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Iraq War Anniversary: How Should We Commemorate?

If we were celebrating a traditional 10-year wedding anniversary, then we’d look for something "tin" or "aluminum." While it’s a bit of an ironic and inappropriate stretch (insert 'tin soldier' reference here), perhaps the greater stretch is commemorating the occasion of 10 years of war in Iraq today ... mainly because it’s not yet over. For a great number of PolicyMic readers, the U.S. military has been conducting combat operations in the "cradle of civilization" for maybe half or a third of their lifetimes.

And to what end? There’s no way to list every value judgment on what this past decade has meant to our country, Iraq and the world itself good or bad here, but we can examine what the "watchers" watch. For example, the Department of Defense reports its latest casualties of the Iraq War, as of 18 March 2013, 10 a.m. EDT:

- Operation Iraqi Freedom [20 March 2003 31 August 2010] (U.S. Military & Civilian):  Total Deaths / Wounded In Action:  4,422 / 31,926

- Operation New Dawn * [1 September 2010 to Present] (U.S. Military & Civilian): Total Deaths / Wounded In Action:  66 / 295

(* - On August 31, 2010, President Obama announced the official end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and DoD revised the U.S. military mission into what is now known as Operation New Dawn.)

The DoD numbers do not reflect our NATO partner contributions to the death toll or the number of casualties among allied Iraqi Security Forces. For the number of civilian Iraqi deaths, the numbers are more challenging to calculate, and arguably less reliable. Iraq’s own Ministry of Health didn’t even begin counting until 2005, and they officially estimate the number of deaths at 87,215 as of February 2009. The widely regarded human rights source IraqBodyCount.org documents civilian deaths from violence at an estimated 111,762 to 122,224. IBC.org says their count encompasses non-combatants killed by "military or paramilitary action" since the invasion. But they are not necessarily solely related or connected to U.S. military actions.

The financial costs to the U.S. are staggering as well. A New York Daily News report about a new study from the Watson Institute at Brown University shows that the decade-long war has resulted in a … cost of more than $2 trillion. That’s only about $10 trillion less than the entire world’s GDP, according to a 2012 International Monetary Fund report! The Huff Post goes on to quote the Watson study as saying the U.S. taxpayer should expect an additional $490 billion pay out in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades if we count interest. One can only imagine how all of that money may have been spent (or saved) if not for this war’s costs. 

American blood and treasure lost forever. But what about the gains? It depends on whom you ask.

From the Nation: "Regardless of whether genuine democracy is viable or even sustainable, the Iraq war did not serve any strategic net gain for the United States," said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. "The fall of Saddam didn't just create a power vacuum in Baghdad, it created a power vacuum in the region, which plunged neighboring states into an intense environment of security competition that continues today."

Conversely, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot says it may be premature to assess the benefits, but there remains a chance for Iraq to serve as "a model for the Arab Spring."

The debate rages and will for years. But if we’re going to narrow the scope of success or failure over the course of ten years in Iraq strictly to cost-benefit ratio criteria alone lives and dollar "expenditures" compared against tangible and measurable "value" then the answer has to be "no" … for now.

And that’s one of the lessons I learned during my time in Iraq perspective. For starters, culturally speaking we "westerners" generally take the short view historically, and we typically relate our experiences through the prism of perceived sacrifices. Our modern and formidable U.S. military is an incredibly effective fighting force, and is even more creative with accounting practices. Congress frequently calls on our armed forces to account for how much taxpayer money it has spent, and what those expenditures purchased. Americans want to know what they’re getting for their money … today.

Problem is, a lot of the effort of our service men and women is more of an "investment" in Iraq rather than a "closed deal." That’s a huge chasm between what the Pentagon (and Congress) expect to hear and the reality on the ground. It creates friction and an unnecessary burden for commanders on the ground that also face real, life-or-death threats, as well. Even though many of the missions our military has been tasked with are not within their mission-set, they are doing them anyway.

But there is always a reward, if you’re willing to take a longer view. As part of my duties during my last deployment, I worked with an Iraqi ex-pat whose family escaped Saddam’s regime after the Baathist overthrow, and who lived quietly in England for nearly 30 years. Before his escape from Mosul to London, this gentleman was one of the top petroleum engineer architects for Iraq’s oil infrastructure. Our job was to help restore Iraq’s ability to tap and use its natural resources for its own power generation abilities. (Keeping the lights and air conditioning on in Baghdad would go a long way to establishing a new Iraqi government's legitimacy.) 

The work was difficult because of the environment, terrain, poor pipeline maintenance, and of course, the insurgency. But it was extremely vital to give back to the Iraqi people what was naturally theirs. I will tell you we often lost more ground than we gained. My new Iraqi friend would tell constantly chide me to "take the longer view" and "be patient." Neither of these virtues are particularly my strong point, and not necessarily representative of how the American military does business either. But the official American government bean counters were rarely satisfied with the situation (mostly because they were thousands of miles away from the burden), and therefore we were constantly pressured to change tactics, modify the plan, try something else! A hollow refrain I developed to represent this situation was, "I didn’t lie (to the Iraqis), the truth changed."

It has taken years, the loss of lives, and millions of dollars, but the investment in re-establishing Iraq’s ability to create and provide power to hospitals, schools, factories, etc., will ultimately help create the stability which it needs to be able to sustain itself … someday … maybe. As we’ve learned, that someday may not be in our day, or any day. And our vision of a sustainable, stable Iraq may not be the same as the ultimate reality either.

That is a case of perspective ours versus theirs; expectation versus reality; cost versus benefit. Should we invest anymore of our "blood and treasure" into this far-away and still largely unsettled endeavor? Will the Iraqi people benefit, or not?

What was our ultimate gift to Iraq?

Even though I left a little bit of myself over there, I still remain conflicted about that answer.

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