American wars used to end decisively. When Americans came back from defeating the Germans after World War II, there were ticker-tape parades. When the last U.S. helicopter lifted off from Saigon, Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the image seared deep into the American psyche; it spelled an ignominious end.
For the first time in its history, America had been defeated. Its ally, South Vietnam, fell to communist hands. Several generations grappled with their nation’s foreign policies and the meaning of such “hell in a small place,” reexamining their role in the war, whether as participants and supporters, or dissenters and protesters. Vietnam changed the nation’s outlook on the world and its place in it. Since then we have been trying to kick the Vietnam syndrome. We have been searching for victory.
Fast forward to Dec 15, 2011.
The last of American troops made their way across the border to Kuwait from Iraq, a short trek and uneventful one. After nearly nine years, the United States declared the end of its military operations in Iraq. In a solemn note, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a low-key ceremony at Baghdad Airport, said, “The cost of war was high... blood and treasures of the Untied States and Iraqi people. But those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.” He then flew out to Turkey to attend a more important meeting on the other war where blood and treasures continue to be spent -- the one in Afghanistan.
The war in Iraq started with Operation Shock and Awe but ended in a fizzle and, some would argue, in an epic exercise in human futility. Neither victory nor defeat was immediately clear. Instead, with the last of the American troops gone (even as thousands of mercenaries are left behind), the meaning of the war is muddled, leaving in its wake more questions than answers.
Is this the victory we had hoped for since Vietnam? Is this what we could muster nine years after we invaded, supposedly to find weapons of mass destruction? Is Iraq truly a free and sovereign nation, given the unending conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims? And even if it is, was it worth the squandering of American blood and treasures, not to mention the killing of Iraqi civilians in “collateral damage”? Why liberate Iraq and not, say, North Korea? Why freedom and sovereignty for Iraq, if that was truly our purpose, and not, say, Tibet or Cuba? And if our national interest was at stake, have we protected that interest now that we have spilled precious blood and depleted our national treasury? Why Iraq?
Historians will bicker over the answers. What is certain, however, is that the war in Iraq claimed 4,487 American lives, and left 32,226 Americans wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. According to Iraqbodycount.org, the number of Iraqis who died from violence ranges between 103,000 and 114,000. The United States spent nearly $3 trillion fighting it, and with another exorbitant war still waging in Afghanistan, the result is a bankrupt U.S. economy. After all, in 2000, the U.S. economy had a $230 billion surplus. In 2011, U.S. debt is at $15 trillion and growing. That’s $1.3 trillion a year going South.
We closed a chapter in Iraq but the book of the War in the Sand is still being written. One is left with an unsettling feeling, a bitterness in the mouth. We lost more than we hoped to gain. It’s not defeat exactly, but in an age of perpetual war, it’s clearly no victory.
Our troops are barely out of Iraq, and we can’t wait to move on. News of the war’s end competed with news of the typhoon in the Philippines and the death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il, and the endless fights in Congress over whether to extend the payroll tax cut.
It’s as if there is a collective will to forget in this country. Let’s forget Abu Ghraib, where we tortured and sexually humiliated our captives. Let’s forget about the weapons of mass destruction, since we couldn’t find any. Let’s forget Haditha, where a My Lai-style massacre took place by our drunken soldiers. Let’s forget water torture being condoned and supported by politicians. Let’s forget extraordinary rendition where we kidnapped thousands of world citizens and flew them directly to secret prisons for interrogation. Let’s forget that there’s a Guantánamo where political prisoners are still being kept without due process. Let’s forget the 2 million displaced Iraqi refugees. Let’s forget all the lies and deceptions we’ve been spoon-fed.
Let’s just move on.
It is worth noting that as the war in Iraq drew to an end, Congress passed a defense budget at a whopping $662 billion with flying colors. There was no fighting to speak of in a Congress known for its bickering and quarrels. There was no controversy over spending that amount of money among elected officials otherwise known for their push to cut basic services. No doubt much of the funds will go to high-tech weaponry and better drones – a remote-control war that is increasingly replacing ground operations.
At last month’s Occupy Movement rally in San Francisco, before it too fizzled out, there was a lone placard that said “U.S. Out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” It stood out among a litany of grievances against the federal government over domestic issues: “Give Us Back our Dream!” “Give Our Homes Back!” “99% against 1%.” The outrage was against wealth inequalities in America, not what the empire is doing overseas.
The violent works and aggression of empires seem to depend proportionally on the complacency, and therefore tacit approval, of their citizenry. The war industrial complex needs to be fed. Victory may no longer be needed. As long as we can afford it, and even when we can’t, we seem destined to wage war.
For all of the horrors committed in the name of democracy, and all of the soul searching Americans did after the Vietnam War—remember that '70s mantra, “No More Vietnams!”—we failed to alter the bellicose direction of our nation.
Years ago, the poet Robert Bly argued that Americans have yet to experience ablution over past atrocities. “We're engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we're refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really eat our dark side,” Bly told Bill Moyers on national public television. “And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying -- if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life...then you will have to repeat them.”
In this sense, individual karma is not so different from that of a nation. Perhaps it is our country’s fate to keep repeating acts of barbarism until we come to some profound reckoning with our own heart of darkness.
NAM editor is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.
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