Do you ever get the feeling that most people in America have forgotten about Iraq and Afghanistan? We’ve been sending our military off to kill and be killed in Muslim countries for almost 15 years now, and people have gotten desensitized to it, like this is the natural order of things, like as long as the death toll stays below a certain level, and nothing too horrific is happening on TV news, America’s wars have just become a kind of quiet background noise; low-level perpetual warfare as the new normal of everyday American life.
But this Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering that we’re still at war, and that America’s wars really don’t work anymore. What have we “won” in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past 15 years? What have we gotten out of either of these wars? Yes, we killed Osama bin Laden, and a lot of other Taliban leaders. But we’ve also killed a lot of innocent civilians. And how many Taliban “leaders” are still out there, really? Who are all these people that we’re targeting with drone strikes, and are they all really such a mortal threat to America that it’s worth accidentally killing all the innocent men, women and children who tend to get hurt by our drone strikes? Can’t we at least ask the question of whether our drone policy is inspiring more future terrorists than we kill, at this point? Beyond the immediate mission of justice and vengeance for the perpetrators of 9/11, why are we still “accidentally” bombing Muslim wedding parties and Doctors Without Borders hospitals in Afghanistan 15 years after the towers fell? America’s wars in the Muslim world—started by George W. Bush, but escalated and continued with broad bipartisan consensus—have produced nothing but misery and messes.
In Afghanistan, we’ve been propping up a weak, corrupt Afghani government that is despised by most of its own people and that will probably collapse immediately if America ever withdraws the rest of our troops. Some of our Afghani “allies” keep boys chained to their beds as sex slaves—a disgusting medieval practice known as “bacha bazi”—and U.S. troops were told to ignore the child rape happening around them because apparently these child rapists are the least-bad “good guys” we can find in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, we’ve created a broken, failed state that has been roughly partitioned into three pieces: the largely autonomous Kurdish region of the north (the liberation and relative prosperity of the long-suffering Kurds, who were brutally treated by Saddam Hussein, is probably the most successful and optimistic outcome of the Iraq War, although we can’t recognize them as an independent nation of Kurdistan because that would enrage our allies in Iraq and in increasingly authoritarian Turkey, who treat their Kurdish minority horribly), the Shia region of the central and south (allied with the Shiite government of Iran—America’s sworn enemies) and the Sunni region of the west (which hates the Shiite majority government of Iraq and which is sympathetic/susceptible to ISIS, a Sunni extremist group—there’s a reason why the Iraqi Army surrendered to ISIS so quickly when they captured the Sunni city of Mosul; lots of Iraqi Sunnis would rather live under ISIS than live under Shiite rule).
I know it’s easy for me to say this as an American who has never been to Iraq, but: looking at the quagmire that Iraq has become, maybe Saddam Hussein wasn’t so bad after all? What’s worse—to live under a brutal, criminal government that occasionally kidnaps people off the street to die horribly in jail, or to live with anarchy, chaos, civil war and constant terrorism? (Hell, here in America, our government occasionally kidnaps people off the street to die terrible deaths in police custody—just look at Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.) We didn’t give the Iraqi people a new life of “freedom,” we gave them chaos and despair and mass kidnappings-for-ransom and car bombings and horrific torture-murders committed in the name of religion.
Even if you’re willing to overlook all the human suffering endured by the people of other countries in America’s wars, American-style war doesn’t even work for Americans, either. We could pay for universal health care and free college tuition for all Americans with the money we’ve flushed down the toilet in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does anyone think that Iraq or Afghanistan will be safe for Americans to visit anytime in our lifetimes? Will Iraq and Afghanistan ever forgive America for ruining their countries? I wouldn’t.
America is so goddamn stupid about war. We keep making the same mistakes again and again and again, from Vietnam to Iraq—we intervene in the affairs of countries and cultures that we don’t understand, we choose the wrong “good guys” to support, we fuck around for years, we spend uncountable billions and billions of dollars, and then we fly back to America leaving a smoldering mess behind us. And somehow, both political parties keep having blind faith that our military can do no wrong and that American military intervention is ALWAYS a good idea. But we haven’t had an unequivocally “successful” military intervention in a long time; maybe the last example was the U.S.-led NATO bombings of the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999, which helped oust Slobodan Milosevic from power and helped end his campaigns of ethnic cleansing against the oppressed minority groups of the Balkans. And even a “good” military intervention will still have civilian casualties, unforeseen consequences, collateral damage and lingering costs.
For example, remember Libya? Another Muslim country that the U.S. bombed, which most Americans have forgotten about and which is now worse off than it was before we bombed it? Back in 2011, Libya was in a state of civil war and dictator Muammar Gaddafi was threatening to massacre civilians in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The U.S. and NATO attacked Gaddafi’s forces with airstrikes, a military intervention that Hillary Clinton (as Secretary of State, along with a few other top policy advisers to President Obama) recommended. In the end, Libya’s dictator Gaddafi was toppled and executed. Sadly, today, Libya is a mess (Obama privately describes it as a “shit show”). Despite good humanitarian intentions and careful military planning, after the American-led military intervention, Libya has descended into tribal violence and chaos, and has become a haven for ISIS fighters.
Maybe the best lesson of the past 15 years is that American military power doesn’t work against the problems that we’re trying to use it to solve. This Tom Dispatch blog post explains why American-style war doesn’t work, why it doesn’t solve the problems of our world, why U.S. military force—however well-intentioned—is always a destabilizing force that creates more problems, and why America is incapable of winning the kinds of wars we keep choosing to fight. America is not very good at this Great Game of empire and nation building. So let’s stop playing.
Seriously. Maybe we should stop trying to police the world. Maybe we need to realize that the most important and effective ways to influence other countries have nothing to do with military force. Maybe the time has come to try more of an isolationist, pacifist foreign policy where war is the absolute last resort, instead of the most-used tool in the toolbox. We’ve never really tried it before! Does that sound crazy and unrealistic? Well, is it any crazier than spending 15 years and trillions of dollars trying to remake the Muslim world in our own image by force? If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, then American-style war really is insane.
But what are we—and by “we” I mean, America and our allies in NATO and the U.N. and other international organizations that, whether we like it or not, are kind of expected to “police” the world—supposed to do about the next Libya or Syria or Bosnia or Rwanda? Just stay out of it altogether? Allow ethnic cleansing or genocide to happen? Are we supposed to abandon the geopolitical chess board altogether, and assume that other powerful countries like China and Russia would do a better job of influencing the world in a positive way? I don’t know the answers. Foreign policy is insanely complicated and it can’t often be explained by tidy doctrines and managed by moral absolutes. But it seems that we should be able to find some healthy middle ground between “sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring global security threats” and “invading and occupying other countries for decades.”
How about: instead of invading other countries that we don’t understand, where we don’t speak the language or know the culture or know how to tell who the “good guys” are, and occupying them for years at massive cost of human lives and national treasure, let’s try…NOT doing that?
I’m not even intending to criticize our veterans or our military personnel here; I’m criticizing the arrogant, incompetent, willfully oblivious American civilian leaders like George W. Bush and all of his enablers that keep eagerly sending our military into these miserable, unwinnable situations. More often than not, our civilian leadership is woefully unworthy of the sacrifices that they ask our military to make.
And for that matter, so are civilians! We suck! If I was a veteran, I would be disgusted with civilians! Can you imagine watching the best people you’ve ever known in your life get killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then you come home to America and have to see a bunch of lazy, entitled, whiny American civilians moping around at the mall, complaining about how their latte doesn’t have the right flavor of almond milk, and how they can’t get Candy Crush to work fast enough on their phones? It’s no wonder veterans often feel so alienated and have trouble readjusting to civilian life. If I were a veteran, I would get arrested for punching civilians in the face!
In honor of Memorial Day, I’d like to close with the story of one U.S. veteran who died in Iraq, who I did not know personally but whose story really affected me. Her name was Emily Perez, a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She was from a military family and graduated from West Point in 2005 near the top of her class—she was the first minority female command sergeant in West Point history. Even by the standards of West Point, Emily Perez was a tenacious, passionate, high achiever who was exceptionally beloved by her classmates and teachers. While she was still in high school, she started a ministry for people with HIV-AIDS.
Emily died in Iraq in September 2006, killed by a roadside bomb. She was 23 years old. 23! Most civilians that age spend their time hooking up on Tinder and going to brunch and nursing hangovers. 23 is NOTHING. We send our children to die in our wars.
See, I’m sick of this bullshit. I refuse to accept this. I’m sick of amazing people like Emily Perez being sent off to die for nothing in wars like Iraq. She should still be alive! She could have been a future President of the United States! But instead, she’s been in the grave for 10 years! West Point grads like Emily Perez really are the best of the best young people in America, because they’re high achievers and leaders, but they’re not amoral careerists like so many kids at elite colleges; military academy graduates really have a strong sense of public service, of wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. And it’s horrible to see those noble impulses be so ill-used by America’s foreign policy—again and again and again. I never want my kids to serve in the military, not because I don’t respect people in the military, but because I don’t trust the government to be responsible with my children’s lives.
60 years from now, people are still going to be crying about the loved ones they lost in Iraq. And for what?? It’s no good to just mindlessly talk about “sacrifice” and “honor” on Memorial Day, unless we’re also willing to take a broader look at WHAT we’re asking our veterans to sacrifice for. Iraq was not worth Emily Perez’s life. Lots of people like her who were better people than me got blown up and shot and burned and mangled in Iraq, and I’m fucking furious about it.
Most Americans have forgotten, but I’m still mad about the stupidity and atrocities of the Iraq War, and about the folly and waste and corruption of America’s occupation of Afghanistan, and I’m going to be mad for a long time; Iraq and Afghanistan are my generation’s Vietnam.
Why do we keep accepting that stupid wars and ruined lives and grieving families weeping by the graves with folded flags are an acceptable cost of doing business? None of this is OK. We always make up comforting stories about “sacrifice” and “heroism” to make meaning of other people’s misfortunes. It’s a way to distance ourselves from the full horror of their incomprehensible suffering, and for us to avoid having to think about their families’ eternal grief. Maybe we should stop reciting these self-serving stories and start gazing into the abyss a little. Maybe if Americans really gave some thought to the hideous costs of war, we wouldn’t be so willing to start so many wars.
Happy Memorial Day. Let’s honor the memory of our war dead by refusing to send more people off to die in stupid, unwinnable wars.