The Conquest of America by Iraq

President George W. Bush and his supporters live in the world of “what ought to be.” The U.S. ought to be able to crush the insurgency, establish liberal democracy, and impose Western values in Iraq. America ought to be able to spread U.S.-style political systems throughout the Mideast. Washington ought to be able to remake the globe.

But as liberal activists long ago discovered, social engineering is difficult enough in one country. Most people are happy with their lives and beliefs, thank you very much, and aren’t interested in listening to sanctimonious elites lecture them on why they should change.

Now the right, to the extent that a big-spending, bureaucracy-creating, nanny-state politician like George W. Bush represents the right, is finding international social engineering to be even harder. To transcend cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, histories, religions, and traditions is enormously difficult. The problem is not that most people don’t want to govern themselves. The problem is that a lot of them are more interested in misgoverning those around them.

Thus, the debacle in Iraq was inevitable, at least as long as Washington had objectives beyond removing Saddam Hussein and bequeathing some modicum of order for a new regime. The glorious campaign to recreate Iraqi society – with Washington officials even rewriting Iraqi traffic codes – would have crashed even had Bush administration officials not proved to be a gaggle of arrogant, ignorant incompetents. The U.S. could have done better. It could not have done well.

Not that the president has noticed. His administration has been wrong at every point during the Iraq saga: claims of incredible danger posed by Iraq, predictions of swift victory and rapid troop withdrawals, promises of corners turned and light sighted at the end of tunnels, and visions of democracy and liberalism advancing across the Mideast all proved to be false. Nevertheless, he asks – no, demands – that Americans trust his latest pronouncement of inevitable victory. This even as 97 Iraqis were dying on July 12, the same day he held a press conference on his administration’s interim report on progress in Iraq.

The president adjudges it a great victory when escalating U.S. force levels reduce the slaughter in Anbar province and parts of Baghdad, even though violence jumps elsewhere. He sees progress when the Iraqi army provides three brigades for use in Baghdad, even though those troops cannot be trusted to act alone or in an even-handed fashion. He touts the promises of the sectarian government his policies brought to power in Iraq, even though it lacks the desire, commitment, and competence necessary to create a liberal, multi-ethnic state.

Continued Republican congressional support allows the president to brazenly challenge his Democratic opponents: “I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding the troops.” But rising public dissatisfaction, even among GOP voters, is likely to soon generate a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate willing to curtail if not end the war.

The Bush administration made a catastrophic mistake when it invaded Iraq in 2003. Incantations about the importance of victory, eloquent statements on how victory beckons if only we will it, and anguished cries about the disastrous consequences of failure cannot obscure today’s ugly reality in Iraq. We have not created the liberal, democratic state of President Bush’s dreams. And we aren’t going to be able to do so, at least at a cost which the American people deem acceptable. It’s time for the U.S. to leave.

In the best case, an imminent American withdrawal will concentrate minds in Baghdad on the need to reach a sectarian accommodation. In the worst case, the violence will worsen. But even in the latter case, it is far better that U.S. forces be out of rather than in the middle of more sectarian chaos. Unfortunately, at this stage Congress can’t prevent someone from being the last person to die for Bush’s mistake in Iraq. But Congress could ensure that there is a last person, instead of funding a steady stream of new casualties on behalf of President Bush’s impossible dream.

There’s another reason why U.S. forces need to leave – and soon. It’s what the Iraq war is doing to America.

The cost to the U.S. is high. On average about three funerals take place every day as a result of Washington’s planned cakewalk in Iraq. The steady spread of anguish and sorrow throughout the U.S. heartland helps explain why President Bush’s poll ratings now approach those of Richard Nixon at the latter’s nadir.

Americans also are paying a high financial price for the war. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. is spending about $10 billion a month on the Iraq imbroglio. That means another trillion dollars if Gen. David H. Petraeus was right in suggesting that it could take a decade to “resolve” the Iraq situation, whatever that might mean. Imagine what else Americans could do with the money, other than using it to put their family members, friends, and neighbors in harm’s way in an unnecessary and endless guerrilla struggle in Mesopotamia.

There are other costs. One is the wear and tear on the U.S. military, and the resulting recruiting problems which have forced the Pentagon to lower standards. Another is the erosion of civil liberties at home, as the war intensifies pressure for a national security state. There also is the poisoning of America’s political debate, where those who have botched an unnecessary war of choice accuse their critics of being unpatriotic.

No wonder 62 percent of Americans now say that going to war was a mistake. And 70 percent want most U.S. troops to be home by next April.

Yet there is an even more insidious impact of the Iraq war. It is transforming Americans and America. Indeed, the change mimics what William Graham Sumner warned against in his famous essay, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” He believed that Spain’s imperialist heritage conquered America’s republican tradition as a result of the U.S. war against Spain and brutal “pacification” campaign in the newly conquered Philippines.

We see that process at work again, through the deaths of Iraqis – thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. To be sure, Saddam Hussein was a prolific killer and American forces are directly responsible for only a small portion of civilian Iraqi deaths. But by loosing the dogs of war in Iraq, Washington triggered a bloody process that has voraciously consumed many innocent along with some guilty.

Last year the Iraqi government estimated 150,000 civilians had died since 2003. A study by Johns Hopkins University figured 601,000 violent deaths. Even the lower number is horrific. Yet this staggering suffering has elicited scarce interest in the U.S., other than from those who look at casualty figures as a parameter of U.S. success or failure. Ironically, the casualties also pose a budget problem of sorts. So far Washington has spent about $32 million on “condolence” payments when U.S. forces mistakenly kill civilians. The higher that number, the more people that even Washington acknowledges have been killed erroneously.

Although there is no consensus on the number of civilian casualties, we can say with certainty that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead who otherwise would have been alive but for the U.S. invasion: should we not weep at this loss? Assume that the invasion still was necessary and justified: should not war proponents have felt at least some regret at the loss of civilian life that would soon result, instead of planning their big end zone victory dance? The failure to reflect on, let alone care about, so many unnecessary, innocent deaths is shocking.

Unfortunately, the war is doing more than just expose America’s sinful soul. The war is further corrupting the essence of America. Barbarity and brutality are inevitable in any conflict, of course – which is another good reason to always make war a last resort – but today a disturbing number of American troops appear to routinely treat Iraqis as an enemy other, deserving little or no respect.

Well-publicized have been atrocities such as those alleged to have occurred in Haditha. Obviously, most American soldiers and Marines do not abuse Iraqis, not all claims of atrocities are true, and the U.S. military attempts to hold its forces accountable for misbehavior. Nevertheless, guerrilla wars bring out the worst in people.

Indeed, it probably would be surprising if American troops behaved better. Explained Michael Schwartz in Counterpunch:

“This brutality is all very logical, once we understand the purpose and process of these patrols. American soldiers and Marines are sent into hostile communities where virtually the entire population supports the insurgency. They often have a list of suspects’ addresses; and their job is to interrogate or arrest or kill the suspect; and search the house for incriminating evidence, particularly arms and ammunition, but also literature, video equipment, and other items that the insurgency depends upon for its political and military activities. When they don’t have lists of suspects, they conduct “house-to-house” searches, looking for suspicious behavior, individuals or evidence.

“In this context, any fighting age man is not just a suspect, but a potentially lethal adversary. Our soldiers are told not to take any chances; in many instances, for example, knocking on doors could invite gunshots through the doors. Their instructions are therefore to use the element of surprise whenever the situation appears to be dangerous to break down doors, shoot at anything suspicious, and throw grenades into rooms or homes where there is any chance of resistance. If they encounter tangible resistance, they can call in artillery and/or air power rather than try to invade a building.”

These practices are understandable, but have catastrophic consequences for Iraqi civilians – and for how Americans view Iraqis. Yet this race to the bottom has been encouraged at least sometimes by official policy.

For instance, in the recent trial of Cpl. Trent Thomas, a Marine charged with murdering an Iraqi in the village of Hamandiya, Cpl. Saul Lopezromo testified that members of his unit began routinely beating Iraqis after officers ordered them to “crank up the violence level.” Cpl. Lopezromo defended a squad which dragged a man out of his home and shot him: “I don’t see it as an execution, sir. I see it as killing the enemy.” Cpl. Lopezromo said that all Iraqi men were considered to be part of the insurgency, and he explained the practice of “dead-checking,” shooting a wounded man to ensure death: “If somebody is worth shooting once, they’re worth shooting twice.”

In perhaps the most disturbing report yet published about the conduct of the war, the Nation magazine interviewed fifty combat veterans about the conflict. They “described a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts,” write Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian.

Hedges and al-Arian go on to summarize these stories, which “reveal disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq. Dozens of those interviewed witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and Marines emphasized that not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as common and said they often go unreported – and almost always go unpunished.”

In reading their stories, one cannot help but sympathize with the U.S. personnel – sent out on dangerous, unpredictable missions, feeling betrayed by those they thought they were there to help, angry about buddies injured and killed by unseen assailants, and frustrated at their inability to eradicate mushrooming resistance. Marines and soldiers describe risky patrols and brutal raids. They talk about relying on useless intelligence, breaking into homes without interpreters, planting throwaway weapons on injured bystanders, and arresting people without evidence. The U.S. government has set them up for failure, sending them on an impossible mission.

Nevertheless, those who suffer the most are Iraqis. Imagine being on the receiving end of such behavior. Beatings, shootings, and killings were, and presumably remain, common. The tales are many and horrid. Army Spc. Jeff Englehart said simply “I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi.”

These practices are undermining the military as a representative of the American republic. The evidence is more than anecdotal. A survey last year by the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Medical Command found that just 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of Marines believed Iraqi civilians should be treated with respect and dignity. Only a few more, 55 percent and 40 percent, respectively, said they would report someone who hurt or even killed an “innocent-noncombatant.”

These practices would be awful enough merely on moral grounds. Think of living in a society where the “liberators” seem to destroy, injure, and kill at will, and were rarely held accountable.

But such actions also stoke the insurgency. In a tribal society like Iraq, mistreating one person or family generates enmity from dozens or scores of relatives. Hassan al-Suneid, an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, recently criticized the U.S. military for human rights violations, including the killing of civilians through airstrikes: “This embarrasses the government in front of its people.” That is, U.S. military practices are undercutting the very government the Bush administration is counting on to build a stable Iraq.

Finally, such brutal tactics sully the reputation of all Americans. To report on improper U.S. military practices in Iraq does not diminish the brutality of al-Qaeda or other insurgents, the challenges facing U.S. personnel in Iraq, or the Pentagon’s efforts to hold troops accountable (Cpl. Thomas was subsequently convicted, for instance). But the U.S. government cannot employ inhumane means in what it loudly and widely proclaims to be a humanitarian venture. It cannot allow inhumanity to become de facto policy if it claims to represent America.

The United States is different. It represents, or at least once was seen as representing, much good around the globe. If the U.S. is to be a light unto the world, it must act the part. That means recognizing the temptations and limitations of power, and the omnipresent danger of its misuse. In this we are failing in Iraq.

The U.S. must leave Iraq. The reasons are many. But perhaps most urgent is the risk of what we might become as a result of this conflict. Spc. Englehart observed in the Nation: “Just the carnage, all the blown-up civilians, blown-up bodies that I saw. I just – I started thinking, like, Why? What was this for?”

What is this for? It is a question that every American today should ponder.