Iraq: The final exit

I often wonder if George W. Bush wakes in the dead of night and stares into the darkness, agonizing over his decision to take our nation to war in Iraq. Does he feel the full weight of what this war of choice has wrought? Does he turn restlessly, sleep elusive, and think about those troops who laced up their boots, lifted their rifles, and, leaving the airport Tarmac in Baghdad, walked to the dark side of the moon and there died (4,485) or sustained horrible, life altering wounds (32,219)? Did he keep count, week after week, reading their names in small-town newspapers, noting their ages and ranks, their numbers echoing with the desolate and awful tolling of a silent bell?

Does he think of the families and their irrevocable loss, their lives hollowed out by a grief that knows no end? Can he imagine what it means to stand by the bed of a wounded son or daughter, a husband or a father, and unable to breathe view a life so damaged as to be rendered almost unrecognizable?

Does he think of those soldiers still, that band of brothers and sisters who went to war because they were called, who believed they had struck a bargain in good faith, one that said that they would be sent into harm's way only if the cause was justified and the need was great? They were told that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That a smoking gun would soon become a mushroom cloud. Yellow cake had been found. Aluminum rods uncovered. And the ubiquitous enemy al-Qaida, responsible for 9/11, was sheltered by a man who was the epitome of evil, who gassed his own people and was preparing to do far worse.

And so they walked the mean streets of Fallujah, Mosul, Kirkuk, Najaf, Basra, Nasiriyah, Anbar Province, and stood watch at Debecka Pass. They fought searing battles in heat and sand, under an unrelenting sun. They looked out over desiccated mountains, dug trenches, built revetments and waited to catch a glimpse of an enemy almost an abstraction. They suffered and they prevailed and came to realize that their experiences — the things they saw, the war they waged — would be with them forever (one U.S. veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan attempts suicide every 80 minutes).

Has W. kept an accounting of this war of choice? Contrary to all predictions, Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan will cost an estimated $3 trillion to $4 trillion. Plus an additional $1 trillion for veterans care through 2050. All financed with borrowed money. Some $9 billion still remains unaccounted for.

And more than $10-17 billion has been mismanaged or wasted on nation-building projects that were abandoned or are unsustainable. The cost of air-conditioning alone for the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq is $20 billion.

And this does not begin to calculate the cost to Iraq and its people. More than 2 million Iraqis were displaced; 2.1 million now are in Syria and Jordan. Forty percent of professionals have left the country. The civilian death toll is a reported 113,000, though some experts say it is closer to 600,000. Sadly— horribly — no one knows for sure.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was not constructed out of necessity. We know now that the alleged threat proved to be rusted tanks and empty warehouses, absent gas or chemicals or nuclear weapons.

But this truth also brings into focus a more difficult question, one that has equally heart-breaking possibilities: was it worth it? Was it a contrived folly? Once we ask such stark and unforgiving questions, the ultimate answer is too terrible to contemplate. To tell those troops that served, and their families, that this war was created from the whole cloth of hubris by leaders who broke faith with our soldiers and with the nation, well, that is a truth that for some will be more than they can bear.

To have lost someone held dear for the willful machinations of a government would be intolerable. The grief and sadness and wrenching loss is felt today, this moment, and will be felt for all the tomorrows. It is a reality that knows no consolation.

Have we forgotten Vietnam? Are we incapable, in all our wisdom, of learning from the past? Have we not walked this familiar path before and heard, from podiums and chambers, the insistent harangues, framed anew as shock and awe and the axis of evil?

And for all those elected officials who gave the war in Iraq their imprimatur, to include, of course, W., I wonder if the damage done, the indescribable ruin, is, even to them, not self-evident? If it is, then may calm sleep never find them.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland

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