After Iraq, Support the Troops

The last convoy of U.S. troops departed from Iraq last week, marking the end of a nearly 9-year war. I am grateful that the Obama Administration did not extend the troop presence any longer, despite harsh criticism from neoconservative Republicans like Mitt Romney, who would have preferred we kept troops in Iraq almost into perpetuity. I was never a supporter of the war, even prior to its commencement. The consequences of the war have been far reaching and disastrous for the U.S. on many levels. Some of the most important consequences are as follows:

    • By removing the old Iraqi regime, we also removed Iran's arch-enemy in the Middle East and irreparably altered the balance of power in the region in favor of Iran. Iran, a well-known state-sponsor of terrorism and a country intent on developing nuclear weapons, is now the regional hegemon and is more powerful than ever before in large part because of the Iraq war.
    • By invading Iraq, a country that never attacked or threatened to attack the U.S., we lost all credibility with the Muslim World and helped radicalize many Muslims. Note that the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq did not exist prior to the Iraq invasion and neither did several other Iraq-based Islamic terrorist groups. Many Arab and Muslim scholars and prominent figures recognized that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was a justified response to the 9/11 attacks because al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and the Taliban had given them safe haven. The specter of the U.S. invading a country that had no link to the 9/11 attacks and had not ever attacked the U.S. proved to be more than ample evidence in the minds of many Muslims that the U.S. was in fact waging a war on Islam and not on terrorists. Radicalization and terrorist recruitment thrived as a result and many of the foes our troops faced in Iraq were people who otherwise would not have become militant extremists.
    • We spent over a trillion dollars on the war with another two trillion or so projected to be spent as a result of the war (on things like long-term medical care for wounded vets, repair/replacement of ruined equipment, and so forth), at a time when the Federal Government was cutting tax revenue and spending recklessly, creating the dangerous deficits that have contributed to our fiscal crisis today. There is no other war-time in our country's history where our government drastically cut taxes. To the contrary, our country typically raised taxes during war-time, asking for shared sacrifice to help finance our war efforts. There is no question that had we not invaded Iraq, our economic situation would not be as bleak as it is today. There are a lot of domestic priorities that could have been funded by that wasted trillion dollars.
    • Our credibility internationally was tarnished in many ways by our rush to an unnecessary war of choice. We made ourselves look foolish by presenting inflated and uncorroborated intelligence as justification for the war. We made ourselves look childish by adopting "freedom fries" and "freedom toast," and essentially giving some of our friends the proverbial middle finger after it was clear that France and other allies would not go along with the pre-emptive war. We made ourselves look corrupt and retributive when we awarded no-bid contracts for reconstruction and other Iraq war-related services to firms with close ties to the Bush-Cheney Administration and only opened "competitive" contract bids to members of the "coalition of the willing." We made ourselves look petty and ignorant when the Bush Administration-run Coalition Provisional Authority screened U.S. citizen job applicants by asking irrelevant political questions, such as applicants views on abortion and gay marriage.
    • I think the most significant consequence of our war of choice in Iraq is the human toll. We now know that nearly 4,500 U.S. service men and women died in the war. Thousands of troops from our allies, and from coalition civilian and contractor personnel also perished. Around 30,000 U.S. troops were wounded in the war, many severely so. Many of these wounded service members will carry significant disabilities with them for the remainder of their lives. Then there is the incalculable cost of the war to the Iraqi people, who we were supposed to be helping. Most estimates put the number of civilians killed in the hundreds of thousands.

It is sad to consider that the war may not have even been necessary to remove Saddam Hussein. The Arab Spring has resulted in the removal of three Arab dictators so far, with Bashar Assad of Syria possibly following suit soon. It is quite plausible that the Arab Spring could have caused some significant changes in Iraq.

During the height of the war and at the peak of George W. Bush's reign in America, I was particularly perturbed by the false notion that one had to agree with the cause in order to support the troops. This idea was promoted by many prominent conservatives and plenty of active Mormons. Bill O'Reilly memorably said it was all Americans' duty to "shut up" and support President Bush once the war commenced. He went on to impugn the patriotism of all those who protested against the war. That, for me, was a very sad time for American political and social culture. (Many conservatives conveniently decided that it wasn't necessary to "shut up" and support war when President Obama ordered U.S. air forces to participate in the NATO coalition effort that targeted Muamar Ghaddafi's forces in Libya.) I firmly believe that we do need to support our troops. And the idea of supporting the troops goes far beyond shallow expressions of solidarity with a politician (even the president), or even surface-level utterances and gestures of gratitude and admiration in the form of yellow ribbon bumper magnets.

Expressing gratitude to those who serve is of course important, but I think the idea of supporting our troops should involve concrete actions that improves the lives of those serving our country, even in small ways. I think of people volunteering to put together care packages for those deployed overseas as one example. Donating time and money to charities that serve veterans is another important example and buying a meal for a service member headed home or overseas is yet another good example. I think it is particularly important to aid severely injured vets and their families, and the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. One charity that I particularly like to donate to is the Wounded Warrior Project, but there are many other good charities out there. If you know a wounded vet or a family member of someone who gave their life while serving our country overseas, then you likely have even more opportunities to make a difference on a very personal level. The idea of supporting our troops should also include ensuring that we only send them into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary, when all other viable options for solving a vital national security challenge have failed. That clearly was not the case with Iraq as we rushed to war even before the UN WMD inspection teams could finish their investigations. The inspections continued after the U.S.-led invasion and multiple thorough inquiries, sponsored by the U.S. as well as other countries and organizations, all concluded that Iraq had ended or destroyed its WMD programs as demanded by the UN Security Council during the 1990s.

I was at BYU during the tumultuous debates and protests that raged across the U.S. in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. I clearly remember the few protesters on BYU campus who wore "no war in Iraq" armbands and several campus-sponsored debates and forums about the war. The most memorable was a debate between two BYU professors, one for and one against the war, held in the SWKT auditorium. Valerie Hudson passionately argued in favor of the war while another professor whose name I don't remember argued against it. I don't remember any of the specific arguments they made; however, I vividly recall the audience, made up of all students, boisterously cheering when Professor Hudson spoke in favor of the war and loudly booing when the other professor argued against it. I was disgusted. So-called Christians- Latter-Day Saints- should not be that excited about the prospect of sending their fellow citizens into harm's way and the inevitable destruction of innocent human life that invariably results from any war, no matter how many precision-guided munitions are used. I wondered how many of those in the audience who wildly cheered for war would willingly volunteer to join the military and deploy into combat. I wished that the U.S. Army had been able to set up a recruiting booth at the debate so that all of those who cheered for war would be given the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their support for war by enlisting.

Nonetheless, the war is over. Our troops performed all that was asked of them, leaving Iraq the most stable it has been since the war began in 2003. As the troops return home, and for the families whose soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines will never return, we should pledge our continuing support, our charity, and our gratitude. And we should never, ever, again allow politicians to hastily mislead us into a full-scale war of choice.

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