The report on the radio’s hourly news break was brief and perfunctory, no longer or more emphatic than an account of the latest triple-digit stock market swing or celebrity drunk-driving arrest, but the message was notable nonetheless: Early Sunday morning the last American troops had left Iraq in a convoy to Kuwait. The Iraq War was over, at least for the United States.
Looking back over nine long years at the various kinds of shock and awe that attended the war’s beginning, and recalling the angry debate that divided the country in the war’s early years, the reaction to the war’s end seemed oddly muted. The New York Times duly noted the occasion on its web site, but underneath stories about a man’s arrest for a fatal Brooklyn elevator attack, wrangling in Congress over the payroll tax cut extension, and health-crazed residents of Loma Linda, Calif., protesting a new McDonald’s. At the other end of the internet spectrum the Drudge Report trumpeted National Football League games, chaos in Egypt, and a winter storm hitting the plains, with all mention of the war gone from the page by day’s end.
The public’s reaction was just as understated. No yellow ribbons adorned the trees along the nation’s streets, no banners welcoming home the conquering heroes were hung over big parades. Flags flew only in the usual places, and nowhere was heard the martial music of John Philip Sousa. Conversations in barrooms, churches, and living rooms were more likely to turn to football contests or the weather than to talk of the war. Much like the old soldier of General MacArthur’s farewell address, the war seemed to have never died but just faded away.
The president had marked the war’s end four days earlier with an address at Fort Bragg, N.C., but as is typical for presidential speeches nowadays the world would little note nor long remember what was said there. The oration had little of the legendarily soaring rhetoric that Obama is somehow known for, and instead was marked by the very ambivalence that seems to have quieted the entire nation’s response to the war’s end.
Obama didn’t tell the respectful audience of soldiers that their Iraq mission had been a “dumb war,” as he had said nine years earlier in a speech that made the then-obscure Illinois state senator into a national liberal hero and launched his bid for the presidency, but neither did his press secretary back away from that characterization in a later news conference. Obama did say that the last soldiers would leave Iraq “with their heads held high … Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people,” but never did he use the word “victory.” He honored the sacrifices of the half-million or so men and women who served in the country, the 30,000 who suffered injuries, and the nearly 4,500 who gave all, but he left it to the historians to say if the war had been worth the price they paid.
The historians had already made up their minds by 2006, long before the “surge” strategy succeeded in stabilizing the country, when a survey of that highly politicized profession found 82 percent of them had already decided George W. Bush was a failure. Truth-seeking scholars are no more inclined to change their minds than anyone else, so we expect the judgment of the first slew of books of war on the war will conform neatly to academia’s prejudgments. History, on the other hand, will take all the time in the world to render its verdict, which often differs markedly from the instantaneous opinions of mere historians.
Already many of the passionate arguments that were shouted in the early days of the war look very different in hindsight . The hawks who promised a “cakewalk” of a war looked prescient when Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly toppled by a marvel of military power and precision, then foolish when the occupation bogged down in deadly sectarian violence, but may yet be vindicated in their gritty determination to slog through to some sort of victory. The claim by a famous filmmaker that the insurgents would deservedly win, and by a prominent Senator that in 2007 they had already won, now seem discredited, as do the countless conspiracy theories about “blood for oil” or permanent occupation of the Middle East, although events might yet provide the critics with some postbellum catastrophe that they’ll claim to have seen coming all along.
The passion of those arguments had largely faded away by the war’s end, of course. Most Americans don’t know anyone who died or was injured in the war, many don’t even know anyone who has served there, and as the casualties declined after the surge and the war was less often mentioned in the news, attention naturally turned to the economic troubles at home. By the 2008 election, when the big-time media’s chosen candidate had opposed the surge and was pitted against the strategy’s most prominent congressional advocate, the topic was almost completely dropped from the national discourse. Depending on what happens next in Iraq, the administration will either claim credit for leaving Iraq to the Iraqis’ wise hands or point out that it was merely following Bush’s predictably wrong Status of Forces Agreement by pulling out and letting those foolish Iraqis sow their own destruction, but at this point both sides of the political divide will likely be happy to let the war be forgotten.
History casts a jaded eye on human events, and might someday regard the Iraq War with the same disinterest as today’s public. Even from the vantage point of the present moment the war can be seen as a only a skirmish in the global war against terrorism, which in turn is just the latest battle in a centuries-old war between Islamism and the West. Each of the nearly 4,500 American lives lost during the nine years of the Iraq War was an unspeakable tragedy that must never be forgotten, but the dispassionate scales of history might weigh them against a single afternoon at Antietam or Normandy and find it a surprisingly small total.
We humans don’t live in history, however, but in the present, and at this moment we should eschew such cold calculations and regard all the nation’s warriors with a warm heart. What happens next in Iraq is up to the Iraqis, and that such a possibility exists demands a nation’s gratitude and respect for the men and women who gave them that rare and precious opportunity. We must honor the soldiers who aren’t coming back as martyrs to our nation, and welcome those who do return with praise and noisy affection. There should be parades, ribbons, banners, speeches, songs and statues. There should be more than the deafening silence of the moment.
— Bud Norman