Re-Thinking The War II

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We are used to thinking of the war in Iraq in terms of what has happened to Iraq. And this is a completely defensible priority. Maybe two million of the country's crucial elite have fled. Perhaps as many have been forced to relocate within the country. The infrastructure has been shattered; Baghdad remains a place where 30 bodies appear on the streets overnight, even during the "surge"; suicide bombers continue their rampage through the country almost at will. The war has given al Qaeda a new base of operations and a new front. And the occupation continues to provide them with more recruits.

But we have not considered as much the damage that has been done to America. The first casualty has been the military itself. This war is now in its fifth year. In Iraq, there is no safe zone anywhere. The tours of duty are much longer than at any time in recent U.S. history. While equipment has been eroded very quickly in the punishing desert of the Middle East, the human toll has been perhaps more profound. Over three thousand dead minimizes the toll - because so many seriously wounded soldiers now survive but with terrible and permanent injuries. The psychological toll on an over-stretched military is also profound:

"A considerable number of Soldiers and Marines are conducting combat operations everyday of the week, 10-12 hours per day seven days a week for months on end," wrote Col. Carl Castro and Maj. Dennis McGurk, both psychologists. "At no time in our military history have Soldiers or Marines been required to serve on the front line in any war for a period of 6-7 months."

But much more alarming, it seems to me, is the moral cost to this country of such a brutal and brutalizing occupation. For the first time in history, the president of the United States has allowed torture as an option for treatment of military captives. We saw some of the worst consequences of the Bush policy in Abu Ghraib. But Abu Ghraib represents a fraction of the incidents of abuse and torture throughout the conflict. The military itself reports the following staggering facts:

More than one-third of U.S. soldiers in Iraq surveyed by the Army said they believe torture should be allowed if it helps gather important information about insurgents, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday. Four in 10 said they approve of such illegal abuse if it would save the life of a fellow soldier.

In addition, about two-thirds of Marines and half the Army troops surveyed said they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily. "Less than half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect," the Army report stated. About 10 percent of the 1,767 troops in the official survey - conducted in Iraq last fall - reported that they had mistreated civilians in Iraq, such as kicking them or needlessly damaging their possessions.

This is how we win hearts and minds? Notice that this is not the "ticking bomb" scenario touted by torture advocates such as Charles Krauthammer. This is torture merely as a means to gather important information about insurgents. It's routine torture. Over a third of U.S. soldiers, taking the lead from their pro-torture commander-in-chief, see nothing wrong with this, even in a war clearly under Geneva guidelines. Two-thirds won't report it. One in ten say they have abused Iraqi civilians just for the hell of it. Imagine what we don't know and will never know about the rest.

In thinking about the costs of this war, and thinking about renewing it, we have to reconsider what it has done to America. It has turned the U.S. military into a force at ease with abuse of captives and civilians, occupying a Muslim nation. Some of this is surely due to the sheer hell of fighting an enemy you cannot see, surrounded by people you do not understand or trust, and being killed randomly in urban or desert insurgency conditions where friend and foe are close to indistinguishable, and where your buddies are killed on a regular basis by faceless cowards. You can certainly understand how soldiers grow completely numb in the face of abuse in those circumstances. Every "hajji" can seem like the enemy after a while. It requires men and women of almost saintly capabilities to keep their moral bearings among terrorists who massacre scores of innocents as a religious duty, among people whose differences are impossible for young troops to figure out in split-seconds. In such conditions, and as a consequences of grotesque under-manning, the breakdown in ethical discipline is no big surprise. But that doesn't make it any the less of a big deal.

This is why the Iraq war, so far, must be seen as a huge al Qaeda propaganda victory. Their narrative is that Muslims are under siege by an evil, imperialist, infidel army that tortures and abuses Muslims at will.  Before Iraq, this was an absurdity. After Iraq, less so. Iraq has helped sustain al Qaeda's narrative with imagery and violence that will always stain the image of America in the Middle East. Yes, the paranoia of the Arab street would have invented such atrocities even if they didn't exist. But they did exist and continue to exist. The images of Abu Ghraib did not shock Iraqis used to far worse horrors under Saddam. But they did help educate Arabs and Muslims across the world into believing the very worst about U.S. intentions. Because this war is a war of ideas and ideals, this matters a huge amount. Our one massive advantage - that we are a free and decent civilization - has been fatally blurred.

At home, the public has come to accept torture as a legitimate instrument of government, something that the Founding Fathers would have been aghast at. We have come to accept that the president is not bound by habeas corpus, if he decides he isn't. He can sign laws and say they don't apply to him. We know that an American citizen can be detained for years without charges and tortured and abused - and then critical evidence of his torture will be "lost". We have come to accept our phones being tapped without a warrant and without our even knowing about it. These huge surrenders of liberty have occurred without much public outcry. When the next major terrorist attack comes, the question will simply be how much liberty Americans have left. That is a victory al Qaeda could not have achieved by force of arms. It is something they have achieved with our witting and conscious help.

In reassessing the war, in other words, the moral cost to America must come into the equation. The Iraq war has removed for a generation the concept of the U.S. military being an unimpeachable source of national honor. It has infringed civil liberties. It has legalized and institutionalized torture as a government tool - and helped abuse and brutality metastasize throughout the field of conflict. To be sure, abuse of captives always happens in wartime. What's different now is that the commander-in-chief has authorized and legitimized it, and so the contagion has spread like wildfire. The tragedy is that none of this will help us actually win this war. By alienating so many Iraqis, the occupation has badly damaged American soft-power in the world. It has alienated many allies. It has exhausted the military itself. It has failed to quell an insurgency. History also teaches us that success against such an insurgency in such a country would require over a decade of a brutal war of attrition.

The question we have to ask is: if this is the way we achieve victory, what kind of country would America be at the end of it? To paraphrase Robert Bolt, it profit a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose his soul. But for Iraq?

(Photo: A US soldier arrests an Iraqi demonstrator during an anti-US rally organized by the residents of Baghdad's al-Ibid neighborhood, 02 May 2007. More that 2000 Iraqis rallied today in the Shiite neighborhood to demand the withdrawal of the US troops from the area. By Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty.)

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