The US concluded nine-and-a-half years of war in Iraq last week. How does one add up this enormous expenditure of blood, treasure and national credibility?
The known is clear, but it is equally important to take into account the unknown what would have happened had the US not gone to war there.
Among the many knowns:
Some 2.8 million Americans served in Iraq.
Of these 2.8 million people, approximately 30% will suffer from physical or mental disabilities for the rest of their lives.
The unemployment rate for American veterans of Iraq is a full two percentage points higher than the general unemployment rate.
More than 4,400 Americans were killed in Iraq. These wounds will go on forever. Likewise, for the many more thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of Iraqis and others killed in the war.
Dictatorship in Iraq is gone, but only a very shaky democracy has replaced it. Surely, the goal of the war a robust democracy in Iraq, which would lead the way for democracy all over the Arab world has not come to pass.
Ethnic and intra-Muslim religious tensions in Iraq remain. Mass killings, or even civil war, not to mention lesser forms of persecution and discrimination, are a constant threat, just over the horizon.
The US entered this war based on an outsized cultural and pragmatic ignorance culturally clueless as to the depth of the ethnic and religious differences within Iraq, and pragmatically unprepared to fashion everything from a democratic society to an electricity grid.
So much for the knowns.
It is impossible to measure the cost or the wisdom of a war only by the knowns.
What if the US had not gone to war in Iraq? That, of course, is an unanswerable question, but it is still an illuminating one. Consider:
What if the US had not entered the war against Hitler? In retrospect, we could sit back and add up all the American lives lost during WW II, and say we could have saved those lives. Knowing what we know about Hitler, we could also reasonably conclude:
Hitler would have come even closer to wiping out the Jewish people than he did. Without US intervention in North Africa, there would have been no adequate defense against Hitlers march on Palestine. It is likely that there would have been no Israel, no refuge for the fledgling Jewish community there, and no refuge for European Holocaust survivors, almost all of whom would likely have been tracked down by Hitlers hordes and killed.
Hitler would have taken all of Europe under his sway and turned it into the ultimate, racist Aryan nation. Without US intervention in Europe, it is highly unlikely that Britain could have withstood Hitler. Perhaps Russia also would not have withstood Hitler without the enormous US investment of men, weapons and money in the war.
In other words, had the US not intervened in WW II, Americans would likely have said: For not paying the price that we should have, we have put our entire nation and future at risk.
Would we say the same had we not intervened in Iraq? While it is impossible to know for sure, we do know that Saddam Hussein had no qualms about waging war on anyone, about committing genocide, about shooting missiles at Israel, about using biological weapons and about seeking nuclear weapons.
The fact that, as of the specific point in history when the US attacked Iraq, Saddam Hussein had not built nuclear weapons does not alter the fact that he lusted after them and would have done all in his power to build them.
After all, he tried in 1981, before Israel destroyed his nuclear reactor. It is likely that had the US not made war in Iraq, the world would now be faced with a race for nuclear arms between Iraq and Iran.
In the nature of things, the known is far more compelling than the unknown, the estimate, the guess, the prediction, the supposition. But this does not mean that the tally sheet on the almost decade-long war in Iraq can be completed only with reference to the knowns. Certainly not when the center of that war was a man, a dictator, a ruthless murderer, a beast, a wild man like Saddam Hussein and the cruel system he enforced and the incendiary internal divisions he intentionally sharpened.
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News