Five Years in Iraq

So five years ago we invaded Iraq. Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died, more than 29,000 have been injured and the war has cost us roughly $500 billion. And the stat often left out of the news is Iraqi casualties. They’ve been estimated at over 1 million, though they vary wildly depending on when and where you get your numbers.

President George W. Bush has been speaking about the progress in the war on the anniversary:

“For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be the place where al-Qaida rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaida out” (Star Tribune)

Nevermind that if al-Qaida is in Iraq at all, they’re there because we invaded.

Sigh. War is a messy thing. It’s a bit embarrassing that the rationale for the war has changed over these five years, from the weapons of mass destruction that were never found to freedom as God’s gift (Jon Stewart noted if that if God gave us freedom, and we gave it to Iraq, then we’re superficial re-gifters—sometimes humor like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is the only way I can stand politics). I’m not so sure freedom is the God-given virtue we like to claim it is. I talked about this five years ago (all the way at the bottom) and about a week ago in side comments (again, all the way to the bottom of the comment) in a sort-of-related blog post. Freedom is great, don’t get me wrong. But you can live without freedom. I find it much harder to live without love, grace and mercy.

Reading through my other war-related blog posts from five years ago shows how conflicted I am about war (War is a Tricky Thing, A War Broke Out Today). I have a hard time deciding when war is justified and when it’s not. Just consider the case of a German fighter pilot from World War II who shot down and killed his favorite author (link via Kottke).

Reminds me of a comment from Bart Simpson: “There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II and the Star Wars Trilogy.”

I also appreciate the experiences of activist Shane Claiborne who visited Iraq in March 2003 when U.S. bombs were raining down (he shares stories from that experience in his Iraq journals and in his book Irresistible Revolution). He did it to stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in the process experienced some amazing grace. But as much as I appreciate his experience, it also seems too idealistic for the real world. It seems like it means standing by while great injustice occurs.

Sometimes justice can only come by force. And then you’re bringing death and pain along with the justice. You’ve got to figure out when the justice is worth the price. And it’s always easier in hindsight.

I just wonder how much longer the mess in Iraq will continue. How long until we see an end to the violence? How long must we sing this song?

13 thoughts on “Five Years in Iraq”

  1. “I’m not so sure freedom is the God-given virtue we like to claim it is…Freedom is great, don’t get me wrong. But you can live without freedom. I find it much harder to live without love, grace and mercy.”

    You can say that because you have never had to live without freedom.

  2. 1. No weapons of mass destruction were found, that is correct. But fighter planes, illegally sold weapons, and mass graves have been found in the Iraqi desert. What else might be there? And what was in all those trucks that booked to the Syrian border? Besides, Hussein was very ambiguous about his having WMDs. Everyone thought he did right up through the start of the war.
    Freedom for the Iraqi people was always a reason for the war.
    Oh, and don’t forget about the removal from power (and subsequent trial and execution) of a murderous thug who brutally quashed the slightest threat and gassed his own citizens.
    Why else??? Get oil revenue in the hands of the people. End the corrupt “oil for food” program that involved the French, Russians, and the UN!
    The rationale for the war hasn’t changed.
    Anyone who thought that we’d march in, claim victory, rebuild the country, install democracy, and be home in two or three or five years was deluding themselves. I said so in 2003, and I still believe that Iraq is a 10-15 year project that will almost certainly result in a permanent American military base.

    2. The Colonies enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world when the revolution occured. The colonists (those that weren’t loyalists) gave that up for freedom.
    Few mention today the rabid “protectionists” and “isolationists” that opposed America’s entry into WWII. FDR himself promised not to involve America in a foreign war-yet today it is almost universally seen as “a good war”.
    And what is your point about the Luftwaffe pilot who claims to have shot down de Saint-Exupery? Was he really his favorite author? Or is he drawing attention to his new book? In any event, if I’m defending my country or freedom, I really don’t care if the guy I have to kill wrote my favorite books.
    It may be dirty and painful, but oftentimes one must use force in order to defeat an enemy or protect people. In many cases, that is the only language your enemy will understand.

    3. This absolutely flabbergasts me: “Freedom is great, don’t get me wrong. But you can live without freedom. I find it much harder to live without love, grace and mercy.”
    Do you even realize what you’re saying??? Sure, you can live without freedom, but do you really call that living? Do you know what freedom is? Do you know what freedom gives you? Freedom allows you to speak your mind, to write what you choose for the publications you choose, to read the internet sites you choose, to practice the religion you choose (or any at all), to marry who you choose, to love who you choose, to decide if, when, and how many children to have, to make the money you would like, to work the way you’d like, to own a business if you’d like, to own a business without interference, to sell what you want, to buy what you want, to read what you want, to go where you want when you want, to live where you want, to live how you want, to eat what you want when you want, to be protected from your neighbors, to be protected from your government, to be protected from your military and police, to be protected from the judicial system, to choose your leaders, to get the quality and quantity of medical care you desire, to watch the movies and read the books and listen to the music you want, to buy the stupid crap you want, to throw away what you want, to waste what you want, to be as stupid as you want, to… Well, I could go on, but I think you get my point.
    Love, grace, and mercy would be awful hard to come by without freedom. Would you want to live elsewhere? Say, China? Cuba? Russia? Sudan?

  3. 1. It’s pretty clear we disagree here. Sorry.

    2. My point is the difficulty of deciding when a war is justified. If you read my old posts I’ve gone back and forth on it. So how do you decide when it’s worth going to war? When is deadly force justified? When is the price too high? I don’t have an answer.

    And my point about the German pilot was just the sheer tragedy of war. (And the pilot, Horst Rippert, isn’t coming out with a book that I’m aware of—not sure where you saw that.)

    3. Sorry to flabbergast you, Rick, but I thought by now it’d be pretty unsurprising when we disagree. ;-)

    To be honest, this isn’t an idea I’ve completely refined. I’m still thinking about it, and I’ll probably write a separate post about it later that hopefully explains my thinking better.

    So no, Limor, I’ve never had to live without freedom. Maybe that would change my mind. But I don’t think it changes my reasoning below.

    And let me be clear that I’m not saying freedom sucks. I’m not saying take away my freedom. I’m saying freedom is an incredible right and privilege, but I’m not sure if it’s the greatest thing in the world. You can have all the freedom in the world and still lose your soul. And you can have no freedom and still save your soul.

    My thought process comes down to a few basic points:

    a) People have lived, survived and thrived throughout thousands of years without freedom. Having freedom might have made it better and easier and saved some bloodshed. But the same can be said for electricity. Doesn’t mean electricity (as much as I enjoy it) is the greatest thing in the world. But try living without love.

    b) Again, I’m going to have to bust out my faith on you (notice a trend?–hope you don’t mind, but you did ask). Throughout the Bible I don’t see freedom as one of the great virtues. On the contrary, Christians are told to surrender their freedom for the benefit of others. Jesus didn’t come to make people socially or politically or constitutionally free. He came for something greater than that.

    And as much as freedom makes it easier to spread my faith (for which I’m thankful), it’s not required.

    c) It might be worth clarifying what degree of freedom we’re talking about here. Many of the countries you mention have some degree of freedom. Certainly not what we have here in the U.S., but I think it’s enough to still call it living. I wouldn’t say people in Cuba or Sudan or Russia or China don’t know how to live. I might not want to live there if I had a choice, but I think I could live there if I had to.

    Please hear my main point here: Freedom is amazing if you can get it, but I don’t think life is a lost cause without it.

  4. 1. That’s too bad, because while the main stated goal of the war was the removal of WMDs, the liberation of the Iraqi people and the bringing to justice of their oppressor were also reasons for the hostilities.

    2. You justify going to war by saving people’s (especially civilians) lives. Saddam Hussein was trying to develop, obtain, and use weapons banned by international agreement. Oh, and this is after he’d tortured, murdered, and imprisoned thousands of his own citizens, gassed towns within his own borders, lobbed unguided missiles at population centers in Israel, and flaunted international law. He didn’t deserve to be deposed by force??? How many more would he have killed?
    War is a tragedy, but a necessary one. Even if you lose a few great authors.

    3. a. Did electricity allow for the free practice of whatever religion a citizen chose? Freedom didn’t just grease the wheels and save some lives, it made greater society even possible. Including freedom to love and be loved whoever you may choose.
    b. For much of Christianity’s history (including when the bible was written), freedom didn’t exist. So how could it have been written into the bible as a virtue? And if Christians are told to surrender their freedom for others, doesn’t the idea of the greatness of freedom strengthen that sacrifice and make it even more significant?
    c. Degree of freedom??? Why should you expect or accept anything less than what you get in this country? Could you live in one of those countries and not be allowed to practice your faith? Could you live in one of those countries and not be allowed to speak your mind on the internet or elsewhere? Could you live in one of those countries and surrender your business and every dime you make to your government?

    Be careful what you think you can live with. Someday you just might have to, and if that makes you happy just because you have all the love you could want, well, more power to you… Maybe the secret police will understand.

    Life may not be a “lost cause” without freedom, but freedom grants you nearly everything you have in your life. Why else would so many have died in its pursuit over the years?

  5. 2. But when is the price too high (can the price be too high?)? Is the death of one million Iraqis (or whatever number, they seem to fluctuate wildly) worth the price? Especially when the Iraqi people didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter (it’s one thing to choose to sacrifice yourself and go to war, it’s another thing to force someone else to make that sacrifice–we weren’t exactly greeted as liberators). And I’m not trying to say life under Saddam was swell–it clearly sucked–I’m just struggling with the price. This kind of goes along with the whole freedom question.

    I think the other thing that bothers me is the way the U.S. acts like the world’s peacekeeper, but only when it’s convenient for us. If we’re really about spreading freedom and ending oppression, then why Iraq? Why not North Korea or Sudan? If Saddam was such a bad guy, why did we help him out in the 1980s when he was using chemical weapons against Iran? How do we decide when to stick our nose in something and when not to?

    And I’m not full of answers on this, I’m full of questions. War is a terrible tragedy, so I want to make damn sure it’s worth the price.

    3. Interesting thoughts here. Like I said, I’m still processing it, so thanks for giving me your perspective.

    a & c. The degree of freedom does seem important. I think we’ve been talking about this as if you have freedom or you don’t, but I don’t think it’s black and white like that. Freedom as we know it today in the U.S. may not have existed in the past, but people clearly had some measure of freedom–they lived, they loved, they raised their children, etc. And it was apparently worth living.

    Same deal today in countries that don’t have the freedom we have. There’s usually some measure of freedom. It’s not like outside of the U.S. everyone is a slave–there are degrees of freedom (and where people are slaves, that’s clearly very bad–like I said, I’m not saying freedom is worthless).

    b. Again, some measure of freedom existed back then. That’s an interesting comment about what giving up freedom means about the value of freedom. I’ll have to think about that. But my initial thought is that we’re still told to give up. We’re not told to give up grace or love or hope, probably because without those you’ve got nothing. But without freedom you can still have love, grace, etc.

    Like I said before, I do value freedom. It’s not like I’d be thrilled to live without it. I just don’t think it’s as foundational as you do.

    Maybe part of my issue is that you can never have complete personal freedom. We have to live together and one person’s freedom can infringe on someone else’s. And then you have to decide who trumps who and it gets kind of messy. I don’t think that minimizes freedom, but compare that to love. Loving someone (in a brotherly sense) doesn’t require that kind of debate.

    I’ll keep on mulling it over.

  6. this is such an interesting conversation!
    I’m not sure how these thoughts play into the discussion but I’ll just toss them out:
    -I have been noticing lately freedoms we don’t have here. Like, as Abby recently pointed out on her blog, the government could take away our right to decide what our kids learn. That’s a pretty big deal. Our government can check our library records, and other more important records without telling us. It would be illegal for me to sell bread I baked in my own kitchen. Anyway, thinking about these things that seem small now, make me value freedom more.
    -It seems that often revolutions for the sake of freedom don’t work. I’ve been wondering why it is that the French Revolution didn’t establish its goals of equality and fraternity, but just supplanted one ruling class for another, at least as oppressive one, when our revolution around the same time did. (If you don’t think about Native or Black people in the colonies.)
    -Why is it that faith seems to flourish in countries that aren’t free? I’m thinking of China and Vietnam, where conditions are so oppressive, and yet the church is vibrant and growing quickly?

  7. “-Why is it that faith seems to flourish in countries that aren’t free? I’m thinking of China and Vietnam, where conditions are so oppressive, and yet the church is vibrant and growing quickly?”

    My guess is that they want to believe that there is an afterlife that offers peace and other rewards, which they are not able to find in their daily lives. If you have a miserable life without any hope for a better future, it’s comforting to believe that there is an afterlife in which you can have joy and comfort.

  8. “-Why is it that faith seems to flourish in countries that aren’t free? I’m thinking of China and Vietnam, where conditions are so oppressive, and yet the church is vibrant and growing quickly?”

    It may also be that having faith and having hope and knowing that there is a better life to come gives people the strength to press on and persevere in this world.

    Having faith gives people a greater purpose, joy and enables them to see past their current circumstances.

  9. Done some more thinking on this, Rick (and everybody else):

    Rick: “And if Christians are told to surrender their freedom for others, doesn’t the idea of the greatness of freedom strengthen that sacrifice and make it even more significant?”

    If you’re saying that by sacrificing something we show the value of it (i.e., if my faith tells me to give up my freedom, then freedom must be valuable), then I don’t think I agree (though I could be misinterpreting you, so please clarify if I am).

    I think when we give something up or sacrifice it, it shows the greater importance of what we’re giving that thing up for. For example, my faith calls me to give up some personal freedom for the benefit of others. Therefore other people are more valuable than my personal freedom. Or when Jesus talks about laying down your life for someone–that someone is worth more than your life.

    Or for another example, someone is willing to die in war to ensure freedom. They value freedom more than their life.

    So if you are saying that Christianity’s call to sacrifice your freedom shows the value of that freedom, I’m not sure that entirely makes sense. (But again, please clarify if I’m misconstruing what you said).

  10. Let’s try to be as organized as possible here…

    2. First, The price can never be estimated beforehand. And calculus involving human lives is never easy. So, do you wait for all the numbers to come in? Or do you make an educated guess and take out the evil guy and work to rebuild?
    I’m not saying everything the US does or does not do is right or wrong. But just because the wrong thing was done in situation A doesn’t mean you should do the same thing in situation B.
    North Korea is an interesting case. You have a lunatic running a country full of starving people. He also has god knows how many chemical-filled artillery shells pointed at Seoul, an important ally and trade partner. And Japan is awfully close, too. It’s a tactically trickier situation-one move means millions of innocent civilians dead, no matter how quickly you can wrap up the conflict. Hussein, on the other hand, was much more isolated.
    I don’t understand Sudan. It’s been going on for 6 years. NOW the Useless Nations is getting around to putting together a “peacekeeping” force of various African troops. So, a bunch of guys in stupid blue helmets will stand around and watch the genocide continue. It’s shameful.
    In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was, simply, the “enemy of my enemy”. You should know that that guy isn’t necessarily your friend. However, the bigger evil at the time was Iran.

    3. Sure, you can live and love and raise children and all that happy stuff, but don’t you think that you should be free to make your own choices? I am saying that freedom provides you with enough that it makes many a sacrifice to get it worthwhile. And saying that you could live without something is dangerous. Not to join the tinfoil hat brigade, but that’s an invitation to have those things taken away. It’s a slippery slope from there to the things you really care about.

    Finally, you’ve made my point for me, even if you’re putting the cart in front of the horse again. In order for something to be a sacrifice, it, by definition (see dictionary.com), has to be valuable. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice. It wouldn’t be a sacrifice for me to give up mushrooms on my pizza because I don’t like mushrooms. You are saying that Christians should sacrifice their freedom for others. Others are so important that they are worth giving up vital, essential freedom for. Or, soldiers in war are sacrificing their lives for freedom.

  11. 2. And I guess that’s my point. The math isn’t easy, you can never know ahead of time, and either way a whole lot of people die. Hopefully you make the right choice and it’s worth all the death.

    That’s why the pacifists advocate for another way. I don’t agree with them, but I see the appeal of their argument. Like I said, I’m conflicted.

    I do realize North Korea is a pretty complicated case, but Sudan? We went into Iraq without the UN, so why don’t we do the same for Sudan? That’s when the math seems especially messed up to me.

    3. Rick: “…don’t you think you should be free to make your own choices?”

    Being free to make my own choices would be ideal, sure. But I don’t need ideal. I do need love, grace, etc. I keep repeating myself here, but my argument is that as great as freedom is, it’s not the greatest thing in the world. Maybe top ten, but not #1 (and no, I don’t want to rank things, I’m just trying to give a comparative example).

    Yes, the thing you’re sacrificing is valuable. But the reason you can sacrifice it is because the thing you gain is greater. Therefore for a soldier, freedom is greater than their own life. For a Christian, others are greater than freedom. You sacrifice something valuable to gain something even more valuable. So according to that logic, my faith says something is more valuable than freedom. (I’m not sure how I’ve made your point for you–am I missing something?)

  12. Rick & Kevin: I think both of you have made your point on the value of freedom and sacrifice.

    Here’s what I am reading from the comments – Rick, you seem to value your freedom above all else, therefore your freedom is worth the sacrifice of lives (i.e. war).

    Kevin, you value freedom but you don’t hold it as the highest priority in your life so you are willing to give it up in response to your faith.

    Basically, I feel like you both agree that something holds value if you are willing to sacrifice something else for it.

  13. Abby, yeah, that sums up what I was trying to say. Sorry I couldn’t put it more clearly. Rick, is she summarizing your position accurately?

    The one distinction I’ll make is that I think Rick was suggesting something has value if you’re willing to sacrifice it, while I’m saying something has value when you’re willing to sacrifice for it (the greater thing is what you gain from the sacrifice, not the thing being sacrificed).

    If Rick’s point is that by sacrificing something you show the inherent value in it, then yeah, I agree. Freedom is valuable. But that still doesn’t disprove my broader point. Christians are told to give up their freedom, therefore freedom is valuable. But that freedom is still less valuable than the thing we gain. Like I keep on saying, I agree that freedom is valuable, I’m just not convinced it’s the most valuable thing in the world.

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