The Iraq War: Amnesia, Phobia, and Learning

The conflict offers valuable lessons on how to fight insurgents, win over civilians, and otherwise stabilize foreign lands.

U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, in this file photo from April 9, 2003. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

In Washington, the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq War prompted an outbreak of collective amnesia. The milestone felt like a millstone. Prominent Republicans and Democrats were largely silent about the war, having seemingly scrubbed their memories of the worst debacle in recent American foreign policy--the eternal sunshine of the politician's mind. Obama said barely a word about Iraq, even though his presidency is, in many ways, a child of the war.

Temporary amnesia is quite common after America's wars. Following the intense focus on violence and bloodshed, people naturally want to change the subject. When the Civil War ended in 1865, newspapers "moved on to mundane events, as if the war had never taken place." Again, after World War I ended in 1918, people tried to blank out their memories of the fighting. According to novelist Robert Herrick: "It is as if the war had never been."

But while it's understandable that people would rather think about anything other than Iraq, it's hardly healthy to act like the war never happened.

Like a victim of post-traumatic stress, the country is also prone to the opposite behavior: phobia. Americans want to avoid anything associated with Iraq and Afghanistan. The two conflicts have created an "Iraq-istan" syndrome that will profoundly shape U.S. foreign policy in the coming years--for good and for ill.

The core of the Obama Doctrine is "no more Iraqs and Afghanistans." The president is pursuing a narrative of extrication from Middle Eastern wars, and seeks to pivot to the Pacific--as far away from Iraq as possible.

There's a wider backlash against anything resembling Iraq, especially counterinsurgency and nation-building. Americans increasingly want to leave Afghanistan come hell or high water. The U.S. military is shifting its training and focus away from Iraq-style counter-insurgency toward conventional war against enemy countries. As the Pentagon bluntly put it: "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."

This "never again" mindset could mean a healthy wariness about wading into other countries' civil wars. "We can only hope," wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter, "we have gained a lesson in humility."

But the Iraq-istan syndrome could also spur a precipitous exit from Afghanistan, tipping the country into renewed civil war and instability. And the military's focus on preparing for conventional warfare says more about the kind of campaigns we want to fight than the kind of campaigns we actually will fight. In a world where 90 percent of conflicts are now civil wars, there's no escaping nation-building and counter-insurgency. It's tough and wearying work -- but in some shape or form it's inevitable.

"Never again" could mean we repeat the episode all over again. After Vietnam, the U.S. military was so scarred by its experience that it didn't train at counter-insurgency for a generation--and in John Nagl's words, was "grievously unprepared" for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

George W. Bush came to power in 2000 loudly proclaiming "never again"--meaning no more do-gooder nation-building like Bill Clinton's protracted missions in the Balkans. Bush's scorn about employing the military to stabilize foreign lands was the genesis for the "small footprint" invasion plan for Afghanistan and Iraq that proved so catastrophic.

Instead of amnesia or phobia, we need an honest effort to reflect and learn from the experience in Iraq. The war reveals how regime change can unleash unpredictable forces. It shows how the White House is often wildly overconfident on the eve of the fighting. It lays bare how the media and Congress can fail to scrutinize the strategic consequences of using force. It demonstrates the truth of Bismarck's dictum that "preventive war" is "suicide for fear of death."

The campaign in Iraq shows that we're too focused on landing the initial blows--taking the first hill--rather than thinking about post-war stabilization and political endgames. There's also a wealth of valuable lessons about how to fight insurgents and win "hearts and minds." And it's critically important to institutionalize these lessons within the military through improved training in languages, foreign cultures, advising indigenous security forces, and other essential skills.

Iraq is a teachable moment. We must create a military that can stabilize foreign lands far more effectively than in 2003--and then wield this tool with great restraint and discretion.