After Iraq: What will history say?

As the last US forces leave, we see the eight-year intervention in Iraq only as a sketchy outline. WIth time, a clearer picture will emerge -- and a softer memory may descend.

Tourists cruise in a boat on Halong bay, Vietnam.

Words like Da Nang, Hue, and Hanoi Hilton still stir painful memories for many Americans and Vietnamese, especially those who were directly involved in the Vietnam War. But as time passes, perspectives shift. Surprising changes occur.

Today’s Vietnam is a tourist destination known for sparkling beaches, delicious cuisine, and friendly people. Visitors clamber through old Viet Cong caves, tour onetime battlefields, and enjoy spa treatments at seaside resorts outside Da Nang. There’s no Hilton in Hanoi, but the Sheraton's website boasts “blended decor of local traditional-style and French colonial influence, ensuring a warm and comfortable feeling.” 

Time does that – softens old animosities, consigns desperate conflicts to the pages of history. New generations arise with only a faint notion of the pain that ripped through their parents’ lives. The battlefields of Manassas, Va., and Waterloo, Belgium, are now beautiful lawns. Seventy years after Pearl Harbor brought the US into World War II, Tokyo and Berlin are sleek, friendly, 21st-century cities. The awful violence of long ago seems almost quaint.

For Americans and Iraqis, the departure of the last US military units from Iraq starts the slow fade from present tense to past.

History’s first draft is a journalistic specialty. Revision will follow revision over the coming decades as historians argue the causes, context, meaning, and ramifications of Iraq. You can see how tortured the process of historical analysis is with Vietnam. Even 38 years after the official end of US military involvement, the lessons are still being debated. Conscription armies, mission creep, mistreatment of civilians, Agent Orange – most people agree those were bad ideas. There’s still debate, though, on questions such as whether the rest of Southeast Asia might have fallen to communism – or whether the tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea would have roared – without a US military firebreak in Vietnam.

One person who has thought long and hard about the shifting perspective of history is Andrew Bacevich, who served as a young officer in the US Army in Vietnam and lost a son in the US Army in Iraq. Professor Bacevich, who teaches international relations at Boston University, recalls how the early lessons of Vietnam concentrated primarily on military tactics. From today’s perspective, he says, those tactics seem of little significance compared with “the big questions of how did we get there.” He sees this sort of misreading of history repeating itself with Iraq, where the early lessons are focusing on counterinsurgency methods, the role of special operations, and other tactical issues. 

The bigger questions, he says, are again not being asked. The British Parliament has been conducting a sweeping review, led by former civil servant John Chilcot, of the 2003 invasion and the aftermath. Nothing comparable is occurring in Washington. “The country as a whole,” says Bacevich, “seems largely intent on washing its hands of the experience.” Perhaps the most that can be said is that Americans know more about the Middle East, the role of Islam, and the limits of military power than they did before 2003. 

That’s a start. Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, and Samarra won’t soon be destinations for American tourists. But one thing history is clear about: With time and a certain amount of gentle forgetting, surprising changes occur. 

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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