The media has been littered over the past week with reports concerning the departure from Iraq of the last US combat troops. On the margins of that coverage, and to a greater extent in the think tank press, questions have been posed about the conduct of the war, its costs, what may have been achieved, whether or not it is really over, and what lies ahead.
More remarkable, however, is the speed and extent to which the Iraq war, like a bad dream the morning after, has faded from public consciousness.
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They created devastation, and called it peace.
Much the same could be said about Iraq in September 2010. By the time the shock and awe campaign began in the spring of 2003, it had become clear that in the USA, foreign policy had in large part become an instrument of war, rather than vice versa. The State Department’s comprehensively detailed, 1200 page, 13 volume dossier on post conflict planning was reputedly tossed into the trash can by then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. He apparently preferred to take his interpretation of the revolution in military affairs for a test drive on the road to Baghdad. When they arrived, coalition soldiers succeeded – barely – in stage managing the toppling of monuments and guarding the oil ministry, but stood by as other government offices and museums were savagely looted.
As the liberators came to be seen as occupiers, rapid dominance soon gave way to a vicious insurgency. Among the outcomes, democracy, security and stability were conspicuously absent.
Not all wars end with results inimical to their stated objectives. Nor are political solutions in the face of intractable differences always possible. Yet there was, and remains something very wrong here. Mesopotamia represents one of the cradles of civilization, and those items stolen or smashed were part of the world’s shared cultural heritage. Much of what was lost may never be recovered. And that is barely the start. The human and financial costs of the war have been staggering. Iran has emerged as a primary beneficiary of the intervention. The region is less secure. Jihadi recruiters have had a field day. Perhaps most significant in geo-strategic terms, and notwithstanding an improvement since 2008 in the image and reputation of the USA in some parts of the world, the unipolar moment of global American economic and political leadership has been brought to a pre-mature end. The ascent of the BRICs has been hastened.
The calamity in Iraq stands as another fine example of blowback, rather like the twisted tale of the Mujaheddin morphing into the Taliban, but on a greater scale and with quite possibly even graver consequences.
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This is not the first time, of course, that war has trumped diplomacy, leaving catastrophe in its wake. In the past century there have been many instances, Iraq included, where a reliance upon non-violent alternatives to the use of armed force would likely have produced vastly superior conclusions.
With that thought in mind, some years ago I was walking down an idyllic country road in West Sussex, UK. Mouse Lane runs from the edge of Steyning village up through the grounds of Wiston House, home of the Wilton Park conferences, to the Chanctonbury Ring, an Iron Age fort which sits atop the gentle, and in places densely forested South Downs. Amidst the brambles and primrose, I quite unexpectedly came across a verse, engraved in a stone tablet mounted unobtrusively in an embankment on the side of a tiny intersection. I jotted it down:
I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summer time, and on the Downs how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. the wind comes off the sea and, oh, the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,
When every shell may spare or kill, and God alone knows which,
And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair.
My God! I never knew till now that those days were so fair,
And we assault in half an hour and, – it’s a silly thing-
I can’t forget the narrow lane to Chanctonbury Ring.
This powerful little poem was written by Lt. John Stanley Purvis on December 5th, 1915, only minutes before going over the top and into the battle of the Somme, the most protracted and senseless slaughter of World War I.
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For reasons very different from the case of Iraq, the so-called Great War is also fading from popular memory. Still, the War To End All Wars has always fascinated me – the scope of the violence, the vast human toll, and the bloody-mindedness – if not sheer stupidity – of the political and military leadership at the time. It is deeply disconcerting that international policy is still so heavily militarized, and that diplomacy remains in the margins almost 100 years later.
We will return to these themes, in a different context, presently.