Iraq: through a pale door

Reflecting back on the Iraq war, the question raised is how could we, as a nation, have been so misled and gotten it so wrong?

What were we thinking as Bush-Cheney mendaciously linked the trauma of 9-11 to Iraq, pointing toward weapons of mass destruction while, with the thinnest of intelligence, crafting images of smoking guns morphing into mushroom clouds? And having done so, these neocons, for reasons that still remain elusive, went on to sell a pre-emptive war with all the conviction and alacrity they could muster.

The threat to our national security, we were told, was not in Afghanistan, refuge of bin Laden, the architect of 9-11, but in Iraq. And not to worry, this would be war-lite, quick and painless, and when we arrived the Iraqi people would line the streets, greeting us as liberators, and all would be underwritten by Iraqi oil.

Only gradually, as the war evolved, as the cost became ever greater in lives and treasure, did Americans begin to realize that the fundamental argument for this Republican adventure was not to disable massive weapons and chemical laboratories, or to destroy stockpiles of missiles ready to be launched, for, as was soon revealed, none were found. The smoking gun-cum-mushroom cloud proved to be an illusion fashioned from a fiction. We found, instead, rusting tanks, empty warehouses and Iraqi soldiers surrendering to news crews.

What we do know with certainty, upon reflection, is that the initial rationale for the war soon changed into the rhetoric of "fighting terrorists," "nation building" and "Iraqi freedom."

And using these newly burnished justifications, the war was expanded, lives lost and billions spent. Monthly. Victory was just around the corner. We need only surge. Or change tactics. Reexamine strategy. And our young men and women, in good faith, carried out the mission, doing all that was asked of them and more. And gradually, the war passed into the nation's peripheral vision.

But now, 10 years later, the accepted wisdom about Iraq is that it was a foreign policy catastrophe of stunning proportions. Members of Congress have recently expressed regret over their vote to give team Bush-Cheney carte blanche to begin and then carry out the war. Media pundits, with newfound sagacity, agree.

But here is the moral dilemma we face as a nation: How do we voice such conclusions and then face the families of those lost on the streets of Falluja or Sadr City or Baghdad, returned to us in flag-draped coffins, their sacrifice made with an irrevocable finality? How do we say to those who cherished those 4,488 soldiers who were killed that it was for naught? How do we do that?

What do we say to our troops who were wounded (it wasn't 32,226, but hundreds of thousands)? For them nothing will ever be the same. We bear witness (when we are reminded) to their absent limbs, some horribly disfigured, burned beyond recognition, others paralyzed, sitting in wheelchairs, unable to ever again stand erect or walk out through a door and into a backyard filled with children. Others have suffered irreparable brain damage and their silence and suffering is wrenching beyond measure, as it is for those who care for them each day.

And there is the still unfolding toll taken by post-traumatic stress disorder. The soldiers that left their towns and cities on the first day of their deployment are not the same soldiers who have returned. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 15 percent of the 1.5 million who served in Iraq have reported injuries involving loss of consciousness or altered mental status. What can we say to them?

Tragically, there's more: in 2012 more service members took their own lives than died in combat. A U.S. military veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes, according to a recent Veterans Affairs study. Imagine the desperation. The beckoning abyss.

The toll exacted by Iraq is, in truth, immeasurable. The damage done to those who willingly served will continue for decades to come. How do we hold their gaze for even a moment and acknowledge that this pre-emptive war, constructed with the scaffolding of necessity and trust, was reckless and sheer folly?

How do we now explain to them, to their families, that Iraq was an act of such hubris as to defy understanding? And those responsible still rise each morning and continue to display a stunning equanimity and certitude about what they have wrought.

How do we explain that the price exacted is now regarded as a rush through a pale door? Or in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, "While, like a rapid river, through a pale door a hideous throng rush out forever and laugh — but smile no more."

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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