Iraq war 10 years later: Was it worth it?

A war that lasted far longer and was more costly than Americans were told to expect by their military and political leaders has led to much public questioning as well as private soul-searching.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Protesters chant slogans against Iraq's Shiite-led government as they wave national flags during a demonstration in Ramadi, Iraq, in January. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq – a war that lasted far longer and was more costly than Americans were told to expect by their military and political leaders, a war that has led to much public questioning as well as private soul-searching.

It’s clear that a decade of war has led to changed attitudes.

At the conclusion of the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend, there was a presidential straw poll. But conservative activists also were asked about the US role in the world, and the response was clear: Only 34 percent said the United States should adopt a more muscular role; 50 percent said the US should pull back, leaving it more to allies to take care of trouble spots.

Those results are similar to other recent polls taken of the general populace regarding whether the Iraq war was worth the effort and cost. By about 2 to 1, Americans today answer “no.”

It will take years before the total costs are tallied. For one thing, thousands of combat veterans will require long-term treatment and disability benefits related to the conflict’s signature injuries: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

But a new report by Brown University scholars gives some indication of the financial and human toll.

Among the findings:

• More than 70 percent of those who died of direct war violence in Iraq have been civilians – an estimated 134,000. This number does not account for indirect deaths due to increased vulnerability to disease or injury as a result of war-degraded conditions. That number is estimated to be several times higher.

• The Iraq war will ultimately cost US taxpayers at least $2.2 trillion. Because the Iraq war appropriations were funded by borrowing, cumulative interest through 2053 could amount to more than $3.9 trillion.

• The $2.2 trillion figure includes care for veterans who were injured in the war in Iraq, which will cost the US almost $500 billion through 2053.

• The total of US service members killed in Iraq is 4,488. At least 3,400 US contractors have died as well, a number often underreported.

• Terrorism in Iraq increased dramatically as a result of the invasion and tactics and fighters were exported to Syria and other neighboring countries.

• Iraq’s health-care infrastructure remains devastated from sanctions and war. More than half of Iraq’s medical doctors left the country during the 2000s, and tens of thousands of Iraqi patients have been forced to seek health care outside the country.

• The $60 billion spent on reconstruction for Iraq has not gone to rebuilding infrastructure such as roads, health care, and water treatment systems, but primarily to the military and police. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has found massive fraud, waste, and abuse of reconstruction funds.

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that will be accomplished by war’s violence,” said Neta C. Crawford, professor of political science at Boston University and codirector of the "Costs of War" project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. 

Meanwhile, although antiwar protesters no longer demonstrate in this country, the inevitable debate over the war continues.

In a new Showtime documentary “The World According To Dick Cheney,” the former vice president says, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.”

No doubts for Mr. Cheney now – as others have – based on what’s known about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or the Iraqi dictator’s questionable ties to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden and responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing nearly 3,000 people.

Other senior officials in the administration of George W. Bush are not so adamant.

Regarding the elusive WMD, Bush administration national security adviser Stephen Hadley told NPR over the weekend: "Republicans thought [Hussein] had them, Democrats thought he had them, the Clinton administration thought he had them, the Bush administration thought he had them.”

"We were all wrong,” he says.

Regarding the human toll on both sides, Mr. Hadley admits that "clearly the situation got away from us."

But, he said in the NPR interview, "I think this is a country that is taking responsibility for its security both internally and externally.”

Responding to the Brown University “Costs of War” report, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the US and Iraq have forged a "strategically important bilateral relationship."

"Compared to where we were in the Saddam era, we now have a bilateral security agreement,” she said, according to several press reports. “We have deep economic interests and ties. We have a security relationship. We have a political relationship.”

Still, stability in Iraq remains a serious concern.

“Ten years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, talk swirls in government circles of Sunni protesters planning to destabilize the country,” Monitor correspondent Jane Arraf reports from Baghdad. “While many discount the possibility of a coup, rising sectarian tension and an ongoing political crisis have raised fears that there is a new battle looming between Baghdad and the provinces.”

In a column last Friday titled “Five Myths About Iraq,” Washington Post associate editor and former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran notes the latest violent news from Iraq: “On Monday, a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden car into a police station, killing five people; the same day, six more people were killed in various militant attacks in Baghdad. Three days earlier, 19 people died in a string of attacks targeting security personnel.”

Andrew Bacevich has what is perhaps a unique view of the Iraq war, its outcome and its aftermath. Dr. Bacevich is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, a career US Army officer who retired as a colonel, and a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

Bacevich's son, a 27-year-old US Army 1st Lieutenant, was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. The loss weighs heavily on Bacevich. (He wrote about it movingly shortly after his family's loss.) But he was speaking and writing critically about the war before his son was killed in 2007, and he continues to do so today.

In a long Washington Post essay earlier this month (“Ten years after the invasion, did we win the Iraq war?”), Bacevich puts the Iraq war in the context of earlier conflicts ranging back to the War of 1812 through World War I to Vietnam, writing that “battlefield outcomes thought to be conclusive often prove anything but.”

“A challenge facing historians of the Iraq war … will be to gauge what senior members of George W. Bush’s inner circle were actually trying to accomplish,” he writes. “The justifications offered for the invasion were all over the place, including supposed weapons of mass destruction, claims that Saddam Hussein had collaborated with al-Qaeda and visions of democracy throughout the Arab world.”

“Eventually, only this last – Bush’s Freedom Agenda – remained,” he continues. “Yet, as the war dragged on, expectations of transforming the Middle East gave way to more modest definitions of success. When it came to advancing the cause of liberty, the Bush administration set out to build a cathedral. In the end, the Obama administration declared itself content with a shaky two-car garage.”

Politicians may argue vigorously about the conduct of the war and its outcome, as Sen. John McCain did in charging that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would be found to have been “on the wrong side of history” regarding Iraq in general and the “surge” in particular.

But Bacevich argues that “judgments rendered by history tend to be tentative, incomplete and reversible.”

“More than occasionally, they arrive seasoned with irony,” he writes. “This is especially true when it comes to war, where battlefield outcomes thought to be conclusive often prove anything but.”

Just as it was in Vietnam – and back and back through previous wars – the outcome of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq remains unclear. “Was it worth it?” is a question impossible to answer.

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