by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Professor, Depts. of Political Science and of International Relations, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
Since it is sometimes difficult to read a scan from a newspaper, here is the full text:
Seven weeks from now the last U.S. soldier will leave Iraq. Over nearly nine years, hundreds of thousands have preceded them; and 4471 have died of the experience. From Marines Major Jay Aubin, who fell to enemy fire on the very first day of combat, March 20, 2003, to Army Captain Shawn Charles, who perished October 23, 2011, each deadly casualty has brought pain. But it is pain that has been felt separately; in small circles we grieve. With Veterans’ Day 2011 looming, it is long overdue that we take clear measure of the Iraq project overall, and of our attitudes toward the sacrifices made by American military personnel and their families.
We each know what we think is important about Iraq. The pride of swift battlefield victories and the gloat of “mission accomplished” long has faded to become fuzzy memories. What endures is a generation inclined to skepticism, their doubt borne of misstated threats and years of messy counterinsurgency. About the particular details, well, most of us ceased to listen or to care several years back. This is a symptom of a larger affliction. We live now in an age where policy problems of all sorts are managed, but never are solved. Health care, jobs for the unemployed, renewable energy: our national attention flits on to the next issue without our political system ever solving anything.
In such a reality, polls seem the most efficient way to know the collective mind. An ABC/Washington Post survey in early November reported that 62 percent of us view the Iraq War to have been “not worth fighting”; only 33 think it was worth it. In such an atmosphere, it’s not hard to see why few parades have greeted those who served when they arrived stateside. They deserved, and deserve better.
But America loves a winner. So we fete not our Iraq War heroes but the zero casualties of the recently concluded Libya operation. Time magazine showcases our Secretary of State and her new doctrine of “smart power;” gritty sacrificing is “so 2000s.” Apparently, paying attention to inconvenient facts is also passé. Another high quality 2011 poll asked Iraqis how they felt about America, and opinions there were more evenly divided: 48 percent thought we were “right” to have invaded in the first place, 39 percent thought that we were “wrong” to have invaded. Forty-two percent of Iraqis thought we have “liberated” their country, and an equal sized share think we “humiliated” it. But by a margin of more than 4 to 1 (78 percent to 17 percent), Iraqis believe that attacks against U.S. armed forces in 2011 were “unacceptable.”
Among some Iraqis, Americans still are heroes. They are most concentrated in one part of Iraq, the northern Kurdish areas: 98 percent there view attacking Americans as “unacceptable,”82 percent think we “liberated” their country, and 87 percent feel we were “right” to have invaded in the first place. The Kurds, after all, are those who did, in fact, die by the thousands when they were gassed by Saddam Hussein’s deadly chemical weapons in 1988, and who held little doubt he would do it again if we had not ended his mad regime.
Ah, but mad regimes in our times only are shown as targets of sunny crowds of Arab Spring protesters. Saddam, too, is “so 2000s.”
We suffer collectively from self-induced and highly selective loss of memory. No matter how widely believed among Americans is the “mistake” of the Iraq War, Iraqis still get to form their own opinions about the fate of their country. What some of them are saying might surprise us. I had the privilege to hear Baram Salih, Prime Minister of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan speak last week where he said “I must thank America and its soldiers for the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq. Americans paid the ultimate price for our freedom.”
Prime Minister Salih remains alert to the dangers still posed by extremists, but is confident that his emerging democracy will be able to deal with them effectively. Yet, beset by many problems, Americans are turning inward, and away from our soldiers elsewhere who still are at risk. Unready to hear Salih’s thanks for our country’s positive contribution to Iraq, why do so many prefer to be certain we have failed?
ABC/Washington Post poll (Nov. 6, 2011): http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/behind-the-numbers/post/public-opinion-is-settled-as-iraq-war-concludes/2011/11/03/gIQADF2qsM_blog.html
Poll of Iraqis’ views (March 15, 2011): http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/GoodMorningAmerica/Iraq_anniversary_poll_040314.html
Prime Minister Salih quotes: notes taken by the author, Gordon Bowen, at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, Arlington, VA, Nov. 4, 2011.
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