I have watched with heavy heart and mounting dread as the ever-precarious battle to bring security to post-war Iraq has taken a desperate turn for the worse in recent days and hours. Along with so many Americans, I have been shaken by the hellish carnage in Fallujah and the violent uprisings in Baghdad and elsewhere. The pictures have been the stuff of nightmares, with bodies charred beyond recognition and dragged through the streets of cheering citizens. And in the face of such daunting images and ominous developments, I have wondered anew at the President’s stubborn refusal to admit mistakes or express any misgivings over America’s unwarranted intervention in Iraq.
During the past weekend, the death toll among America’s military personnel in Iraq topped 600 including as many as 20 American soldiers killed in one three-day period of fierce fighting. Many of the dead, most perhaps, were mere youngsters, just starting out on the great adventure of life. But before they could realize their dreams, they were called into battle by their Commander in Chief, a battle that we now know was predicated on faulty intelligence and wildly exaggerated claims of looming danger.
As I watch events unfold in Iraq, I cannot help but be reminded of another battle at another place and another time that hurtled more than 600 soldiers into the maws of death because of a foolish decision on the part of their commander. The occasion was the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War, a battle that was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Tennyson got it right someone had blundered. It is time we faced up to the fact that this President and his administration blundered as well when they took the nation into war with Iraq without compelling reason, without broad international or even regional support, and without a plan for dealing with the enormous post-war security and reconstruction challenges posed by Iraq. And it is our soldiers, our own 600 and more, who are paying the price for that blunder.
In the run up to the war, the President and his advisers assured the American people that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. For a brief moment, that outcome seemed possible. One year ago this week, on April 9, 2003, the mood in many corners of the nation was euphoric as Americans witnessed the fall of Baghdad and the jubilant toppling of a massive statue of Saddam Hussein. Less than four weeks later, the President jetted out to an aircraft carrier parked off the coast of California to cockily declare to the world the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
For those with tunnel vision, the view from Iraq looked rosy then Baghdad had fallen, Saddam Hussein was on the run, and U.S. military deaths had been kept to a relatively modest number, a total of 138 from the beginning of combat operations through May 1.
But the war in Iraq was not destined to follow the script of some idealized cowboy movie of President Bush’s youth, where the good guys ride off into a rose-tinted sunset, all strife settled and all wrongdoing avenged. The war in Iraq is real, and as any soldier can tell you, reality is messy and bloody and scary. Nobody rides off into the sunset for fear that the setting sun will blind them to the presence of the enemies around them.
And so the fighting continues in Iraq, long past the end of major combat operations, and the casualties have continued to mount. As of today, more than 600 military personnel have been killed in Iraq and more than 3,000 wounded.
Now, after a year of continued strife in Iraq, comes word that the commander of forces in the region is seeking options to increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground if necessary. Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development. Surely, the Administration recognizes that increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will only suck us deeper into the maelstrom of violence that has become the hallmark of that unfortunate country. Starkly put, at this juncture, more U.S. forces in Iraq equates more U.S. targets in Iraq.
Again, Tennyson’s words bespeak a cautionary tale for the present:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Like Tennyson’s Light Brigade, American’s military personnel have proved their mettle in Iraq. In the face of a relentless and seemingly ubiquitous insurgency, they have performed with courage and resolve. They have followed the orders of their Commander in Chief, regardless of the cost. But surely some must wonder why it is American forces that are still shouldering the vast majority of the burden in Iraq, one year after the liberation of the country. Where are the Iraqis? What has happened to our much vaunted plans to train and equip the Iraqi police and the Iraqi military to relieve the burden on U.S. military personnel? Could it be that our expectations exceeded our ability to develop these forces? Could it be that, once again, the United States underestimated the difficulty of winning the peace in Iraq?
Since this war began, America has poured $121 billion into Iraq for the military and for reconstruction. But this money cannot buy security. It cannot buy peace. $121 billion later, and just 2,324 of the 78,224 Iraqi police are “fully qualified,” according to the Pentagon. Nearly 60,000 of those same police officers have had no formal training none! It is no wonder that security has proved so elusive. The time has come for a new approach in Iraq.
The harsh reality is this: one year after the fall of Baghdad, the United States should not be casting about for a formula to bring additional U.S. troops to Iraq. We should instead be working toward an exit strategy. The fact that the President has alienated friend and foe alike by his arrogance in “going it alone” in Iraq and has made the task of internationalizing post-war Iraq an enormously difficult burden should not deter our resolve.
Pouring more U.S. troops into Iraq is not the path to extricate ourselves from that country. We need the support and the endorsement of both the United Nations and Iraq’s neighbors to truly internationalize the Iraq occupation and take U.S. soldiers out of the cross-hairs of angry Iraqis.
And from the flood of disturbing dispatches from Iraq, it is clear that many Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, are seething under the yoke of the American occupation. The recent violent uprising by followers of a radical Shiite cleric is by far the most troubling development in Iraq in months and could signal America’s worst nightmare a civil war in Iraq that pits moderate Shiites against radical Shiites. Layered over the persistent insurgency being waged by disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and radical Islamic operatives, a Shiite civil war could be the event that topples Iraq from instability into utter chaos.
As worrisome as these developments are in and of themselves, the fact that they are occurring as the United States hurtles toward a June 30 deadline to turn Iraq over to an interim Iraqi government a government that has yet to be identified, established, or vetted adds an element of desperation to the situation.
Where should we look for leadership? To this Congress? To this Senate? This Senate, the foundation of the Republic, has been unwilling to take a hard look at the chaos in Iraq. Senators have once again been cowed into silence and support, not because the policy is right, but because the blood of our soldiers and thousands of innocents is on our hands. Questions that ought to be stated loudly in this chamber are instead whispered in the halls. Those few Senators with the courage to stand up and speak out are challenged as unpatriotic and charged with sowing seeds of terrorism. It has been suggested that any who dare to question the President are no better than the terrorists themselves. Such are the suggestions of those who would rather not face the truth.
This Republic was founded in part because of the arrogance of a king who expected his subjects to do as they were told, without question, without hesitation. Our forefathers overthrew that tyrant and adopted a system of government where dissent is not only important, but it is also mandatory. Questioning flawed leadership is a requirement of this government. Failing to question, failing to speak out, is failing the legacy of the Founding Fathers.
When speaking of Iraq, the President maintains that his resolve is firm, and indeed the stakes for him are enormous. But the stakes are also enormous for the men and women who are serving in Iraq, and who are waiting and praying for the day that they will be able to return home to their families, their ranks painfully diminished but their mission fulfilled with honor and dignity. The President sent these men and women into Iraq, and it is his responsibility to develop a strategy to extricate them from that troubled country before their losses become intolerable.
It is staggeringly clear that the Administration did not understand the consequences of invading Iraq a year ago, and it is staggeringly clear that the Administration has no effective plan to cope with the aftermath of the war and the functional collapse of Iraq. It is time past time for the President to remedy that omission and to level with the American people about the magnitude of mistakes made and lessons learned. America needs a roadmap out of Iraq, one that is orderly and astute, else more of our men and women in uniform will follow the fate of Tennyson’s doomed Light Brigade.