Mission Incomprehensible

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

War needs a why.

Yes, war is ultimately senseless. But soldiers will not fight and die without a reason. “Their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die,” wrote the poet Tennyson in The Charge of the Light Brigade. But soldiers rarely volunteer these days simply to serve as cannon fodder. The public, too, will not support wars—send their children, make economic sacrifices—unless they are convinced of a clear and present danger.

So there must be a mission: in two senses of the word. There’s the military mission (seize the capital, secure the ports), and then there’s the higher mission (for God, for king, for country).

As we mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, the United States faces mission breakdown at both levels. Soldiers are not sure why they are fighting. And U.S. voters are not sure about the larger purpose of the American occupation of Iraq. At the military level, with a civil war raging, Mission Accomplished has turned into Mission Impossible. Even worse for the message-obsessed Bush administration, the campaign for Iraqi democracy looks more dubious by the day. The Iraq War has become Mission Incomprehensible.

To commemorate the start of the war’s fifth year, FPIF has launched an Iraq Focus with nearly two dozen articles that address the many effects of the conflict—in Iraq and the United States, on troops and society.

Mission Mess

Four years ago, the military exulted at the seeming ease at which it accomplished its mission. The Iraqi army crumpled, the first phase of the war lasted six weeks, and U.S. casualties were relatively limited. But the massive looting, the disastrous de-Baathification, the human rights abuses committed by U.S. troops, and the appalling number of Iraqi casualties all undermined the argument that Washington had scored a quick victory. As Iraq descended into chaos, the U.S. military could no longer clearly state why they were there, whom they were fighting, and whose interests they were defending.

The embarrassing lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the failure to tie Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida constituted mission failure on an entirely different level. As Stephen Zunes argues in The Failures of Democratization, the substitute rationale for war—installing democracy in Iraq—was never a convincing one.

“Democracy from the outset has been more of a self-serving rationalization for American strategic and economic interests in the region than a genuine concern for the right of the Iraq people to democratic self-governance,” Zunes writes. “The U.S. government, despite much rhetoric about democracy, imposed its own political structures on Iraq, agreed to more representative procedures and institutions only when pushed to do so by the Iraqi people, presided over the breakdown of civil order, and violated the human rights of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens.”

What about the more general mission of helping Iraqis build better lives for themselves? If not democracy, perhaps the United States at least provided a measure of security, particularly after so many years of the arbitrary and tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein.

Not so, argue Adil E. Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker in Iraqis in Despair. The fighting against U.S. troops and between ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups “creates as many as 100 or more deaths per day. Thirty-four thousand Iraqis were killed in the conflict in the last year according to the Brookings Institute’s Iraq Index, confirming that Iraq is already in the midst of a civil war.” According to polls, “The majority of Iraqis reported that the presence of the United States created more conflict. The sentiment is clear: if left alone, Iraqis themselves will determine the consequences of this conflict instead of the actions of foreign troops.”

Iraqi women, in particular, have borne the brunt of the deteriorating situation. “Similar to the humanitarian crisis during the sanctions period, women suffer particularly as they are often the last ones to eat after feeding their children and husbands. They often watch powerlessly as their often sick and malnourished children do not obtain adequate health care,” writes Nadje Al-Ali in Iraqi Women Four Years After the Invasion.

The lack of democracy, the upsurge in insecurity, and the deteriorating human rights situation have led many Iraqis to vote with their feet. The ensuing refugee crisis has been yet one more sign of the failures of U.S. policy. “The UN estimates that 2.6 million Iraqis have fled violence in their country since 2003 and at least 40-50,000 more Iraqis are leaving their homes every month,” writes Kristele Younes. “Two million have fled to surrounding countries, while some 1.8 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. Middle Eastern countries, Syria and Jordan in particular, have shown great generosity in welcoming Iraqis in the past three years, but that welcome is wearing thin.”

The Home Front

During the Vietnam War, pundits routinely complained about the treatment that returning soldiers received from the American public. This time around, the shabby treatment is being meted out by the U.S. government and the Veterans Administration.

“Soldiers who have served—or are serving—in Iraq are killing themselves at higher percentages than in any other war where such figures have been tracked,” writes Stacy Bannerman in A Perfect Storm: PSTD. “According to a report recently released by the Defense Manpower Data Center, suicide accounted for over 25% of all non-combat Army deaths in Iraq in 2006.” She continues: “Despite the high risk factor, many soldiers who seek treatment are not receiving urgent care. ‘When he went to the VA, they didn’t have room to treat him that day,’ said the mother of Jason Cooper, an Army Reservist in the Iraq War. Jason hung himself four months after coming back to Iowa.”

The groundswell of public anger certainly contributed to the November election results. And the new Congress has already changed course. Writes Travis Sharp in Moving the Chains, “Congress has introduced more than 50 pieces of Iraq legislation during the first two months of 2007. By comparison, only 57 resolutions on the Vietnam War were introduced during 1971 and 1972 combined.” But resolutions haven’t translated into concrete actions. “While speaking out against Democratic foot dragging on Iraq is necessary in order to maintain the sense of urgency, incrementalism is the modus operandi of American foreign policy, and anti-war activists must remain unified and encourage moderate Republicans—especially Senators—to join the anti-war camp and press for the return of U.S. troops as soon as possible.”

Key to this anti-war movement is youth. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, explains, young people are not going to automatically throw themselves into the peace movement. “We need to go out there and meet them where they are,” he told interviewer Erik Leaver. “Reintroduce them to the peace movement, reintroduce them to what it means to be an activist, reintroduce them to what it means to be involved in social justice and social action. Our Hip-Hop Not War tour is taking from the cultural aspect, using the hip-hop generation or what we sometimes call the dream generation.”

Into Africa

The Pentagon was always a big fan of multitasking. Its mandate during the Cold War, after all, was to be able to fight two full wars simultaneously. So, even with the Iraq mission in tatters, there’s money enough to pursue other missions.

As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes in Into Africa, the Pentagon has been meddling in Africa with the stated purpose of “promoting security.” But after helping Ethiopia invade Somalia, running war games in the oil-rich Niger Delta, and pouring money into a counter-terrorism initiative in North Africa, the Pentagon has more than just a finger in the pie. Washington is up to its elbows.

“The White House’s plans for Africa, which reach far beyond the Horn, are part of a general militarization of U.S. foreign policy,” Hallinan writes. “A recent congressional report found that ‘some embassies have effectively become command posts, with military personnel in those countries all but supplanting the role of ambassadors in conducting American foreign policy.’”

And finally, Michael Shank writes in Going Green about how the U.S. government is, on global warming, still so far out of it. U.S. governors are pushing forward on regional targets to reduce greenhouse gases. Over 400 mayors are striving to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol standards for their municipalities. But the European Union has been perhaps the most aggressive. “In March,” Shank writes, “the EU committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% (from 1990 levels) by the year 2020. And if non-EU nations like the United States respond with similar climate change legislation, the EU will raise their reduction to 30%. EU leaders also pledged renewable energy targets comprising 20% of the total energy consumption by 2020.” Only Congress and the administration have failed to move off the dime.

We certainly don’t need a “why” to embark on a mission to save the planet from irrevocable climate change. We only need a will.

FPIF, March 19, 2007

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