This spring will mark 10 years since I set off for Iraq as a reporter for the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. I was the second reporter the newspaper dispatched to cover the 109th Field Artillery of the Pennsylvania National Guard, big news because nearly all its members hailed from the paper’s circulation area. The Times Leader’s first reporter in Baghdad called six weeks into the assignment, rattled, and told the bosses he was coming home immediately.
It wasn’t a great time to be in Baghdad. The headlines were, in fact, much the same as we’ve seen this week, as violence threatens to undo any gains in stability or peacefulness, however small, the U.S. might have gained there. But because the stories in 2004 also included American fatalities and the war hadn’t entirely exhausted the American attention span in 2004, they ran on front pages rather than as briefs buried between items about newly sober celebrities embracing Kaballah.
Three days before I left for Baghdad, four American military contractors were dragged from their vehicles by Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah, beaten and set on fire. Their corpses were then dragged through the streets and dangled from a bridge. It’s one of the most lasting images of the war.
When we talk about support for the war back then, we must remember such images. We must remind ourselves how murderous Saddam Hussein was, and how enraged many Americans were at any land that harbored Islamic fundamentalism. Americans supported the war thanks partly to false information on weapons of mass destruction and links to the 9/11 attacks. But nations didn’t have to attack or threaten us directly to earn our violent enmity then: chanting “Death to America,” while we reeled from so much death in America, was quite enough.
I was sure, as I stepped onto the first of the four planes it would take to get to Baghdad, that the United States was correct in bringing war to that nation. Three months later, when I arrived home, I was unsure. I had seen a tableau of enormous complexity, and it made me distrust anyone who was entirely certain the war was either just or misguided.
Today, I know the war was a disastrous mistake. The following are some realities worth remembering when we consider such adventures.
Although it’s hard to determine exactly how many Iraqis were killed in the war, the Associated Press has reported the number exceeds 100,000. The conflict destabilized the nation’s ability to deliver medicine, food, electricity, safe streets and jobs. The British medical journal The Lancet concluded that the actual number of Iraqi deaths caused by the war was at least 600,000, although some experts called that figure unreasonably high.
It’s also difficult to say how many Iraqi deaths Saddam Hussein was responsible for, when you combine his nation’s wars and his gassings and murders.
But causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (and 4,500 Americans) to free a nation of a dictator who caused the deaths of a lot of Iraqis doesn’t shine as a strategy for improving the world.
The Iraq war, by 2017, will have cost the United States about $2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Iraq, as the war began, had a population of 27 million. That means the conflict cost about $74,000 per Iraqi. In the future, we might consider just giving each person in a hostile nation $25,000, and telling them they each get an additional $25,000 in 10 years if they behave. It would be a cheaper way to change a nation than attacking, and based on recent headlines, it could not be any less effective.
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