Decade in Review: On the Past Ten Years and Leaving Iraq

By Michelle Railey

October 22, 2011

It has been a decade since the towers fell on 9/11 and the U.S. began its war on terror by entering Afghanistan.

A strange, sad decade of a so-far bewildering and uncertain century: ten continued strange years later, with domestic and economic quagmires that seem to match the foreign policy perpetual nightmares, we remember back. We entered the 2000s amped up over Y2K, which was a punchline well before the second day of 2000. And then, the year, the years, turned strange: the bombing of the Cole, the Gore/Bush election and month without an election result, and then 9/11. We didn’t see it coming. And we’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since.

And our ways of making sense of it seemed strange and bewildering, too. Magnetic U.S.A. ribbons on the vehicles of America, the Patriot Act and questions of security vs. rights. Freedom fries. Color-coded terror alerts. The Department of Homeland Security. Airport body searches, shoe-bomb plots and plastic explosives in underpants and a general impression that we should be watchful, suspicious, even, because whatever 9/11 was, it wasn’t done and there would be more to come.

But most of all, there was war. First in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. And now we strike in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan. And with this global War on Terror came things I would never have imagined my country would do, questions I never imagined I would have about liberty, morality– identity, even. Guantánamo Bay prisoners of war or “war” that we can neither try nor release and Abu Ghraib. Torture, rendition, the term “black site.” The use of contractors and mercenaries like Xe/Blackwater. So many U.S. troops repeatedly deployed, injured, and killed. So many wounded, terrified, and dead civilians in countries whose histories are longer and sadder than our own. Predator drones. Occupation and destruction. And the unparalleled discomfort at all of it, perhaps most recently signified by the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, without trial but with the certainty that these were probably “good” things. But still, we, I, believed our principles mattered more than our safety; that they were worth sacrificing for. Besides, the risk, the potential price was too great. And so it has been this decade: rights and wrongs intermingled and a vague sense that we were doing our sorry best but the world had gone mad and there was pain all around. Life has always been ambiguous and complex, but the decade of war following 9/11 has made it viscerally so.

Ten years of war without American precedent. And we are finally, finally leaving Iraq. I would like to say that this is cause for unmitigated celebration. I was opposed to that invasion from the first garbled whispers of it. With every act of bravery in pursuit of an unspecified and uncertain goal, with every casualty, with every news cycle and power outage and civil unrest and coyly-named strategy, I supported the troops and hoped to god that something good might come to the Iraqi people. And I believed none of it. Iraq was euphemistically mixed in with the spectre of terrorism, the global game of Whack-a-Mole, the many-headed hydra. And all I have been able to see is, no matter how well intentioned, we were part of that hydra, too. I think we still are.

Saddam Hussein is gone. We helped that. Perhaps that saved lives. We stabilized (temporarily?) a violent war-torn country. But I don’t feel solace in any of those things. It is impossible to tell how many of the “problems solved” were caused by our actions (“war-torn Iraq” but didn’t we do a fair bit of that tearing?); impossible not to feel that for every good built, something else was destroyed. We invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, nothing to do with our immediate security. And we probably did some good along the way but what do we owe them for the well-intentioned and misguided bad? Electricity, clean water, stability, security, reparations?

Yes. But that’s not in our capabilities to provide, if we’re honest. So, we leave, which seems to me the next best thing to do since we cannot realistically leave with an Iraq that was better than we found it or an Iraq that is at some imaginary baseline of what it would have been had we never went in there in the first place. So we leave, I hope, with some honesty and integrity, some humility and apologies.

Already there are very loud voices in the political realm decrying our departure from Iraq on the basis of unrealized victory. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) this week even pulled out the “Iraq owes us repayment” card at the CNN GOP nomination debate.

There was never the chance of victory in this. Historian Simon Schama once likened the Iraq invasion to the U.S. taking a hammer to a bead of mercury. And that seems pretty much right to me: no victory in that action, just a million beads of toxicity to stop before it harms too many people and an act that can never really be undone, only accommodated, mitigated, apologized for, and learned from. And, to take a different view, there is to me a small nobility, a small and unconventional victory in finally standing up honestly and saying good-bye to one part of this madness by leaving Iraq.

I’ve tried before to express my feelings about these wars, the soldiers, the events of the past decade. It’s always excruciating. It always falls short. It seems, in fact, the stupidest act in the face of things; an insult to the bravery of our soldiers and diplomats and the memory of all the lost and injured. I feel the attempts to express thoughts about all these things cheapens and degrades the realities of all those closer to 9/11, to the wars, to life and death in the Middle East. It feels, in fact, like cowardice to write amateurishly instead of getting my hands dirty by making an actual sacrifice and taking a real action. Because no matter how I feel about the wars or what we’ve done to respond to terrorism, I am an American so I’m responsible too. And prissy little blog posts and a decade of morose contemplation don’t help satisfy that responsibility.

Still, I write it anyway. It’s my response to the endless asides in the media and political worlds that say the American people haven’t been involved in the wars and don’t pay attention to them after all this time and/or during economic troubles. I disagree. I think the American people are better than that. I think they’ve been aware. I think they’ve felt helpless and guilty and sometimes scared. And maybe that’s just me. The U.S., my country, went to war and I did nothing. But I did pay attention. And, even though the government didn’t really pay for it (yet) and the public wasn’t asked to, I sent a small donation to the U.S. Treasury to acknowledge that we should have been asked, that it’s part of all of our debt, that the responsibilities we have to our soldiers will cost money, and that even wars I never wanted need to be paid for when they’re rightly or wrongly fought in my name.

A small act like that is insignificant, of course, and just as cheap as blogging about disaster. But we’ve passed the decade anniversaries of 9/11 and Afghanistan. We’re leaving Iraq. I dropped a token to help pay for it, which is well-intentioned but probably meaningless. Still, it’s what I’ve got, I guess. And until I can find a better way to make sense from the senseless, I’ll have to go with that.

Here’s to a better decade for all of us.

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