Twenty years ago today, US and allied ground troops invaded Iraq. The “shock and awe” bombing campaign had started the day before.
What happened on March 20, 2003 wasn’t a “mistake.” It wasn’t well-intentioned but “unwise.” It was a calculated, premeditated crime perpetrated on a massive scale. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died in a war premised on transparently nonsensical lies.
The Human Toll
By the time President George W. Bush ordered the invasion, I’d spent months marching in antiwar protests and sitting in organizing meetings in church basements. On February 15, 2003, the Greater Lansing Network Against the War in Iraq brought four thousand people out to the streets of my hometown, marching from the union building at Michigan State University (MSU) to the steps of the state capitol in Lansing. It was one small part of the largest coordinated protests in human history. Between six and ten million people turned out in six hundred cities around the world to tell the war planners “no.”
They didn’t listen. And in the coming months and years, more than four thousand Americans came home in flag-draped coffins. One of those coffins held the body of a kid with whom I went to high school. He was seventeen when he joined the Army. Four years too young to go to one of the bars crammed with MSU students on Friday and Saturday nights in East Lansing. Eight years too young to rent a car. And a year too young to be eligible to vote for any of the politicians who decided to throw his life away on a cruel and stupid “war of choice.”
We had friends in common, but he and I didn’t hang out, so I have no idea what his motives were for enlisting. But I have to imagine the recruiters told him the usual things about how the US military exists to “defend freedom.” Instead, he died on the other side of the world in the process of imposing an occupation bitterly resented by the vast majority of Iraqis.
The consequences for ordinary Iraqis dwarfed the “Coalition” casualties. According to an estimate published this month by the Watson Institute at Brown University, since the invasion between 550,000 and 580,000 people died in Iraq and then Syria when the chaos spread there — and “several times as many may have died due to indirect causes such as preventable diseases.” In addition, more than seven million people fled the two countries, and another eight million became “internal refugees.”
David Frum Rewrites History
In a speech the year before the invasion, Bush castigated Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “the axis of evil.” The idea that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which fought a long and bloody war through the 1980s, were part of an “axis” was already bizarre before you threw in North Korea — but this was the height of America’s post-9/11 jingoistic fervor, and Bush’s rhetoric didn’t have to make sense for a huge portion of the country to nod along.
The author of that speech, David Frum, might have slunk away from public life in shame after the catastrophic consequences of Bush’s wars in the Middle East became clear — if he were capable of shame. Instead, he’s the author of a piece released last week in the Atlantic under the jaw-dropping headline, “The Iraq War Reconsidered.”
In it, Frum admits that the war went badly and grants that it may perhaps have been pragmatically “unwise” — even as he insists the US didn’t act with “unprovoked aggression,” argues that it might have been worse to leave Hussein in power, and bristles at any comparison between Iraq and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Above all, he seems to regret that the debacle in Iraq dampened public enthusiasm for new wars elsewhere:
The belief that America could be a force for good in the world sadly and wrongly dimmed. Memories of Iraq became a powerful resource for extremists and authoritarians who wanted to push democracies aside and leave the world to the autocrats.
Frum says the Iraq invasion wasn’t “unprovoked aggression” because the first Gulf War in 1990–91 was “clearly legitimate” given Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and Iraq hadn’t complied with the conditions of the cease-fire. But if Frum were serious about this argument, he would also have to maintain that if some other power had bombed US cities after, say, the US invasion of Grenada or the US invasion of Panama, this would have been “clearly legitimate” — and any US violations of the subsequent cease-fire would been grounds for the cluster bombing, invasion, and long-term occupation of the entire country.
Does David Frum really think that? Does anyone think that?
A War Based on Absurd Lies
At the time, Bush and his cronies didn’t say, “We’re going to invade Iraq because there were some cease-fire violations from the war that ended twelve years ago, and that’s all the justification we need.” They knew no one would have accepted such a rationale. Instead, they asserted that (a) Saddam Hussein had “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and (b) the Iraqi dictator, who’d long brutally repressed local Islamists, was going to magically decide to share these “WMDs” with his mortal enemies in al-Qaeda. Bush administration officials argued that this theoretical possibility of WMDs falling in al-Qaeda’s hands was too terrifying for anyone to wait for real evidence. The “smoking gun,” Vice President Dick Cheney infamously said, could be a “mushroom cloud” over a US city.
All of this is nonsensical in the same way as Vladimir Putin’s claim that he invaded Ukraine to “demilitarize and denazify” that country. Even if there had been any reason to believe (a), the absurdity of (b) would have made it irrelevant.
David Frum claims to have been shocked that there were no WMDs in Iraq. And it’s true that much of what the Bush administration said about WMDs later turned out to be based on deliberate distortion. But even at the time, the evidence presented to the public was paper thin.
I can remember arguing about this with the professor in my political science class in 2002. The professor — a fairly liberal Democrat — told us that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was at least working on nuclear weapons. When I asked how he could possibly know that, he referred to the president’s many confident statements. Surely all these assertions were based on information Bush was getting from the intelligence agencies.
I didn’t buy it. If definitive evidence existed, why weren’t they sharing it — the way that, for example, John F. Kennedy’s administration showed the whole world surveillance pictures of Soviet missile sites in Cuba in 1962?
The closest we got was Secretary of State Colin Powell waving around a vial of anthrax at the United Nations as he made wild claims about the Iraqi threat. I watched Powell’s speech with a group of antiwar students at my college, and I remember at one point he shared intercepted Iraqi communications that vaguely referred to “trucks” and Powell asserted as if it were the only possible interpretation that the trucks in question were mobile chemical weapons labs. I was amazed that anyone anywhere was taking this stuff seriously.
That skepticism didn’t make me unique. Again: six to ten million of us marched in antiwar protests that February. The global antiwar movement was absolutely correct — and no one who was on the wrong side in 2003 should be allowed to forget it. Not shameless ghouls like David Frum, not the politicians in both parties who voted for the war because they were afraid of looking weak, and not all the oh-so-clever centrist pundits who ran cover for the Bush administration on their blogs or in New York Times op-eds.
None of these people were making an innocent mistake. They were throwing in their lot with conspirators openly planning to destroy a society on the other side of the world — killing hundreds of thousands at minimum in the process — in a war that was based on barely coherent nonsense. A war that was very good for the shareholders at Halliburton and Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and bad for nearly everyone else.
This isn’t a “live-and-learn” situation.
The invasion of Iraq wasn’t a “mistake.”
It was a crime.
And it’s unforgivable.