Iraq’s Future: Blood or Hope?

War in Iraq: Seven Years of U.S. Sacrifice, Image Courtesy: Nicholas P. Maurstad

Last One Out, Please Close the Gate

Last night, local time in the Middle East at a border crossing between Iraq and Kuwait, the last Stryker Brigade of American Combat troops rolled through the gates ending seven years of United States military operations.  The combat role is finished and has been turned over to the Iraqi military.  Although the Stryker Brigade is being processed for their first day in Kuwait, a substantial force of non-combat military personnel remain, some 50,000 we are told.

Is the war over?  Did we win?

Iraqi Women Grieving Killed Relatives, Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The hope is that the combat part of the war is over.  The so-called advisors will have many roles, from training to consultation, to building ongoing relations with the Iraqis as their very fragile government tries to survive just one day at a time.  What strategy will the insurgents play?  Only time will tell.

Did we win?  Now that’s an interesting question.  Can you win a war that was begun under false pretenses?  Can you win a war that was started by a president of the United States who chose to either believe pure fantasy about a huge cache of weapons that never existed to begin with, or knowing they didn’t exist, fabricated a horrible lie, colluding with the officers of his administration do give the appearance that we were in state of a clear and present danger?

Since the evidence points to the president’s lying to the nation, an act of duplicity for which he will never have to face justice and neither will the officers who assisted him in constructing this completely false rationale for going to war, how, then, can we say that we won the war?

Started on False Pretenses, Ended on…?

What we did was topple a regime. We sought out an admittedly tyrannical dictator who oppressed his people, and let his sons run amok terrorizing any one they wished, simply on a whim.  The fact that all three of them are dead was a gift to the Iraqi people.  But the fact the war we brought to them cost the lives, according to the organization, Iraq Body Count,  of between 97,267 and 106,146 civilians as well as the deaths of over 4400 military Americans.  Many of these troops were killed trying to dodge the bullets and  IEDs of a no-holds-barred civil war between rival tribal and religious sects of the same religion. This circumstance lasting years does not leave one with a sense that our goals lined up with theirs.  And on both accounts, those numbers do not include the number of those wounded, maimed, left without spouses, or orphaned.

Graph of Iraqi Casualties. Image: Iraq Body Count

The truth remains that despite the last Stryker Brigade rumbling across the border into Kuwait, the war is not over.  50,000 U.S. troops will continue on for years to come.  One Iraqi official stated: “If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,” said the Iraqi military’s most senior officer Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari last week.

Operation New Dawn is not the end of the war.  It is a new phase.  More Iraqis will die.  More Americans will die.  The jury of historical success or failure must remain silent for years to come.  But some facts are already self-evident, and

IED Explosion in Iraq. Photo: Wikipedia/PD

both the United States and the Iraqis have paid a terrible price for the decision of one man who out of spite, a twisted sense of revenge, incompetence, delusion, or unmitigated stupidity, started the war and conned a nation into going along with it.  While the two men and their henchmen remain free who we should have focused on like a laser beam to bring the down, to put a halt to the horrible

Bin Laden & al Zawahiri. Photo: Source Unkn

carnage they continue to spread around the world, a thousand opportunities were squandered by that administration to end the reign of terror those men and to pay for their murderous crime against the American people.  For that, George Bush, 43rd president of the United States, should be forever judged most harshly.

But What of Hope?

The old saying goes, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  But sometimes through dogged determination, one can take the worst possible situation, and through hard work and creative thinking and planning bring some degree of good out of the bad.

This will be the paradox of the Iraqi war.  For all the wrong reasons we invaded Iraq.  The people our leaders believed would welcome us instead hated us even more.  The people freed from the masochism of Saddam Hussein instantly split from the suppressed religious and tribal fractures that Saddam had used constant brutality to hold together to control his regime.  We unleashed a monster of internecine savagery, an unintended consequence for which our leaders were totally unprepared or had any contingency to deal with.  For years we, the great liberators, were literally trapped by the rage going on around us, trying to bring order in a nation so spiritually shattered that they wanted to kill us so that they could kill each other more quickly.

Despite all that…despite all that, the soldiers of a handful of countries that came to stand beside us, and our American troops, figured out ways to bring hope to the Iraqis.  A million mistakes were undoubtedly made, but we are a people, or should I say a coalition, that don’t give up that easily.  Yes, the other countries withdrew their forces, including the British, who had been the second largest contingent, before the fighting was truly over.  But to their defense, many of their leaders saw the obvious and clear turning of events in Afghanistan, and moved their resources to that troubled land, where now they continue to fight alongside of our forces as they attempt to save Afghanistan from another Taliban regime, capable of a brutality that exceeds anything Saddam could have dreamed of many times over.

As the combat troops left last night, the question very much remains whether Iraq, is truly ready to embrace the new dawn our military has so optimistically chosen to call the next phase of the mission.  The answer may be that it ends in collapse and civil war, where millions might die this time.  It is my prayer that will not be the result, but I cannot predict the future.  It appears though that the sheer hatred the Iraqis demonstrated against the U.S. at the time of the invasion has tempered.  Though the rivers of mistrust of Americans and that the majority are Christians, runs deep, as the years have passed and the combat operations and firefights have subsided, our soldiers have had the chance to show the humanity that exists beneath the uniform.

Iraqi Child Kissing U.S. Soldier. Photo: AP/John Moore

Perhaps the chance to be human, to show kindness and even respect, after so many years of fighting has turned out to be irresistible to both the Americans and the Iraqis.

If that is true, then there is hope.

Bush’s Surge: The Arsonist Calls 911

Peter Beinhart, a senior fellow in the Council for Foreign Relations, a so-called conservative think-tank, published an op-ed column in the Washington Post on January 18, titled “Admit It: The Surge Worked.”  The column was printed in my home town newspaper, The Register Guard, today, in the Commentary Section.  The RG’s title was “Admit it: Bush was right, and courageous.”

I beg to differ.

Beinhart opens with the following thesis statement:

It’s no longer a close call: President Bush was right about the surge. According to Michael O’Hanlon and Jason Campbell of the Brookings Institution, the number of Iraqi war dead was 500 in November of 2008, compared with 3,475 in November of 2006. That same month, 69 Americans died in Iraq; in November 2008, 12 did.

All right, assuming O’Hanlon and Campbell of the Brookings Institution got the numbers right, one could agree that the dramatic drop in deaths of both Iraqis and Americans is a good thing.  Whereas we can all probably concur that if no one had been killed in one month would have been best, in a nation where a war is being waged, a low casualty count is encouraging news.

Beinhart goes on to acknowledge that the post-surge improvements are fragile:

Is the surge solely responsible for the turnaround? Of course not. Al-Qaeda alienated the Sunni tribes; Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army decided to stand down; the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops. And the decline in violence isn’t necessarily permanent. Iraq watchers warn that communal distrust remains high; if someone strikes a match, civil war could again rage out of control.

To a reasonable person, who has been following the progress of the war in Iraq, this statement makes sense.  One phrase, however, is disconcerting:

the United States assassinated key insurgent and militia leaders, all of which mattered as much if not more than the increase in U.S. troops.

Beinhart appears to directly contradict himself, here.  He seems to imply that a strategy of assassinating the key insurgent leaders would have had the same effect as adding the 30,000 plus troops on the ground (although his punctuation use might be including the impact of  Qaeda on the Sunnis and al-Sadr’s holding back his Mahdi Army also contributed).  So, which factor should be considered the basis for the dramatic decline in deaths, the assassinations or the troops?  To what degree did the one depend on the other for that decline?  Finally, can Bush be credited for the success, especially, as Beinhart insists, making a courageous decision?

Beinhart believes so:

But if Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush’s record, his decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour.

This statement, questionable as it is on so many levels given the now historical context of the Bush presidency, is only the prelude to Mr. Beinhart’s fatal flaw in his whole argument:

Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.

As my grandfather used to say, this is about as “cock-eyed” an interpretation as you could possibly get.  Here’s why: Beinhart ignores his own half-hearted attempts to describe the events and outcomes of the Surge within the context of historical reality and how George W. Bush’s decisions set those events and outcomes in motion.  Beinhart believes his own set of assumptions crafted from his political ideology and draws a conclusion that any sophomore college student taking Introduction to Logic could poke holes in after binge-drinking the night before.

Here’s my analogy.

Two gangs from opposite sides of town have been feuding for many years.  One gang, known as the Bushies, whose leader is called Decider, has grown very large and powerful.  None of the gangs on the other side of town, known collectively as the Easties, are as big or as powerful, but they supply the Bushies with “bling” and the Bushies use lots of it, need lots of it, and know that the biggest source of bling is across town.  The gangs have been feuding for a long time, but the rumbles have never been very long and the casualties limited.  The bling has continued to flow to the Bushies pretty much uninterrupted.

One day, Decider decides the time has come to have the ultimate rumble and take down the Easties for good.  He decides to take down the Baghdaddies first.  The Bushies hit the Baghdaddies hard, setting their neighborhood on fire and seem to get the upper hand pretty fast.  But the gangs in the surrounding neighborhoods feel threatened, and though they know they can’t take on the Bushies directly, they send their gang members to infiltrate the rumble.  Sometimes they help the Baghdaddies fight back; sometimes they set more of the neighborhood on fire, hoping to prevent their own turf from being torched.

The Bushies are taking a lot of casualties, even though the Baghdaddies are being killed in droves.  The burning neighborhood grows and grows, killing more gang members from both sides than the gangs themselves.

Decider doesn’t waver in his decisions.  Keep going.  Finish the feud once and for all with the Bushies on top.  The bling must flow.

Flash point.  The burning neighborhood erupts into a firestorm.  Decider’s gang lieutenants surround him and deliver an ultimatum.  The firestorm will destroy them all.  They must have help to put out the fire.

Decider, against every fiber of his being, relents.  He dials 911 and calls for the fire fighters.  The flames are soon extinguished.  Decider and his supporters trumpet the success of the rumble, and praise Decider for his courage to call 911 as the finest moment of his time as gang leader.

^^^^^^^^^^^

There is a research principle that says when interpreting data, the most likely solution will be both simple and elegant.  It will be simple in that no other interpretation agrees so closely with the data, and elegant because it when applied it creates a satisfying unification with the other data in the theory.

And so, there is a conclusion that fits the evidence both simply and elegantly: The arsonist who first set the fire and then was forced to call 911 to save himself and an entire nation from being destroyed by those flames, Mr. Beinhart, was neither right nor courageous.

The Middle East: Once the Cradle, Now the Grave

The Cradle of Civilization.  Mesopotamia.  The Middle East.  I love its history.  I’ve read about it since I was a teenager.  My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1971, I was 18 years old and just graduated from high school.  Part of a Boise State University music tour, we visited the British Museum in London.  I headed right to the exhibition of the Royal Tomb of Ur.  I could have stayed there all day.
One face of the Standard of Ur.  British Museum, London

One face of the Standard of Ur. British Museum, London

(I have a neck tie with this motif woven into it I bought from the British Museum in 1995.  Beats the heck out of Paisley for my taste.)

Part of my fascination is grounded in my interest in biblical history in general.  My bachelor’s degree is in Biblical Studies, as well as having earned a Master of Divinity degree.  There are, however, many regions around the Holy Land and the Mediterranean in which I might have been attracted to.  For me it was Mesopotamia.  I’ve studied their ancient history, their pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Gilgamesh is my favorite hero-myth (who, by the way, was a historical figure, an actual king, ca. 2700 B.C.E.).  I’ve read it numerous times and have two of the most recently published translations on my bookshelf.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay the Bull of Heaven. Image from cylinder scroll.

Today, what was ancient Babylon and Sumer sits in Iraq and Iran.  I have no illusion that I will live to visit either place in a time of peace.

The Cradle of Civilization has become a grave.

5000 years of nurturing the very essence of what it means to be human is being crushed by a simmering slag of hatred and revenge, a cycle of violence like magma pushing to the surface that may erupt erupt with the force of an atomic mushroom cloud.  Literally.

Roger Cohen, New York Times columnist, captured this virulent culture of revenge:

History is relentless. Sometimes its destructive gyre gets overcome: France and Germany freed themselves after 1945 from war’s cycle. So did Poland and Germany. China and Japan scarcely love each other but do business. Only in the Middle East do the dead rule.

Their demand for blood is, it seems, inexhaustible. Their graves will not be quieted. Since 1948 and Israel’s creation, retribution has reigned between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements.  (NYT, 7 Jan ’09)

Cohen’s insight is so deeply troubling in its truth.  The violence, this time between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinians, defies all reason for common, everyday living; it defies everything the three Great Religions, which were born in this Cradle, teach about peace and how to treat one’s neighbors; and it defies the very essence of what it means to be human.   And that essence is that the living rule, not the dead.

Gilgamesh grieves over the death of Enkidu (whose demise was decreed by the gods) like today’s Middle East hard-liners and jihadists who wail and beat themselves over those killed by the godless.  Gilgamesh is so distraught he weeps by the corpse until maggots begin to crawl out of Enkidu’s rotting body, then vowing vengeance against the gods who robbed him of his most beloved companion, he sets out to bring them down from heaven itself. . .

Except that is not how the epic reads.  Gilgamesh is not bound forever in his grief over Enkidu’s death.  He does not engage in unending vengeance against his enemies. Given strength by the gods, he begins a quest for eternal life, and journeys to the home of Uta-napishti, the “Noah” of this Sumerian flood story, who with his wife, were the only two humans to survive.  And though Gilgamesh does not achieve physical eternal life, by the end of the quest he arguably is Homo sapiens modernum, Modern Man.  The dead do not rule his life.

(Homo sapiens modernum is my literary creation, not a paleontological species name.)

How then, do we understand the Rule of the Dead in the lands that gave us Gilgamesh?  How can that cycle be ended?  What will it take for the sword of atrocities to be broken, the blade shattered and unsalvageable, replaced by the Rule of the Living?  Gilgamesh lives in his myths, but his story, his true legacy to his living descendants has been lost.

Do not blame Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Do not cite their words, writings or teachings as justification for these atrocities.  Unnamed millions have already been butchered over the course of 4000 years, in the name of and by the hand of followers of all three.  The LORD God Almighty/Allah weeps that even today, millions who call on his name, do so as they kill, destroy, and ravage the innocent.

As long as the Death rules the living in the cultures of the Middle East, be it national, religious, political, or an aggregation of all three,  Homo sapiens modernum, that great rock of civilization, is being blasted away by relentless, unforgiving sand storms of dogma and loathing. One day all that will be left of Gilgamesh’s legacy will be featureless desert, devoid of all life, of all humanity, the howling winds oblivious to the countless millions who once tried to live just one day up to the potential of humanness he achieved.  It will be all in vain.  On the fields of massacre the blood they shed will be blown into nothingness.

Homo sapiens modernum will be extinct.   The Middle East will be perfect.  Sinless.  An unspoiled holy land.  No desecration of sacred laws.  No infidels to attack.  No punishment for the reprobates.  No honor to be defended.  No vengeance to be paid.  No revenge to be meted out.  No need for forgiveness.  No God to be avenged.  Empty and dead.

No amount of oil will change the outcome.

The perfect war will be over.

And the fate of those who followed the rule of Death?  Perhaps it shall be this chilling image, recounted when Gilgamesh  goes to the Netherworld in search of Enkidu.

Gilgamesh: Did you see the one who cheated a god and swore an oath?

Enkidu: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: He cannot get near the places in the Netherworld where the libations of water are made, he drinks in thirst.

G: Did you see the citizen of Girsu at the place of sighs of his father and mother?  (Girsu was a city-state in what is now Iraq.(1))

E: I saw him.

G: How does he fare?

E: Facing each man there are a thousand Amorites, his shade cannot push them off with his hands, he cannot charge them down with his chest. At the places in the Netherworlds where the libations of water are made, the Amorite take precedence. (2)

G: Did you see the sons of Sumer and Akkad? (3)

E: I saw them.

G: How do they fare?

E: They drink water from the place of a massacre, dirty water. (1)

This fate for the desert people of the Middle East who endlessly kill to proclaim the rule of the dead, to be denied water, the very stuff of life–first, for one’s blasphemy, second, to have to wait subserviently while foreigners drink first, and third, to be forced to drink filthy water in a place that is ritually soiled and impure for all eternity–is indeed the deepest level of Hell.

Gilgamesh is speaking.  Are we, all Homo sapiens modernum, capable of listening?

Gilgamesh and King Akka of Kish, ca. 18th Cent. B.C.E.

(1) Text: “Bilgames and the Netherworld,” in: Andrew, George (1999) The epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 190. [Note: “Bilgames” is one variant of Gilgamesh.]

(2) This is a bit spooky–The Amorites are associated with the West, and their kingdom, ca. 2000-1600 B.C.E. encompassed  modern Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestine Authorities, Lebanon and NE Egypt.  Source: Wikipedia.

(3) Sumer, one of humanity’s most ancient regions dates from at least the 6th Century, B.C.E., and was clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that flow through modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Its most famous city is Ur (in Iraq).  Akkad was a Sumerian city but later established Babylon (in Iraq) when its empire rose to power.  Source: Wikipedia.