Sunday morning, Pacific time, President Barack Obama sent out a cryptic email officially noting the end of the war in Iraq after almost nine years of fighting:
Early this morning, the last of our troops left Iraq.
As we honor and reflect on the sacrifices that millions of men and women made for this war, I wanted to make sure you heard the news.
Bringing this war to a responsible end was a cause that sparked many Americans to get involved in the political process for the first time. Today’s outcome is a reminder that we all have a stake in our country’s future, and a say in the direction we choose.
Gates between Iraq and Kuwait being closed after last US troops leave Iraq on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 (Photo screen capture from CNN)
NBC News’ Richard Engel tweeted from the border: ”The gate to #iraq is closed. Soldier just told me, ‘that’s it, the war is over.’”
But as soldiers left behind the sand, dust and struggle of the first American pre-emptive war and the gates between Iraq and Kuwait were closed on Sunday morning, Dec. 18, dustups were just getting started in the US political arena with the question: "Was it worth it?"
It takes nothing away from the heroism of U.S. forces to observe that the war in Iraq was the ultimate war of choice, and the choice was a bad one. The George W. Bush administration is largely responsible for the commitment of U.S. forces, which it justified by harping on the alleged presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and insinuating that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. But Congress shares the blame. Many Democrats -- including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but not Sen. Barbara Boxer -- supported legislation authorizing Bush to attack Iraq unilaterally.
The result was a bloody and prolonged commitment whose successes -- the 2007 “surge” of American forces and the establishment of the highly fragile democracy that is in place today -- don’t justify the decision to go to war. Nor does the removal of Hussein. He was a bloodthirsty dictator, but he posed no danger to the United States at the time of the invasion. The impression persists that some neoconservatives in the Bush administration knew as much but still wanted to topple the longtime strongman as a down payment on the democratization of the Middle East. If so, it wasn’t worth the price. Indeed, when the Arab Spring finally arrived early this year, it wasn’t inspired by Iraq’s experience over the last nine years or by any other Western campaign to promote democracy through regime change; rather, it was set off by homegrown protests in Tunisia and Egypt that boiled up from below.
And what was the price of the Iraq war? The death toll for U.S. forces is near 4,500; estimates of Iraqi fatalities vary wildly; 100,000 is a common figure. Some 32,000 Americans have been injured in hostilities. These numbers reflect human suffering of a magnitude not justified by the decision to go to war. That is an unavoidable, if brutal, fact.
That’s the blood. In treasure, the war has already cost $1 trillion, at a time when the United States had other important uses for its money. When you add in future costs, such as ongoing debt service and healthcare costs for injured veterans, that figure will more than double, even if calculated very conservatively, according to political science professor Neta Crawford, coauthor of the “Costs of War” report from the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University.
Since I feel my obligation as a citizen and journalist stretches beyond covering the LGBT and HIV communities, I was among many who questioned the necessity of pre-emptive war nine years ago as the Bush administration’s rhetoric ginned up and twisted into undercutting the validity of the UN inspectors to blatantly lying and using the "mushroom cloud" fear tactics to gain public support. I started a small feature in Frontiers magazine simply called "Numbers" that noted the deaths and wounded of American, Iraqi and Afghani troops and civilians - as well as the cost of war. To mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil, I penned a piece for Frontiers entitled 9/11 and the Death of Accountability in which I wrote:
But it is the "evil" arrogance created in reaction to 9/11 that threatens to truly undermine the republic. Consider: spurning the Geneva Convention; the immoral torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison; the Orwellian justification and lack of evidence for the government's allegations against Guantanamo Bay detainees; the USA PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping and surveillance against innocent U.S. citizens; the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (once a crime of treason) as an act of political vengeance against her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson; Bush and his administration's unadulterated mendacity ("mushroom cloud") to justify a pre-emptive war against Iraq; giving no-bid military contracts to cronies and friends, including the bin Laden family--the list goes on. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean called the Bush White House "worse than Watergate" for its secrecy and dirty tricks. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer exposed the Bush administration's concept of American justice in The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.
And now Dick Cheney is out flogging his memoir, In My Time, accepting no accountability, issuing no apology and once again saying waterboarding--internationally viewed as torture--"works." It is widely believed that if Cheney were to travel to Europe, he could be arrested and put on trial as a war criminal. Why isn't the man who caused death and ruination to thousands not called "evil," too?
Many of us blanched when Al Gore took the classy high road and conceded the 2000 election. We boiled when not one U.S. Senator stood up with the Congressional Black Caucus to officially contest the way the electoral process was conducted. But many more of us were outraged when President Barack Obama said he wanted to "look forward, not back" and let the Bush administration skate on torture and other actions that would have landed the rest of us in prison. Even South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the horrors of apartheid. Does Obama think the American public can't handle the truth?
Now, with the death of bin Laden, we can mark the death of 9/11-related accountability, too.
The point was underscored on Aug. 31, when the Bipartisan Policy Center, led by former 9/11 Commissioner Gov. Tim Kean, issued a report card saying the nation is "still highly vulnerable to aviation security threats."
What have we learned, indeed. And yet - we did learn something: unlike the treatment given troops returning from Vietnam, this time the President, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Vice President's wife Dr. Jill Biden have made a concerted effort to make sure troops return from these wars are treated with dignity and welcomed home.
But even before the Obamas and the Bidens launched their campaign, Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was flying around the country last summer speaking at town halls to ask the people to help returning vets and their families with understanding about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), jobs and healthcare.
It was before the official repeal of Don't Ask, Don't tell - which I asked Mullen about. But more importantly, I asked him if he and the government thought serving on the frontlines in silence under DADT was itself a cause of PTSD? Our gay and lesbian troops not only were subject to the usual causes of PTSD (seeing their buddies die or get wounded right next to them; the stress of dodging snipers and IUDS; the stress of being on constant alert) but they didn't have anyone to talk to about it - lest they give away some clue that they might be gay and hence subject to discharge at their commanding officer's discretion. Plus, the internalized religious "shame" of being gay could make a soldier take more risks to prove masculinity or some other macho mythology. And then there were the soldier's loved ones and families who also had to keep quiet about their fears - also leading to a hidden PTSD that could effect their other relationships, jobs, and ability to take care of themselves. Does the Pentagon think gays and lesbians are immune to DADT-created PTSD?
Mullen said he hadn't thought about the connection between DADT and PTSD and he'd look into it. If he did - there have been no follow up reports - though more recently Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden have indicated that gays and lesbians are included in their outreach. Still - if you're so used to serving in silence and toughing it out - it might not be easy to let down that guard, admit there's a problem and seek help. And no one is keeping statistics on this kind of on-going pain and suffering. The US government might have decreed that the war is officially over - but it might live on still in the hearts and minds of Arab Spring protesters (gay and straight) and gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families as they and their advocates continue to fight for their right to be treated as first class citizens.