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End of Iraq War a Reminder of Tragedy, Not Achievement

You may or may not know it, but for the White House it’s Iraq drawdown week. On Monday the President met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and held a press conference about the transition away from a military relationship. Tomorrow the colors will come down in Baghdad and, as far as I can tell, all US troops will be out of the country. And today, preparatory to that, the President and the First Lady visited Fort Bragg to thank the troops at the end of the war. This is a concerted effort to bring the tragedy of Iraq to a close. And yet, because we must protect our national myths, it’s not being pitched as tragedy, but triumph. Here are a couple excerpts from the President’s speech.

As your Commander-in-Chief, I can tell you that it will indeed be a part of history. Those last American troops will move south on desert sands, and then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high. One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over […]

Now, nine years ago, American troops were preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf and the possibility that they would be sent to war. Many of you were in grade school. I was a state senator. Many of the leaders now governing Iraq — including the Prime Minister — were living in exile. And since then, our efforts in Iraq have taken many twists and turns. It was a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate. But there was one constant — there was one constant: your patriotism, your commitment to fulfill your mission, your abiding commitment to one another. That was constant. That did not change. That did not waiver.

It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq -– all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -– all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.

This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making. And today, we remember everything that you did to make it possible.

Whatever gets you through the day, I suppose.

Set aside for a moment that we will still have a massive embassy presence in Iraq, as many as 16,000 Americans, guarded by a private mercenary army. Let’s just look at the “extraordinary achievement” being discussed here.

I recognize that the commander-in-chief cannot quite come out and announce in front of people who fought in Iraq, who saw their friends and colleagues die in Iraq, that their sacrifice was a terrible mistake. But that doesn’t mean we all have to follow that lead.

As it happens, the Center for American Progress released an update to their Iraq War ledger. It’s a somewhat bland document, but it carries important truths about the human toll of nearly a decade of unnecessary war. There are more than the physical costs, but let’s just list them for a moment:

• Total deaths: Between 110,663 and 119,380
• Coalition deaths: 4,803
• U.S. deaths: 4,484
• U.S. wounded: 32,200
• U.S. deaths as a percentage of coalition deaths: 93.37 percent
• Iraqi Security Force, or ISF, deaths: At least 10,1254
• Total coalition and ISF deaths: At least 14,926
• Iraqi civilian deaths: Between 103,674 and 113,265
• Non-Iraqi contractor deaths: At least 463
• Internally displaced persons: 1.24 million
• Refugees: More than 1.6 million

In addition, the war cost at least $806 billion, with another $717 billion in veteran’s health care and disability costs. And for what? As the Iraq Ledger astutely points out, the war, fought on the incorrect premise of ridding Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction, did virtually nothing to safeguard American interests. It antagonized the Muslim world, and boosted the standing of Iran, both in Iraq and around the region. It removed the buffer zone between the Sunni and Shiite parts of the Middle East, and exacerbated tensions in the region. It inaugurated a “terrorist trade school” in the sands of the Sunni triangle, with the insurgents employing tactics that would be exported around the world. It bogged us down, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, which for years did not receive the attention and manpower it needed to end that war. It wasted tens if not hundreds of billions in reconstruction funds that highlighted the broken promises made to the Iraqi people. It funneled money to reckless mercenaries who ruthlessly rampaged through the country, killing and maining whoever they wished, adding to the loss of American standing. It revealed torture as an American war tactic, weakening national prestige.

We came out on the other side of Iraq more hated in the world, more unstable fiscally at home, and with thousands less Americans and hundreds of thousands less Iraqi alive to experience the joys of life. In no way should any American hold their heads up high when uttering the word “Iraq.” We rushed off to war with a country that had not attacked us and did not threaten us. And in the process, in a very real sense, we lost ourselves.

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David Dayen

David Dayen