The War in Iraq: At What Cost?

The president asked the nation to "turn the page" last night. But what makes me so sad this morning is the enormous human cost of the war in Iraq; and how a massive number of people and families -- in America and Iraq -- have had their lives ended or changed forever because of this war and will have a hard time turning the page. So was the war in Iraq worth the enormous human cost?
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The emotion that grips me this morning, after watching President Obama's speech last night and listening to the commentary about the "end of our combat mission in Iraq," is a deep sadness. Even in the Oval Office speech last night, the mission of the war in Iraq still wasn't made clear -- and it never was.

This was a war started on a false pretext -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them or hand them off to terrorists. At the time there were other ways to determine that and respond accordingly (international inspections were underway), but we went to war instead. The Bush Administration's fearful predictions of "mushroom clouds" went along with insinuations that Iraq was somehow involved in 9/11 despite the fact that it was not. That Saddam Hussein was a terrible and brutal dictator was well known, but bombing his cities and people wasn't the only way to deal with him, as many church leaders pointed out at the time. And, of course, the U.S. hadn't made war on the countries of every other dictator who was as bad, or worse, than Saddam. But those dictators weren't sitting on deserts full of oil -- always the unspoken reality of our foreign policy and wars in the Middle Eastern region.

Of course the "shock and awe" of America's military might easily defeated the army of Saddam Hussein, but the post-invasion strategy was horribly botched, a complete misunderstanding of Iraq's religious and ethnic conflicts was soon revealed, incidents of prisoner abuse and torture shamed America's image around the world, and the impact of the U.S. deciding to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq served to inflame global opinion about the United States, and caused us to lose the moral high ground we had around the world after the vicious attacks of 9/11 (remember that?). And the strategic consequences of neglecting Afghanistan and inadvertently strengthening Iran because of the U.S. war in Iraq are now being discussed by the political talking heads.

But that's all history now, and the president asked the nation to "turn the page" last night. But what makes me so sad this morning is the enormous human cost of the war in Iraq; and how a massive number of people and families -- in America and Iraq -- have had their lives ended or changed forever because of this war and will have a hard time turning the page.

It is precisely because of the terrible human cost of war that Christian leaders and churches are supposed to ask the hardest questions about it. And many did about the war in Iraq. Let's remember the fact today that most Christian leaders and churches around the world rejected the arguments for America going to war against Iraq and opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation. They applied the peace-making ministry of Jesus and the rigorous historical criteria for what constitutes a "just war" and found the Iraq war painfully lacking adequate moral justification. But the United States government didn't heed the warnings and the objections of the international faith community, even in America, where political opinion was split about 50-50. The global church was right in rejecting this war from the outset, and the government of the United States was wrong for fighting it.

The human cost of the Iraq War is literally breathtaking. I went to a website last night that has documented the number and published the pictures of those who died, 4,400 so far. I couldn't stop looking at their pictures -- so young -- so many husbands and wives, fathers, mothers, and those still almost children themselves. I kept thinking about how much they will be so sorely missed by those who loved and needed them. Then I listened to so many stories of the 35,000 wounded, many who lost their arms and legs, their strong young bodies, their long-term abilities, or their emotional and mental health. I winced when I heard there are about 18 suicides each day among returning veterans.

As people of faith or moral conscience, we must also consider the cost to the Iraqis. Even conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian causalities are now over 100,000 with some estimates peaking over 1.3 million. It's sad that there were no websites I could find with their pictures. But just imagine them and all the families and children whose lives will be forever changed.

The unbelievable financial cost of the Iraq war also has clear human consequences. What could that $1 trillion -- $745 billion in Iraq and $330 billion so far in Afghanistan -- have done instead of war? How might the eventual $3 trillion in estimated costs that include long-term consequences and veteran's needs have been better used?

On a graphic produced by the National Priorities Project, the numbers continue to fly by and rise up each second at an amazing speed. I couldn't help think of all the things that we lost because of spending those precious resources on this war, such as not re-building our crumbling infrastructure, not making critical improvements in our schools, not paying for enough teachers, police, and firefighters, not getting health care for children who don't have it, and not moving to a clean energy future as quickly as we need to. How about helping to prevent this recession instead of helping to cause it? Or helping to create millions of jobs and preventing millions of foreclosures? Again check websites that list the trade-offs we have made for the War in Iraq.

I watched the arguments on the talk shows about the continuing political instability in Iraq, the lack of a functioning government six months after an election, the deep worries about continuing ethnic division and conflict. The president said it was up to the Iraqis now. The truth is that it always was up to the people -- both in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the mistake of "empire" is the belief than endless war and occupation can change those political realities. Leading by example would have been better, offering a whole array of non-military help to Iraq and now Afghanistan would have been more effective -- and so much less costly.

The president rightly praised the sacrifice of so many in the military, many of whom served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, at great costs to their families. But as has been said countless times, the troops always end up fighting in war mostly for each other -- defending and helping their brothers, and now sisters, in often heroic ways. Many also showed concern and compassion for the Iraqi people among whom they have lived and fought. But they didn't decide to fight this war; politicians made that decision and they went. To praise them now for their sacrifice is not to praise this unnecessary war, for which none of them should have been sent in the first place.

So was the war in Iraq worth the enormous human cost? My answer is no, the results are definitely not worth the cost. That is both a political and a theological statement; but it is primarily a moral judgment -- which is exactly what those of us in the faith community are supposed to make about wars.

But today, it matters less about who was right or wrong about the war in Iraq. Today I feel little celebration in America for the "end" of our combat mission in Iraq. I feel mostly relief ... and sadness.

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