It was not supposed to end this way. Although President Barack Obama deserves credit for bringing an end to the war in Iraq that he inherited, if he had had his wishes, thousands of U.S. troops would nevertheless have remained stationed in Iraq indefinitely. The decision by the White House and the Pentagon to withdraw all U.S. soldiers before Christmas (with the exception of fewer than two hundred active duty forces attached to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad) was only made around October 2011. It followed months of negotiations with the Iraqi government to revise the terms of the withdrawal agreement signed by President George W. Bush shortly before he left office. That pact mandated that all U.S. troops leave the country by the end of 2011, but the Bush administration expected that the treaty would be renegotiated before the December deadline to keep at least several thousand soldiers in the country. And that is precisely what Obama attempted during the past year. Talks with the Iraqis broke down, however, over a single issue: the unwillingness of the Iraqi parliament to accept a Status of Forces Agreement (or SOFA) granting U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. 

Even in countries with strong legal systems—such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany—the United States has successfully negotiated, or pressured its allies into accepting, SOFAs that place American soldiers effectively beyond the reach of their laws. These nonreciprocal SOFAs, covering a vast archipelago of more than 850 officially acknowledged overseas U.S. military bases and installations (soon to include a large base in Australia negotiated by the Obama administration in the first major military expansion in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War), have allowed U.S. military personnel to act in many cases with impunity toward local citizens. For example, the history of the U.S. military presence in Korea and in Okinawa, documented by East Asia expert and former naval officer Chalmers Johnson, has been marked by more than six decades of unpunished brawls, drug violations, drunk driving accidents, arsons, and sexual assaults amid the bars and brothels that have sprung up around the sprawling U.S. military installations.

If the logic of empire dictates that U.S. soldiers be placed above or beyond the laws of any land they occupy, even in peaceful, modern, and democratic nations that are close American allies, how much more so in still war-torn Iraq—a country in which documented war crimes involving U.S. forces during the past nine years continue to go unpunished. There are obvious political reasons why the Obama administration refused to leave troops stationed in Iraq without guarantees of immunity from Iraqi law. There are also obvious reasons why the Iraqis refused to accept the neocolonial logic that U.S. soldiers must be granted immunity from the legal jurisdiction of any country that “hosts” them.

On December 14, one day before the casing of the American flag in Iraq in a ceremony marking the official end of the war—an event held on a heavily fortified base outside the capital with almost no Iraqi officials present and with helicopters hovering to guard against attacks by still-active insurgents—the New York Times published selections from a trove of documents accidentally left behind by the departing U.S. forces. A Times reporter had stumbled upon the papers in a junkyard outside of Baghdad. They included hundreds of pages of classified interviews with U.S. Marines from the military’s internal investigation (prompted by a Time magazine article) into a 2005 massacre by U.S. fighters of twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha, including women, children, toddlers, and a seventy-six-year-old man in a wheelchair. Some of those killed were dragged from a vehicle and summarily executed in the street. Others were shot at close range inside their homes.

What is most striking about the testimonies of the Marines is the apparent ordinariness, the dreary mundanity of the killing of civilians by U.S. troops in air strikes, at roadside checkpoints, and in firefights during the most violent years of the invasion. When asked if reports of fifteen or twenty civilians killed by their comrades in a single incident in Haditha sounded excessive to them at the time, the Marines repeatedly testified that it did not. “This is not unusual,” Colonel J. Ledoux said. He continued, “You can see the numbers yourself, just thousands of incidents, thousands of noncombatant deaths as well as, you know, enemy.” According to Ledoux, in the early phase of the war the military made no attempt to investigate civilian deaths. It was only over time that “things morphed more and more and more into tighter requirements…because there really were a lot of people getting killed all over, you know, Iraq on escalation of force.” The Pentagon’s handling of the Haditha massacre as well as other atrocities in Iraq exposes the military’s powerful interest in protecting its own from the demands of justice. It acquitted or dismissed charges against all soldiers involved in the Haditha killings except for one, Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, whose court martial trial before a jury of combat Marines ended on January 24 with military prosecutors dropping nine counts of manslaughter in exchange for Wuterich pleading guilty to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty and being demoted to the rank of private.  The man who by his own testimony ordered his squad to "shoot first, ask questions later" in Haditha will not serve a single day behind bars.

By contrast, Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning faces life in prison without parole if military prosecutors can successfully prove that he was the whistleblower who (whether recklessly or not) out of moral conscience passed secret documents to WikiLeaks, including a video of an Apache helicopter mowing down a crowd of men that included two reporters for Reuters, footage the military had refused to release to the news agency. Manning has been held in solitary confinement under constant surveillance since his arrest in July 2010. Under the terms of his imprisonment, officials revealed last year, he was being stripped naked every night and required to stand naked at attention outside his cell in the morning, allegedly for his own safety—even though he had not been placed on suicide watch. In March 2011, the New York Review of Books published a letter signed by more than two hundred and fifty legal scholars denouncing Manning’s treatment as cruel and inhumane, if not a form of torture. “President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader,” the letter states. “The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency.” Obama—who as commander-in-chief has the power to directly intervene to prevent the inhumane treatment of his soldiers in detention—declared that Manning’s treatment was “appropriate and meets our basic standards.”


The Myths of War

Not surprisingly, these intertwined realities of the war in Iraq—the White House’s diplomatic failure to successfully negotiate a SOFA granting continued immunity to U.S. soldiers and the actions of the invading forces that for many Iraqis would have made any such agreement an affront to the demands of justice—are no part of the government’s narrative of why the United States pulled all of its forces out of the country. In his December 14 speech to U.S. soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, declaring the Iraq War formally over, President Obama spoke only of a “moment of success,” an “extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making,” and a “lesson about our national character.”

“We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” the president said. The war had shown “there’s nothing we Americans can’t do when we stick together.” He remembered the military “units that streaked across the sand and skies of Iraq…breaking the back of a brutal dictator in less than a month.” In the face of the insurgency, he continued, “your will proved stronger than the terror of those who tried to break it.” What the U.S. withdrawal proved to the world, Obama said, is that “unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right.” Those U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq stand in “an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries.” Their names will be spoken by future generations in “whispered words of admiration,” for they secured “the freedom of our children and our grandchildren.”

There was nothing in Obama’s speech to recall the warnings of a then little-known Illinois senator in 2002, who spoke from the steps of the Federal Plaza in Chicago against what he called a “war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” “What I am opposed to is a dumb war,” Senator Obama said:

 What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. 

“Even a successful war against Iraq,” Senator Obama predicted in 2002, “will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” The real war that needed to be fought, he said, was the war against “ignorance and intolerance,” the war against “corruption and greed,” the war against “poverty and despair.” It was the battle against nuclear proliferation, against energy policies that “simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil,” and against the “arms merchants in our own country” who are “feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.”

(Since taking office, Obama has led a huge surge in foreign-arms sales, including authorizing the single largest arms deal in history, a $60-billion sale of fighter jets and other high-end weapons systems to Saudi Arabia. His administration has worked aggressively to slash export regulations in order to fast-track arms shipments and secure still greater market share in the global weapons trade.)

Senator Obama’s words proved prophetic of the war that was to come—a war in which approximately 4,500 U.S. soldiers and likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died; a war in which more than 30,000 Americans and unknown thousands of Iraqis were wounded; a war that produced more than 7 million refugees and internally displaced persons; a war that left the civilian infrastructure of a nation in ruins; a war that added to the moral and spiritual degradation of American public life, with phrases like “secret renditions” and “enhanced interrogations” entering our vocabularies and with the “heroes” of popular entertainment now being shown torturing their enemies; a war that by best estimates will cost Americans several trillion dollars in direct and indirect costs to be paid for decades to come; and a war that the United States now departs amid widespread and ongoing sectarian violence, political corruption, environmental devastation, and human rights abuses by the new authorities in a severely destabilized region that faces a very uncertain future.

But President Obama did not speak of these realities of the war—its true lessons—in his speech at Fort Bragg. Instead, he did what all presidents must. He proclaimed the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq to be part of an ennobling and finally redemptive saga of the steady march of “freedom.” No American soldier’s life, it seems, is ever wasted in a senseless, unnecessary, and dehumanizing imperial adventure. Every death is somehow exemplary, essential, valorous, and, in the long arc of history, just. “War,” journalist Chris Hedges has noted, “is a force that gives us meaning.” The power of the myth of war as a force that gives us meaning is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the insistence by both Democrats and Republicans alike at war’s end—including those who once opposed the war—that all deaths in combat not simply be grieved as terrible human losses but be hallowed and celebrated as essential to the cause of human freedom and dignity, as testaments to the nation’s highest values.

One struggles to know what to make of the fact that President Obama’s speech could just as easily have been delivered by George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. Perhaps it is not the role of the commander-in-chief of the military to invite profound soul-searching among his soldiers or the nation about the justice or injustice of the violence they have been a part of at war’s end. Perhaps from the perspective of the nation-state’s interests it is enough that soldiers courageously served without questioning what they were asked to do. Perhaps in an election season no official in any country can politically afford to speak of the nation’s wars in anything other than heroic terms. And perhaps the grieving families of those who died felt some relief at the president’s assurances that their losses were somehow worth it, although for those who have already concluded otherwise Obama’s words may have simply opened fresh wounds. I understand all of these facts. Yet listening to the president’s speech I felt only a sinking realization: In the deepest sense, we have learned nothing from this war.

There was one part of Obama’s speech, though, that poses a serious moral challenge to all Americans. The president spoke of the need to care for returning veterans of the war. For those of you who remain in uniform, we will do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our force—including your families,” he promised. “We will help our wounded warriors heal, and stand by those who suffer the unseen wounds of war.” The magnitude of the human need is sobering. More than 1.5 million soldiers served in Iraq. A 2009 study by researchers from the Naval Postgraduate School and Stanford University estimated that 35 percent of Iraq War veterans have or will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders. Meanwhile, unemployment rates for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continues to climb, currently standing at over 12 percent, while the national average in December had fallen to 8.5 percent. For many veterans, the harsh reality of returning to a nation that seemingly has no more use for them is more devastating still. Among young veterans of the Iraq war, those aged eighteen to twenty-four, joblessness now stands at over 30 percent, that is, more than twice the national unemployment rate for the same age group. The unemployment rate for young black American veterans is fast approaching 50 percent. If one of the pressing tasks of the church is to resist being co-opted by the nation-state’s idolatrous grammars of redemptive violence, today and for decades to come it must also be to provide very tangible assistance to those who now carry the psychological and physical scars of war.

Photo: Convoys drive to Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, as U.S. forces leave Iraq, Dec. 14, 2011 (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Kathryn Whittenberger/Released)

Related: Still Counting: How Many Iraqis Have Died? and A Reckoning: The Price Tag for America's Wars, by Ronald Osborn

Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: View Contents

Ronald E. Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Cascade Books), and Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic).

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