Charles Sheehan-Miles is a combat veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and director of Veterans for Common Sense , working to improve human rights and national security. Erik Gustafson is also a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and directs the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, founded in 1998 to promote peace and democracy in Iraq.
A column of dusty, tan vehicles moves rapidly down the highway, when a loud explosion shatters the calm morning. One of the vehicles, a humvee older than its driver, flips, crushing a passenger, Sgt. Mark Maida of Madison, Wis. He was 22 years old.
Seventy miles to the north, a two-seat Kiowa helicopter is shot down by small-arms fire. Both crewmen, Matthew Lourey, 40, of East Bethel, Minn., and Joshua Scott, 28, of Sun Prairie, Wis., are killed. In the city of Hadithah to the west, a rocket-propelled grenade lands next to Marine Major Ricardo Crocker, 39, of Mission Viejo, Calif.
Today, Memorial Day, we honor these men and the 1,656 other service members who have died in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. Memorial Day is also a time to reflect on the civilian casualties of war. Last month alone, suicide bombers killed more than 600 Iraqis, mostly civilians.
As we enter the third year of a brutal insurgency, there is no end to the violence in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel, and no clear sense of impending victory to give meaning to the sacrifice of our fighting men and women.
As the directors of two organizations that opposed the invasion of Iraq, we are familiar with all of the arguments for why we shouldn’t have gone there. We both worked hard to build a case against invading Iraq, and we regret to see how many of our concerns have come to pass.
In a letter signed by 1,000 fellow veterans, we warned President Bush that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could lead to protracted urban warfare with casualties our nation hasn’t seen since Vietnam. Together we argued that a war with Iraq met no urgent U.S. security need, and would likely make us less safe than we were to begin with.
For the moment, however, we’ve come to believe it’s time to set those arguments aside, to leave them to be argued by future historians. Because, two years into the war, it’s time to start figuring out what to do now.
Iraq as a nation sits on a razor’s edge. On one side is a reasonably stable society, with power sharing among its people and a better future for all Iraqis. On the other side is a major sectarian war, ethnic cleansing in the many mixed communities in Iraq, with possible dissolution as a state or a return to totalitarian regime. And, as much as we opposed the war, now the one thing preventing Iraq from falling on the wrong side of that line is U.S. and coalition troops, and newly deploying Iraqi police and military units.
Some progressives have argued that because the war was wrong, the United States should pull out and “leave Iraqis to rebuild their own country.” Would that it were so simple. We were there in March of 1991 when we did just that. After giving a thin veneer of hope to the millions of Iraqis who had long suffered under Saddam Hussein, we pulled back and let them sort it out for themselves. The cost of that decision was somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 lives snuffed out by Saddam’s security forces.
As long as Iraq is without a functioning state, the people of Iraq are in even greater danger today. That, however, is not stopping the far right from actively pushing the Bush administration to abandon Iraq. Conservative pundit Robert Novak writes, “…Bush’s supporters believe it now is time to go and leave the task of subduing the insurgents to Iraqis.” Never mind the fact that U.S. Presidential Envoy L. Paul Bremer disbanded Iraq’s National Army and security services, or the fact that U.S. commanders in Iraq and independent experts estimate that another year or more is needed for Iraqis to rebuild their police and military.
According to those who advocate abandonment, the United States apparently has no moral or legal obligation to the people of Iraq. In this week’s Conservative Chronicle , William F. Buckley writes: “If the bloodletting is to go on, it can do so without our involvement in it… It is Iraq’s responsibility to move on to wherever Iraq intends to go.” However, the U.S. invasion triggered the collapse of Iraq’s central government, and brought with it a wave of crime and terrorism. The United States also shares responsibility for supporting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and ensuring the maintenance of more than a decade of crippling sanctions. Supporting the people of Iraq is a responsibility that we cannot walk away from.
Some, including Michael Moore in a blog entry he wrote last year, have mistaken a violent insurgency that represents a small number of Iraqis with a national struggle for genuine self-determination. According to Mike Whitney of Dissident Voice , “The disparate Iraqi resistance is the legitimate manifestation of a national liberation movement.” Are suicide bombers a more legitimate expression of self-determination than the 8 million Iraqis who risked their lives to vote in January?
Opposition to the decision that took our nation to war and skepticism about White House claims of “catastrophic success” in Iraq are more than appropriate, but taken too far, such views can derail common sense and reason. For example, to counter the remarkable success of Iraq’s elections, anti-Bush activists emailed an old 1967 press clipping titled “U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote.” The subtext: the U.S. mission in Iraq will fail too.
Forgotten by such pessimists were the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iraqis, who in 2003 nonviolently took to the streets to demand early elections. Allowing direct elections to occur by the end of January 2005 was a concession, not a choice, which the people of Iraq forced upon the Bush administration. Nevertheless, in January we received numerous articles and messages that all made essentially the same arguments—elections under these conditions were wrong.
Consider the alternatives. Perhaps the elections could have been held under U.N. auspices, with U.N. troops providing security. The problem, of course, is that the United Nations has no troops, and has explicitly stated that it won’t increase its mission in Iraq until the United States meets its obligations under international law to restore basic security. Others have suggested the Arab League. But how much incentive does the Saudi monarchy, King Abdullah or Basher Assad have to establish a functioning democracy on their borders—one that may be dominated by Iraq’s 16 million Shiites?
The bottom line is that a majority of Iraqis demanded elections, and President Bush and the Coalition Provisional Authority had no choice but to concede. And despite the flaws and irregularities, they were better than any alternative available.
Are critics of the Bush administration so caught up in their own dislike of the president to ignore what is at stake for 26 million Iraqis, international security and the 130,000 Americans who remain in Iraq?
As Americans, it’s time we stepped back from the argument over the war, and began to focus on the imperative of bringing it to an end. While slogans such as “bring them home now” sound great, they offer no practical solution to ending the continuing violence in Iraq. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “staying the course” makes nice political rhetoric, but does little to alleviate the suffering of Iraqi civilians or of our brave men and women in uniform.
Instead of using further rhetoric, we should honor the sacrifice of those who have died in Iraq—both Americans and Iraqis—by coming up with some practical ideas. Ideas not only about how to secure the safe return of U.S. forces, but how to actually end the war.
The administration can best give meaning to the sacrifice of those who have given their lives by offering a credible plan for helping the people of Iraq stabilize their country and establish their own functioning government. Then perhaps we can finally keep the promises we failed to keep in 1991.