It was with a profound sense of sadness that I first read that President Obama had announced the withdrawal of the last American forces from Iraq. That was weird, because sadness was never the emotion I had expected to feel when the troops finally came home. After all, the war was a waste of lives, money and American moral standing that never should have happened. So why is it that I am sad?
Perhaps because it feels like an anti-climactic ending. The war had long since dropped off of most Americans’ radar, buried under a torrent of bad economic news and newer, sexier conflicts in places such as Libya. Iraq increasingly was something you forgot about and then immediately felt bad for doing so.
But in a sense it was understandable. The initial invasion took place when I was in fifth grade, and now I’m a sophomore in college. For as long as I’ve been following the news, Iraq has always been there in the background. You almost began to just assume it was the natural order of things.
But it wasn’t.
What have we achieved in those long years since the first troops moved in? Some positives let no one forget. Sadaam Hussein faced a justice, which it is by no means certain he would have ever received otherwise, looking at the endurance of fellow tyrants in neighboring Syria and Iran. Democracy has haphazardly come to Iraq, and the lots of some ethnic groups-in particular the Kurds-have never been better.
Yet this came at a terrible cost. Was it worth the 4,500 American soldiers who came home only in coffins? Was it worth the estimated 300,000 psychiatric casualties among veterans that the Department of Veterans affairs say will need treatment? Was it worth the 100,000 Iraqi civilians the Iraq Body Count project estimates were killed?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it wasn’t, but I could be wrong. Historians will no doubt debate it for a long time. The war in Vietnam is still being fought on the pages of scholarly journals and book review pages all the time. Statesmen do not get the benefit of hindsight. Even those things that seem so obvious now were impossible to see at the time. Henry Kissinger once wrote that had Hitler actually been stopped in the 1930s, historians would still be arguing whether or not he was a maniac or a misunderstood nationalist.
Not that academic articles will prove much comfort to the average Iraqi. The country remains a mess of simmering ethnic tension that has emerged only tentatively from virtual civil war a few years ago. As long as Iraq remains divided, it will likely prove a playground for local powers such as Turkey and Iran to use for their own ends. Perhaps there is a bright future awaiting the Iraqi people of peace, independence and prosperity, but it seems rather unlikely.
For Americans, two futures remain. In one, the drawdown in Iraq, likely followed by one in Afghanistan in the not-too-distant future leads to a national re-evaluation of our priorities where we realize that America’s future lies to the East, as part of the so-called “Pacific Century.”
In the other, a future administration forgets the lesson of Iraq and orders combat troops into another region of questionable American interest, where we will again learn the limits of American power. Neither future is set in stone. One can only hope that these years will not prove to have been in vain.