Five years of war in Iraq. The milestone passed on Wednesday, parading by the public consciousness as if it were a weary regiment of soldiers moving slowly -- step, step, step – in languid march looking not beaten but surely bloodied and bowed.
It is as if we are seeing the work of war as mere drudgery. And yet there is nothing menial or casual about this conflict that has caused the loss of almost 4,000 American soldiers, 175 British, and another 134 persons from various countries, according to the statistics.
Critics argue about the accurate accounting of monetary cost, but most peg the figure at more than $500 billion. It will of course be higher but, quite frankly, the public’s furor at the expense is more theatrical outrage than definitive concern. In fact, more people in this country can cite numbers from the current national economic dilemma and investment banking troubles than the price of the war.
We know the price of gasoline down to the penny, and a recent poll showed that more people knew the name of the head of the Federal Reserve -- Bernard Bernanke -- and that of the president of Venezuela -- Hugo Chavez -- than knew the exact number of American soldiers killed in Iraq.
That number stands at 3,992, or at least it did on the anniversary date.
If we had been able to divert our attention from the political bravado and promise (and perhaps hollow intent) of Democrats Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama about troop withdrawals, we could see it’s already under way. About 20,000 troops are scheduled to be withdrawn in July. After that happens our troop level will stand at 140,000.
And progress is actually being made in Iraq today because of the surge movement about nine months ago.
With many aspects of our lives, longevity brings more clarity but not with this war. No. This war daily becomes more vague, fuzzy and shrouded in fog. Why would we expect differently? This is the age of instantaneousness. Burgers in 60 seconds or we give you a free shake and fries, a world where someone can phone you virtually anywhere, on a mountaintop or out at sea, and guess what? You will answer. We know what we want and we want it now. The war and its results have just not been fast enough for us.
And these current, everyday expectations of presto-quick results and immediate, quantifiable details of success or failure created the illusion that the American people would be delivered the McDonald’s version of war when we attacked Iraq five years ago. War is only immediate in the ferocious insanity of battle, the dramatically violent explosions that are almost like fireworks except they are not Fourth-of-July delights but pyrotechnics of devastation, destruction and horrific killing. And if the battle is immediate, the effects of war are long-lasting. In this country we still have lingering sympathies and biases from our own Civil War, which ended 140 years ago. Perhaps we never know with grim preciseness or broad measure the success or failure of war.
The war in Iraq, for the first four years, by almost all accounts failed on most levels, with the exception of ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. In the last year there has been improvement that even the most virulent of war critics begrudgingly acknowledge.
Neighborhoods are being rebuilt and violence has been declining in year five. How’s that for a quick, succinct report card?
Actually this progress occurred in less than a full calendar year. It started with the deployment of 30,000 new troops in Iraq in June.
Leadership has improved with Gen. David H. Petraeus in charge, Ryan C. Crocker as U.S. Ambassador, and Robert M. Gates as Secretary of Defense.
President George W. Bush takes responsibility for the war as he should, but much of the blame for the failed policies in the first four years should be placed at the historic doorstep of former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Bush shows a stubborn leadership and conviction in his assessments of the past and future for the war that is admirable. Resolute, he has still altered the war plan, made hiring and firing decisions, and shown nimble flexibility in trying to recover from mistakes and failed strategies.
Iraq today is different from the Iraq of the past.
“I came to Washington to describe what we’re doing,” Charles P. Ries, Crocker’s senior deputy in charge of reconstruction and the Iraqi economy, said during a visit last week, according to a Washington Post report. “At almost every meeting, somebody wants me to describe what we used to do. ... I know why people raise these questions, but I don’t feel it’s something I can speak to. The times were different then.”
“Today’s policy is fundamentally different from the impatient mind-set of 2003, in both lowered U.S. expectations and a less imperious approach to dealing with Iraqi authorities,” wrote the Post reporter.
“In those days,” Ries said in the Post, “we decided what (the Iraqis) needed, and we built it.
“Today,” he said, “Iraqis are asked what they want, and then told that while the United States will help, they will have to pay for most of it themselves,” according to the Post.
As we look back five years, among the biggest mistakes made early in the conflict was the weapons of mass destruction debate and debacle, and the promise of a war of shock and awe. Our expectations as a nation were not met. In fact, they were reversed.
Instead of Iraq being shocked, we were the ones who were stunned. The war did not end in 60 days. And now awe has been replaced by a collective yawn. We’re tired of all this. Shock and yawn.
We have been on sensory overload for years. Graphic photographs and video of the dead and the dying leave us frigidly blasť. Our immediate economic worries about falling real estate prices and escalating $3-plus gasoline, added to an intriguing national presidential primary, brings out the worst of this country’s national attention deficit disorder.
And so we seem casual and benignly bored about the five-year anniversary. The war has been worse than we expected and is now going better than we know or acknowledge.
This should be clear to us all as we pause and measure what has been lost and gained. A vicious animal despot is gone from power, and the Iraq people have been given freedom by the work of men and women, even though in this country we believe it is a God-given birth right.
Given that freedom, the Iraqi people can do with it what they want, even if it means killing one another while they sort out centuries of tribal and religious rivalries.
I prefer sanguinity and hope to numbness.