There are the images.
Where Vietnam gave us the Huey helicopter landing among rotor-washed palms, Iraq’s icon is the Humvee rumbling through a dun-colored landscape of desert. The arc of the American experience in Iraq can be told through the collage from hope to barbarity, from swaggering invasion to quiet departure.
Those pictures capture
the early celebration-by-defacement — the ebullient tearing down of the murals, statues and mosaics of Saddam Hussein, at times aided by U.S. troops pleased that the initial thunder run to Baghdad had ended swiftly.
But the joy passed quickly, subsumed by the wholesale looting of the capital and the beheadings of those captured during a nascent insurgency, by the Shiite uprisings and the Sunni Triangle, by the haunting evidence of American-supervised humiliation and torture inside Abu Ghraib, and by the bodies of Blackwater contractors hanging burned and beaten from a steel bridge over the Euphrates.
Beyond the images, the war has left a legacy of lasting effect on American politics and culture. There is the federal debt, inflated by an estimated trillion dollars spent on the war, along with more than 4,400 dead troops, a generation of young amputees, a fragile ally in the heart of the Arab Middle East and narrowed ambitions for American power.
“History will judge the decision to go into Iraq,” President Obama said this week
, then listed the achievements secured by the more than 1 million American troops and civilians who have served there since March 2003.
Those gains — an emerging democracy in an oil-rich Arab nation, freedom for millions of Iraqis from a dictator’s brutal whimsy — remain vulnerable in a heavily armed country with a light rule of law. But Obama will celebrate them Wednesday when he travels to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to spend time with some of the troops and military families who bore the brunt of the nearly nine-year war.
A contested premise
The second front of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” was never the popular one.
The premise was contested from the start, a new doctrine of preemptive war tailored to an era in which stateless militants could batter the once-distant United States with the everyday tools of modern society — commercial jets as missiles, cellphones as triggers, trucks as bombs.
The neoconservatives at the Pentagon and in the West Wing argued that the invasion of Iraq was necessary. Hussein, the longtime U.S. nemesis who once tried to kill then-President Bush’s father, was openly encouraging Palestinian militancy at a time when Hamas was blowing up cafes and pizzerias in Jerusalem. A model of democracy in the Middle East — imposed by the U.S. military — would inspire change in its neighbors or frighten them into reform.
Besides, Hussein had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to put down a Shiite rebellion that the United States failed to support after pledging to do so — a broken promise that helped fill the mass graves of Hilla, south of Baghdad. And he supposedly had an arsenal of some of the world’s nastiest weapons that had to be found and destroyed before they ended up with al-Qaeda.