In the desert,
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
— Stephen Crane
On August 2, 1990, I was a newly minted high school graduate counting the hours until my freshman year of college began. I was 18 years old, madly in love for the first time, and totally unaware that Iraq was invading Kuwait that day. Five days later, on August 7, President George H.W. Bush ordered troops to Saudi Arabia, the first of millions who would rotate through that region over the next 27 years.
I remember things happening fast during that long-ago August. An Army recruiter visited my house just before I left for school. He sat in my living room and told me Iraq’s military was massive, that Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than Adolf Hitler, but if I joined up now and entered the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, I wouldn’t be near combat for at least four years. Besides, he said, this war will be over by then. I remembered my father, what volunteering for Vietnam did to him, and politely declined the proffered papers.
Twenty-seven years. My father’s war only lasted 25. Only.
Twenty-seven years of war in Iraq, or preparation for war, in one permutation or another. I sometimes wonder if that recruiter remembers what he said to me about how long it all would last. I’d bet he remembers; I was certainly not the only young man he ran that number on as the push toward war swelled like a blister over the following months. Nearly three decades later, how many graves at Arlington and elsewhere have been filled with the remains of those who were told it would be over before they got there, and believed it? I’m sure he remembers. Wouldn’t you?
For the historical record: There was the initial build-up of Desert Shield, followed by Desert Storm and its lethal cloud of depleted uranium. There were the sanctions/bombing Clinton years when we blew up sewage treatment plants and denied children vaccines in an ongoing act of biological warfare. Then, there was the second Bush invasion based on unprosecuted criminal lies, the long massacre of occupation and torture, the Obama occupation and drone war, the drawdown, the draw-back-up because of ISIS. Now, there is the current trembling mayhem of air strikes, car bombs, militias, factions, confusion and an overwhelming ocean of refugees.
No one in politics or the media seems capable of recognizing this series of events for what it truly is: One large event with a tangible beginning, a middle and no end in sight. There is no dicing it up. It is all of a piece, one long war, the longest by miles in our nation’s history. The most recent invasion and occupation saw nearly 5,000 US service members killed and close to 40,000 wounded. That casualty count does not include the many thousands of veterans who have returned home after multiple deployments suffering from a variety of maladies caused by prolonged exposure to chemicals, combat and carnage.
As for the civilian toll in Iraq after 27 years of war, no one is precisely sure. “You know,” said Gen. Tommy Franks just after George W. Bush’s portion of the war began, “we don’t do body counts.” Reliable estimates place the number in the hundreds of thousands, with others claiming a million or more lives have been lost. Thousands died during the opening of the war, with thousands more perishing in the intervening years from air strikes, polluted water and depleted uranium poisoning. UNICEF reported in 1999 that some 500,000 Iraqi children died due to deprivations caused by our sanctions. Factional strife caused by the war has killed even more. Millions of people remain displaced from their homes.
There is also the financial toll. The latest numbers are almost a year old, but the best estimates of the monetary cost of all these years of systematic butchery, when combined with the expense of simultaneous war in Afghanistan, reach into the trillions of dollars. There are the trillions we’ve already spent, and the trillions we will continue to spend as we accrue interest on the unpaid loans that financed the war to begin with. After sending millions of soldiers, sailors, Marines and air force servicemembers to war, many on multiple occasions, the VA will be dealing with an astonishing and expensive human workload for many decades to come.
Twenty-seven years. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, at least. Trillions of dollars squandered? Hardly. This was not an accident. It was, and continues to be, a spectacular payday.
Every bullet fired, every bomb dropped, every missile launched, every gallon of fuel burned, every HumVee destroyed by an IED, every helicopter shot down, every boot on the ground, every private military contractor’s paycheck, every MRE, every Kevlar vest, every pill, every helmet, every uniform, every body bag, every coffin and every American flag draped over it throughout all those many long years of war represents money taken from you and given to a small group of people you’ll never meet. They hide much of that money offshore so it won’t be taxed, and use the rest to buy politicians who tell you the country is broke, we’re about austerity now, so no more school lunches for your kids and no more Medicaid for your mother.
It took 27 years, but one of the greatest heists, one of the greatest redistributions of wealth in the history of humanity has taken place right under our noses, and the nation of Iraq stands in ruins. Here at home, the ruins are not nearly as vivid, but they are still very present. Just look at us. Look at what war has done for us, what we have allowed to be taken from us, one day at a time, for almost 30 years.
We have enough firepower to kill every living thing on Earth down to the last lichen, but we can’t tell the difference between reality television and reality. Education and expertise are disdained, there are more guns than people, and the police are armed to the teeth with Iraq war castoff weaponry when they confront people of color and women protesting in the streets to save rights they thought they’d won 50 years ago.
Imagine not being a nation steeping like a teabag in its own cowardice after creating so many blood enemies through 27 years of war. We are so afraid now that a high spokesman for the president of the United States can stand before the assembled press and spout white nationalist dogma about the creed on the Statue of Liberty because, he says, immigrants and refugees are dangerous now. The truth is, a lot of them are running for their lives after we blew up their homes and killed their families — but we won’t let them in the country, because they scare us.
Imagine, on the other hand, thousands upon thousands of well-resourced schools with plenty of teachers and textbooks to go around, a health care system whose chief purpose was actual health care, fully funded medical research curing diseases like diabetes and ALS, coast-to-coast rail so fast you’re in San Francisco almost before you left Boston, a rebuilt infrastructure that reimagines our national capacities as it invigorates our economy, a world-leading alternative energy industry that drinks deep of wind and sky even as it cleanses both.
Imagine millions of people, here and there, unharmed by the ravages we have inflicted upon them, and upon ourselves. Imagine all those who would still be alive.
We could have all that and more, right now, but for 27 years of war. We have not been robbed of our future. We have been robbed of our present.
I’m certain that recruiter remembers.