” said Hartung.

He added that, “reality could slap [Pompeo] in the face and he could modify his views — but it doesn’t seem promising at this point.”