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Americans try to move on, forgetting Iraq War

Andrew Lam | 1/4/2012, 7:08 a.m.
President Barack Obama greets military personnel who recently returned from Afghanistan, Friday, May 6, 2011, at Fort Campbell, Ky. AP /Charles Dharapak

American wars used to end decisively. When Americans came back from defeating the Germans after World War II, there were ticker-tape parades. When the last U.S. helicopter lifted off from Saigon, Vietnam, on April 30, 1975, the image seared deep into the American psyche; it spelled an ignominious end.

For the first time in its history, America had been defeated. Its ally, South Vietnam, fell to communist hands. Several generations grappled with their nation’s foreign policies and the meaning of such “hell in a small place,” reexamining their role in the war, whether as participants and supporters, or dissenters and protesters.

Vietnam changed the nation’s outlook on the world and its place in it. Since then we have been trying to kick the Vietnam syndrome. We have been searching for victory.

Fast forward to Dec. 15, 2011.

The last of American troops made their way across the border to Kuwait from Iraq, a short trek and uneventful one. After nearly nine years, the United States declared the end of its military operations in Iraq.

In a solemn note, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a low-key ceremony at Baghdad Airport, said, “The cost of war was high ... blood and treasures of the Untied States and Iraqi people. But those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”

He then flew out to Turkey to attend a more important meeting on the other war where blood and treasures continue to be spent — the one in Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq started with Operation Shock and Awe, but ended in a fizzle and, some would argue, an epic exercise in human futility. Neither victory nor defeat was immediately clear. Instead, with the last of the American troops gone (even as thousands of mercenaries are left behind), the meaning of the war is muddled, leaving in its wake more questions than answers.

Is this the victory we had hoped for since Vietnam? Is this what we could muster nine years after we invaded, supposedly to find weapons of mass destruction? Is Iraq truly a free and sovereign nation, given the unending conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims?

And even if it is, was it worth the squandering of American blood and treasures, not to mention the killing of Iraqi civilians in “collateral damage”? Why liberate Iraq and not, say, North Korea? Why freedom and sovereignty for Iraq, if that was truly our purpose, and not, say, Tibet or Cuba? And if our national interest was at stake, have we protected that interest now that we have spilled precious blood and depleted our national treasury? Why Iraq?

Historians will bicker over the answers. What is certain, however, is that the war in Iraq claimed 4,487 American lives, and left 32,226 Americans wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. According to Iraqbodycount.org, the number of Iraqis who died from violence ranges between 103,000 and 114,000.

The United States spent nearly $3 trillion fighting it, and with another exorbitant war still waging in Afghanistan, the result is a bankrupt U.S. economy. After all, in 2000, the U.S. economy had a $230 billion surplus. In 2011, U.S. debt is at $15 trillion and growing. That’s $1.3 trillion a year going south.