Today, the US officially declared the mission in Iraq to be over, nearly a decade after it begun. Having come of age when it first started, it feels strange to imagine it is actually, even though it’s been more-or-less outside the public consciousness for some time.
I wonder what will happen now or further down the road. Iraq is a mess on so many levels. Its economy is weak and unequal, its politics are fractious and corrupt, violence and infighting are still everyday realities, and millions of citizens remain traumatized, bitter, or distrustful of each other. How do you fix a country where nearly everyone has PTSD everything looks bleak?
Around 4,500 American troops were killed, another 30,000 were wounded, and an estimated 1 million had served during the course of the conflict. About 150,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed, and the number may be higher. None of those scars, be they physical or mental, will heal any time soon – nor will the broader geopolitical impact (deep-seated mistrust of the US, a strengthened Iran, and so on).
I wish there was more I could say, but frankly, like most Americans, I want this tragic chapter in our history closed. I should be so lucky as to be able to do that – plenty of returning veterans, many of them around my age, certainly won’t anytime soon, nor will the average Iraqi, left with an uncertain future and poor leadership. Arguably, they’ll all be damaged for good, and the larger ramifications of the conflict – which can only be speculated – may go on for generations (comparisons to Vietnam are too cliché to merit any more mention).
I’d like to think that all the blood and money that went into this effort will pay off, that Iraq, still loosely a democratic republic, will eventually thrive and stabilize for good. I’d like to think that the returning troops will be hailed as heroes, rather than be met with perfunctory respect coupled with sympathy. I’d like to believe our capacity to do good things in this world will be validated, rather than viewed with intense suspicion both domestically and abroad. The optimist in me still holds out hope that there will be some silver-lining to all this – Iraq is comparatively freer after all – but even so, the question will remain: was it worth it? At what cost did any unambiguous accomplishments, if they materialize, come?
If history is any guide, there will never be a universally accepted answer to these questions: we’ll keep debating, speculating, and disagreeing for as long as we exist. Scholars and historians will try to learn from it, or derive lessons for any contemporary foreign policy debates with which to compare. We’ll keep explaining, rationalizing, and according blame long after those involved have passed on. People will continue to find events and consequences that they can trace back to that fateful decision to invade. As with all momentous episodes, the “what ifs” will dog us forever.
In the end, I’m just glad it’s as close to over as it’s going to be (there will never be total closure) and that my fellow citizens can come home. I hope they can adjust to society, which is currently going through a bad spell, and recover from wounds both clear and unseen. In spite of the grim precedent, I hope the Iraqis can come together, pick up the pieces, and form a great nation befitting the inheritors of the cradle of civilization. They paid a great toll, largely at the hands of those who remain to fight the current government. I hope that someday, these kinds of things will stop happening. Interstate wars have mercifully been exceedingly rare since the end of World War II, but even a single one is more than enough pain and sorrow to bear, whatever the reasons.
I understand that’s quite a lot of hope to have, especially as Afghanistan remains unresolved, and the track-record for collective amnesia is disheartening. For what it’s worth, I wish everyone who has been directly affected in some way or another much peace and solidarity.
I’ll leave everyone with some images to reflect on.