4 Reminders That the Iraq War Was A Catastrophe

Our vets are suffering. So are their families and neighbors. And the Iraqis who helped us. Even Condi Rice is admitting that mistakes were made.

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Four noteworthy stories related to the Iraq War appeared in the press over the Christmas weekend, as if to remind us that the conflict was a catastrophe for the United States and our allies.

One story concerns Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, where many veterans are failing to readjust to civilian life, and therefore doing grave damage to themselves and their community (note that the following excerpt gets rather graphic):

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, described by the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes last year as "the most troubled base in the military," all of these factors have crystallized into what some see as a community-wide crisis. A local veterans group calls it a "base on the brink." In a recent series of community meetings, the group warned that the trauma of multiple deployments had begun to show up in troubling numbers outside the base. The recent reports of suicides -- seven confirmed and five under investigation, with a total of 62 since 2002 -- parallel those of murders, fights, robberies, domestic violence, drunk driving and drug overdoses.
The local crime wave became apparent as early as 2004, when three elite Army Rangers were among a group of five men who stormed into a Bank of America in Tacoma armed with AK-47s, took over the branch and walked out with $54,011. Over the last two years, an Iraq veteran pleaded guilty to assault after being accused of waterboarding his 7-year-old foster son in the bathtub. Another was accused of pouring lighter fluid over his wife and setting her on fire; one was charged with torturing his 4-year-old daughter for refusing to say her ABCs. A Stryker Brigade soldier was convicted of the kidnap, torture and rape or attempted rape of two women, one of whom he shocked with cables attached to a car battery; and an Iraq war sergeant was convicted of strangling his wife and hiding her body in a storage bin. In April, 38-year-old combat medic David Stewart, who had been under treatment for depression, paranoia and sleeplessness, led police on a high-speed chase down Interstate 5 before crashing into a barrier. As officers watched, he shot himself in the head. His wife, a nurse, was found in the car with him, also shot to death. Police later found the body of their 5-year-old son in the family home.
Another Los Angeles Times story, this one datelined Baghdad, carried the headline and subhead, "Iraqi interpreters for U.S. military in dangerous limbo. Thousands were promised spots first in line for special visas to the U.S., but the process has slowed to a crawl. Now the Iraqis, targeted for death because of their service to America, can only wait." Basically these guys risked their lives to help us and are in imminent danger of lethal retaliation -- but we can't be bothered to live up to our promises to let them immigrate here.

Then there's an interview that Condaleeza Rice gave on Christmas Day:

I think the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was done brilliantly, but frankly, looking back, I don't think we thought enough about how to build the provinces and use the tribal networks once Saddam was gone. Ultimately, there weren't enough troops, which was why the surge was important.
Atlantic readers know that isn't quite right. As James Fallows explained in "Blind Into Baghdad" back in January 2004, Iraq went wrong partly because the people at the top of the Bush Administration were egregiously negligent: despite the fact that American bureaucrats thought about -- and decision-makers were specifically warned about -- many of the problems that would develop once Saddam Husein's was overthrown, little was done with the information:

The Administration could not have known everything about what it would find in Iraq. But it could have--and should have--done far more than it did. Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.

All this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the State Department's Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S. government predictions about postwar Iraq's problems have proved as accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq's strategic threat have proved flawed. But the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was known. The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against.

The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against. Exactly what went wrong with the occupation will be studied for years--or should be. The missteps of the first half year in Iraq are as significant as other classic and carefully examined failures in foreign policy, including John Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961, and Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in 1965. The United States withstood those previous failures, and it will withstand this one. Having taken over Iraq and captured Saddam Hussein, it has no moral or practical choice other than to see out the occupation and to help rebuild and democratize the country. But its missteps have come at a heavy cost. And the ongoing financial, diplomatic, and human cost of the Iraq occupation is the more grievous in light of advance warnings the government had.
All these years later, the costs are still mounting, a proposition for which our last story is another bit of evidence. "Around 7:30 a.m. on Monday, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint in front of the Interior Ministry, killing five people, including two officers," The New York Times reports. "Just hours earlier, two makeshift bombs were detonated in the predominantly Sunni area of Abu Ghraib, which is policed mainly by Shiite security officers. Four officers were killed in the attack and four others were wounded, officials said. No group claimed responsibility, but the attacks resembled those by Al Qaeda in Iraq." After these attacks and other since the pullout of American forces, the political situation is fraught:

A powerful political group led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr called on Monday for Parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be held, the first open challenge to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki from within his Shiite coalition in an escalating political crisis.

Leaders of Mr. Sadr's faction said that scrapping the current government was the only way to steer Iraq out of the crisis, which has put Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, at odds with leaders representing the country's Sunni minority and has quickly exploded since the withdrawal of American troops about a week ago.
Let's hope things get better, not worse.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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