My son Jack was born just days before the war in Iraq began. So for these last nearly nine years, it’s been easy for me to remember how long this horrible conflict has been going on. Finally, as President Obama announced, the American war will soon be over, with most of the 44,000 American troops still in Iraq coming home in time to be with their families for Christmas.
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The initial feelings that rushed over me after hearing the White House announcement were of deep relief. But then they turned to deep sadness over the terrible cost of a war that was, from the beginning, wrong—intellectually, politically, strategically, and, above all, morally wrong.
The war in Iraq was fundamentally a war of choice, and it was the wrong choice. From the outset, this war was fought on false pretenses, with false information, and for false purposes. And the official decisions to argue for this war and then to carry it out represented the height of political and moral irresponsibility—especially when we see the failed results and consider both the human and financial costs.
Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11, as was falsely implied, and had no weapons of mass destruction, as was falsely claimed and endlessly repeated. The intelligence on Iraq was manipulated and distorted to justify going to war. This was clearly a war of choice and a war that was painfully unnecessary. We were misled into war and, so far, nobody has been held accountable for it.
The war was sold to the American public with the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Many believed it at the time, and an invasion was mounted on what turned out to be false information. A decade of sanctions and United Nations inspections had already undermined the allegations. And in the almost nine years of war, not a single WMD has been found in Iraq.
The invasion began with triumphal claims that it would be a “cakewalk” and that U.S. forces would be welcomed as “liberators.” That proved to be initially true with the unexpectedly easy removal of Saddam Hussein from power, which led to the famous claim of a flight-jacket-clad George W. Bush on a U.S. aircraft carrier six weeks after the invasion began: “Mission Accomplished!”
But then everything fell apart. Hussein’s fighters had not surrendered, but simply melted into the cities, lying in wait to fight again. Al Qaeda, which had existed largely only in Afghanistan, formed an Iraqi branch. An invasion turned into an occupation and nearly five years of vicious and deadly street warfare, sectarian violence, and constant terrorist bombings. By the time the heaviest fighting had died down, the Iraqi people were bitterly divided, huge parts of their country had been devastated, and corruption and fraud were rampant.
The costs of this unjust war have been enormous:
- More than 4,483 U.S. military killed and 32,200 wounded.
- 110,000 estimated Iraqi civilian deaths.
- 2.5 million internally displaced Iraqis.
- More than half a million U.S. troops returning with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
- $800 billion in federal funding for the war through FY2011.
- An estimated total cost of $3 trillion to $5 trillion.
- Nearly 1,000 suicide attempts by veterans per month.
Such a list takes my breath away and should drive each of us to prayer for lives that have been so painfully and irreparably changed.
As U.S. combat troops return home, they leave behind a badly damaged nation that will require years, if not decades, of assistance and humanitarian development. Our responsibility does not end simply because our military presence in Iraq has. Clearly, religious communities must reach out to returning veterans to make sure they have the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they need. One of the most unjust aspects of an unjust war is that a small minority of Americans have borne the brunt of the impact and cost of this war—and in our volunteer army, those were disproportionately lower-income families. Despite the fact that this has been a tragically mistaken war, the sacrifices made by many soldiers have been extraordinary. Even in the midst of war’s brutalities, there were many acts of real heroism—soldiers risking and giving their own lives for their fellow soldiers and for the lives of Iraqis, who also paid a heavy price. No matter what our view of the war, it is our collective responsibility to be healers for those who are coming home—and for those left behind in post-war Iraq.
We must learn from this horrible and costly mistake. We must conclude unequivocally that terrorism is not defeated by wars of mass occupation. And we must strive to re-establish the fundamental principle that truth matters.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.