Recall the moment in Stripes when Bill Murray yells: “But we’re American soldiers! We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!” We all know what that “1” is—we argue fiercely about who lost Vietnam, but we do at least seem to agree it was a loss. And I’m not so sure we’re unblemished beyond that: Korea and 1812 seem like draws to me. So we’re more like 8-1-2. Or is that now 8-2-2? We will be fighting about this for decades, and if the Vietnam revisionism is any guide, there will be a concerted effort one day to move Iraq into the win column—and to be certain to assign the win to George W. Bush and not Barack Obama.
I haven’t noticed anyone quite audacious enough to be calling the Iraq War a win now, but surely they’re out there (hello, commenters!). After all, Saddam is gone; the Iraqi people have a—cough cough—democracy; and we lost only 4,500 soldiers. For all the Sturm und Drang over casualties, that’s a pittance, really, in the historical scheme of things. If bloodshed does not return on a mass scale, and if the polity slowly asserts itself, then surely the mission, however eventually, was indeed accomplished.
Maybe so, but there’s a lot in that word “eventually” in that sentence, so much it carries not just temporal consequences but moral ones. There are the 32,000 American soldiers who were injured, many quite gravely. The 10,000 or so Iraqi soldiers killed; the 100,000-plus Iraqi civilians killed; the 1.2 million Iraqis displaced; and the 1.6 million who were turned into refugees (all these numbers from this). The price of war, you say, nothing to be done about it. No. Of all the lessons we might carry away from this conflict, let us never forget that this carnage is a direct result of specific decisions and choices made by the Bush administration. Donald Rumsfeld’s conviction that the war could be won quickly with 130,000 soldiers and Paul Bremer’s decision to proceed with de-Baathification stand out here, less well-remembered examples include the State Department’s 17-volume guidebook on what to do after we toppled Saddam that Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, et alia threw in the trash can. Virtually all the human costs, virtually all the little children’s lives lost, came from the Bush people’s arrogance. Not their miscalculations, as is sometimes said. Their arrogance, in not listening to—and indeed in firing (Eric Shinseki)—experts who tried to tell them otherwise.
There’s the loss of international standing, the ways in which the war strengthened Iran in the region, the diversion of resources from Afghanistan and al Qaeda, and on. And then there’s the money: more than $800 billion in direct costs that Bush kept off-budget, contributing significantly to our financial nightmares right now. There’ll be another half-trillion or so, give or take, in the care of the war’s veterans as the years wind on. Also worth noting: we are spending more on reconstruction assistance in Iraq than we did in Germany and Japan combined ($62 billion to $52 billion, in constant dollars).
The final indictment of this war goes back to its beginnings—the way we were so repeatedly and insultingly lied to about its justifications. I remember that for a short time, some other writers lumped me with the liberal hawks because I wrote a few sentences like: If Bush had been straight with us and said that this war was a war of liberation for an oppressed people, I might have gone for it. But all that garbage about WMD and nuclear capabilities were obvious lies. A policy constructed around such dishonesty is corrupt at its very essence, and this war was corrupt from Day 1.
The defeat will be wiped from the books, not for the purposes of historical accuracy but to salvage Bush’s reputation and to help the Republican Party out of whatever pickle it then finds itself in.
Now, a point against the war’s opponents, including my good self. It is quite true that if it had been up to people like us, Saddam would still be in power. I confess that there’s nothing much that I can say in defense of that proposition. Only that, weighed against all of the above, it did not seem worth it. As recently as last month, 62 percent of Americans agreed with me.
But now that it’s over, we will enter the next phase, when the war will be over how the history books tell the story of Iraq. This will go one of two ways. First, if Iraq stabilizes on its own, we will see some time pass, enough for Americans to forget the things they didn’t like, maybe four or five years. And then sure enough we’ll get a big book from one of the conservative imprints arguing that the war was an unalloyed victory, and specifically building the case that the victory was Bush’s. The unspeakable lies and blunders will be given short shrift; the surge will be the book’s focus, with helpfully supplied new documents ensuring that all the talking points are positive ones. The author will appear on Fox 327 times, the echo chamber will repeat, and the defeat will be wiped from the books, not for the purposes of historical accuracy but to salvage Bush’s reputation and to help the Republican Party out of whatever pickle it then finds itself in.
The second scenario, should Iraq not stabilize, will be even worse. Then, the unanimous verdict will be that it was indeed a loss, and in that case, the important thing will be the pinning of the blame. Given that right-wing Vietnam revisionism got its start in the early 1980s, we can fully expect, in about seven years or so, an array of books and panels and seminars and maybe even films or television shows (hello, Joel Surnow) that will somehow argue that the liberals lost Iraq. All that carping about withdrawal, you see. The point here will be to make Americans forget the prosecution of the war and instead feed them a diet of allegedly Chamberlainesque quotes from everyone from John Edwards to Markos Moulitsas to a hundred figures in between.
Will it work? Vietnam revisionism has not exactly worked overall, but at crucial moments—i.e., the Swiftboating of John Kerry—it has performed adequately enough to muddy the truth. There is no doubt, though, that the fight is coming. I hope to be around to do my part in it.