This week marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of our engagement in Iraq. For those who saw the war up close, it is a time of reflection and revisiting moments that shaped not only our Iraq experience but our lives. For the nation, it’s a time to challenge ourselves to look beyond the popular narratives about the mission.
In the days and weeks ahead, this anniversary will be used by some on the left and right to criticize former President George W. Bush. We’ll hear vapid comments about ‘forever wars’ and the ruminations of self-ordained experts and so-called influencers who never set foot in the country about the supposed reckless, aggressive, colonialist nature of U.S. policy.
That thin analysis does a disservice to those who served.
What they will miss in their typical rush to hysterical one-sidedness is the extraordinary and noble work done by hundreds of thousands of brave Americans, military and civilian, who genuinely attempted to forge a better life for the people of Iraq against enormous odds.
It is easy to criticize. Our discourse is full of Monday morning quarterbacks and armchair generals. It’s harder to acknowledge that the real history of anything is far messier and more complex than often fits the dominant narrative. America’s involvement in Iraq is a prime example.
So many ordinary Americans brought the best of our nation with them to do extraordinary things in Iraq.
Building schools, improving health care, training women to enter the workforce, modernizing infrastructure, opening the economy, stabilizing the currency, creating an independent judiciary that respected human rights, training professional security forces, establishing institutions of self-governance, and more, so much was done to help Iraqis live better lives.
In Iraq, the coalition captured or killed thousands of Islamic terrorists from groups, including al-Qaida, who would have been deployed to cause mayhem elsewhere.
That’s what Americans do. We bring our courage, ideals and aspirations into the midst of hopelessness and brutality. We transform that desperation with our formula for human advancement, allowing far-flung cultures to take those ingredients to create their own futures.
A complete chronicling of all the heroic work done by our military and civilians, many of which I saw first-hand, could fill volumes. American politicians and the media, hell-bent on defeating Mr. Bush for reelection in 2004, spent their time sensationalizing and oversimplifying the most complex U.S. mission undertaken since WWII.
Abu Ghraib, WMDs, strategic miscalculations, and a deteriorating security situation were all fair stories. The good Americans did, though, was intentionally left on the cutting room floor.
As a result, even some Republicans today choose to take the position that some people are too used to brutal dictators or too barbaric to have the privilege of self-governance. We see debates over whether we should just allow Russia to conquer some or all of Ukraine as if it wouldn’t have consequences.
That’s as backward as President Barack Obama’s precipitous withdrawal in 2011 that threw whatever progress we’d made away, handing the country over to Iran, Russia and ISIS.
Those who would say that the costs were too high should consider that the fentanyl coming from Mexico has killed more Americans in the first two years of the Biden administration than all the U.S. military deaths in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The U.S. has spent or proposed more money in just the last two years than it did on the entire Iraq engagement between 2003 and 2011.
The debate about the war, its rationale and how it was prosecuted is completely legitimate. Ignoring the work of brave Americans and coalition partners who took great risks to serve a cause greater than themselves is shameful. Allowing our experience in Iraq to serve as an excuse to be tepid in the face of global threats is dangerous.
America is being tested again by enemies, foreign and domestic. Advancing the cause of freedom keeps America safer, and our economy stronger, and marginalizes evil ideologies that seek to rob individuals of their God-given agency.
Twenty years on, we owe it to our military, our civilians and ourselves as we face new threats together to take a more honest look at the successes of the War on Terrorism and our mission in Iraq. America’s enemies want us paralyzed by fear and division. They want us to view our history as so toxic it dullens our resolve.
Honor those who sacrificed in Iraq by not allowing that to happen. We can learn from our mistakes and acknowledge noble service at the same time.
Tom Basile is the host of America Right Now on Newsmax and the author of Tough Sell: Fighting the Media War in Iraq. He served as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003-2004.