Healing America’s Narratives: Lessons Not Learned

[Part of a series, this essay is adapted from Chapter Seven of Healing America’s Narratives: the Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow — Now available]

In September 2003, six months after the U. S. began bombing Iraq again, Jonathan Schell wrote a long, crystal-clear sentence, employing some 250 words and quite a few semicolons, that pointed out what “the basic mistake” of the Bush policy in Iraq was not. Schell then wrote a fourteen-word sentence, in italics and with no semicolons: “The main mistake of American policy in Iraq was waging war at all.”¹

Despite reports from two separate teams of U. N. weapons inspectors — the first led by a U. S. Marine veteran, Scott Ritter,² whose team reported no weapons of mass destruction, and the second, led by David Kay,³ whose report corroborated Ritter’s — the U. S. began bombing Iraq on March 19, 2003. On May 1 of that year, President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier below a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” and told the world that “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”⁴

As of December 30, 2020, 4,586 American men and women in uniform had died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Of that number, 4,100 occurred after January 2004 — eight months after George W. Bush proclaimed that the United States and its allies had prevailed.⁵

At 1 AM on September 12, 2001, when Richard Clarke, National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, returned to the White House after a quick shower and change of clothes, he was expecting discussions about preparations for any subsequent attacks, plans concerning any currently known U. S. weaknesses, and updated intelligence on what had happened. As he recounts, his expectations were not met:

“…I walked into a series of discussions about Iraq. At first I was incredulous…. Then I realized … that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq.”⁶

On the record, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others, under the banner of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) had written to President Clinton on January 26, 1998, asking him to “enunciate a new strategy” that “should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power,” and that required “a willingness to undertake military action[,] as diplomacy is clearly failing.” The letter’s authors were clear that “removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power…. needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.”⁷

In January 2001, Clarke found that terrorism was not a priority in the Bush White House. His attempts to convey the urgency of the al Qaeda threat to National Security Advisor Rice, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, and others was met with mild interest and essentially no action. Despite Clarke’s January 25, 2001 request for a Principals Committee meeting on the threat, and despite some lower-level meetings that went nowhere, the Principals meeting did not take place until September 4, a week before the attack.⁸

As of February 2020, according to the Military Times, the war in Iraq had cost U. S. taxpayers some $1,922,000,000,000.00. That amount was funneled from American taxpayers into Iraq from 2003 forward, and does not include the costs for Afghanistan or other shorter-term post-9/11 antiterrorist actions. It does include the costs of combat, private contractors, promotion of democracy, reconstruction, veterans’ care, and interest on the debt incurred to fund the war.⁹

Zooming out, from October 2001 through August 2021, the U. S. Department of Defense spent more than $14 trillion (measured in 2021 dollars) for all purposes, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One third to one half of these expenditures went to private contractors, and of those, a quarter to a third went to just five companies — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman. In October 2001, Boeing vice president Harry Stonecipher announced that “the purse is now open . . . any member of Congress who doesn’t vote for the funds we need to defend this country will be looking for a new job after next November.” Lockheed Martin’s 2020 Pentagon contracts totaled $75 billion; the U. S. State Department’s budget that year was $44 billion. “In addition, weapons makers have spent $2.5 billion on lobbying over the past two decades, employing, on average, over 700 lobbyists per year over the past five years, more than one for every member of Congress.”¹⁰

The previous essay in this series began to explore what we have learned, or not learned from President Eisenhower’s post-World War II precepts and Secretary McNamara’s post-Vietnam lessons. Each provides a useful lens through which to observe U.S. engagement with post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan. With only vague and shifting ideas about what the U. S. was doing in either country and what might happen when we left, it’s not surprising that the ill-defined and endless mission of “fighting terror” was and is not accomplished — by Bush or by Obama or by Trump, all of whom spoke about getting out of Afghanistan, but did not. Biden got out, and in tragic ways, and the Afghan people continue to pay the price for both our arrival and our departure.¹¹

In August 2021 the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report entitled What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction — the eleventh “Lessons Learned” report issued between 2016 and 2021.

Along with statistics — 2,443 U. S. troops, 1,144 allied troops, and at least 66,000 Afghan troops and 48,000 Afghan civilians killed; 20,666 U. S. troops and at least 75,000 Afghan civilians injured; $145 billion in reconstruction and $837 billion on fighting spent — the report notes that these “extraordinary costs were meant to serve a purpose — though the definition of that purpose evolved over time,” and goes on to identify “seven key lessons” that “can be used in other conflict zones around the globe.”¹²

The sixth lesson, “Context,” begins with this sentence:

6. Context: The U. S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly.

Robert McNamara’s fourth lesson from In Retrospect begins, “Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities of their leaders….”¹³ Context, by any other name.

Five post-WW II precepts, two sets of eleven post-Vietnam lessons learned, and seven key Afghanistan lessons later, what true learning has taken place?


¹Jonathan Schell, “The Importance of Losing,” The Jonathan Schell Reader, (Nation-Avalon, 2004) 343–44. Originally published in The Nation, September 23, 2003.

²Scott Ritter:  http://www.democracynow.org/2005/10/21/scott_ritter_on_the_untold_story

³David Kay: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/29/136765601/david-kay-wmds-that-never-were-a-war-that-ever-was

⁴The quote, and Bush’s entire speech, are available from most news sources:https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/05/20030501-15.html

⁵4,586 American military deaths as of December 30, 2020 (4,100 of those from 2004–2020), again, that is after President Bush’s announcement that we had prevailed. http://www.statista.com/statistics/263798/american-soldiers-killed-in-iraq/. Last accessed June 27, 2022.

⁶Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies, (Free Press, 2004), 30.

⁷Project for the New American Century’s January 26, 1998 letter to President Bill Clinton, https://zfacts.com/zfacts.com/metaPage/lib/98-Rumsfeld-Iraq.pdf Accessed June 27, 2021. The PNAC, and its website, are no longer available online under that name.

⁸Clarke, Against All Enemies, 231–38.

⁹Neta C. Crawford, “The Iraq War has cost the US nearly $2 trillion,” Military Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2020/02/06/the-iraq-war-has-cost-the-us-nearly-2-trillion/ Accessed July 1, 2021.

¹⁰William D. Hartung, “Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Pentagon Spending Surge,” Center for International Policy & Watson Institute, International & Public Affairs at Brown University, September 13, 2021; “more than $14 trillion,” 4; “one third to one half,” 1; “just five companies,” 4–5; “the purse is now open,” 3; Lockheed Martin contract and State Department budget, 4; “$2.5 billion on lobbying,” 20; https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/2021/ProfitsOfWar Accessed September 14, 2021.

¹¹David Miliband, “The Afghan economy is a falling house of cards. Here are 5 steps to rebuild it,” CNN Opinion, January 20, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/20/opinions/afghan-economy-falling-house-cards-miliband/index.html Accessed March 9, 2022.

¹²John F. Sopko, et. al., What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, August 2021) vii-xi, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf;

¹³Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (Vintage, 1996), 321–23.

Published by Reggie Marra


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