Book Review: How the US and Britain Went Wrong in Iraq

Los Angeles Times

March 30, 2008 – The Iraq war seems no closer to resolution today than when it began five years ago. The daily stories of death, setbacks and gains bleed together like a list of mayhem on a police blotter, rarely jolting us anymore from our safe slumber back home. Two new books try to do just that by tallying the war’s costs from these daily ledgers. Although each has a different focus, both accountings draw the same picture of hopelessness.

The most enlightening is “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda J. Bilmes. They matter-of-factly dissect the staggering monetary cost of the war and the human devastation behind the ever-increasing bill. In “Defeat,” Jonathan Steele uses the region’s history and his own extensive reporting on the ground for the Guardian to provide ammunition for his thesis, that “the occupation was flawed from the start.”

Both books are deeply critical of the rationale for going to war and the way it is being waged. But Stiglitz and Bilmes focus on a track less worn than Steele’s. They follow the money, ferreting out exactly how it was spent, explaining how we’ll be paying the bill — one they calculate to be at least $3 trillion — for decades to come and suggesting where all that money could have been used more effectively.

For instance, $3 trillion is enough to provide the nation’s 8.3 million uninsured children with health coverage for about 18 years. It is worth noting that $3 trillion is their “excessively conservative” estimate of the war’s total cost when all is said and done.

“The Three Trillion Dollar War” isn’t likely to be an Oprah Book Club selection — its clinical prose and abundant lists don’t make for a leisurely read. But its statistics are a damning indictment of how the war has been conducted and a wake-up call for American taxpayers, who for the most part have remained untouched by a conflict that churns through money and lives on a daily basis. Borrowing the phrase “there is no free lunch,” Stiglitz and Blimes describe how hefty the bill will become if we don’t change course.

They note that the United States has been in Iraq more than a year longer than it fought World War II, and that the “cost of direct U.S. military operations — not even including long-term costs such as taking care of wounded veterans — already exceeds the cost of the twelve-year war in Vietnam and is more than double the cost of the Korean War.”

Deficit spending has hidden this cost, giving Americans “the illusion that the laws of economics can be repealed, that we can have both guns and butter.” But signs of strain are everywhere. The war has contributed to the ballooning national debt (adding about $1 trillion so far) and helped fuel the steep rise in oil prices (from about $35 a barrel in February 2003 to more than $100 a barrel today). The authors cite the tens of thousands of injured Iraq war veterans confronting squalid conditions at under-funded U.S. veterans’ hospitals and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that has produced a backlog of more than 400,000 disability claims, about 25% of which have been pending for more than six months.

Some veterans have been waiting for years. One young Texan who was wounded in 2004 got a visit from President Bush and a Purple Heart. But according to the authors, he didn’t receive disability benefits for three years and got them recently only because Bilmes informed veterans’ advocates, who alerted the media.

Many injured veterans have been charged for equipment no longer in their possession, such as body armor and night visions goggles probably left on the battlefield after they were wounded. The Department of Defense, the authors note, has pursued “hundreds of battle-injured soldiers for payment of non-existent military debts.” Such collection efforts are striking considering the money that has been spent in multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to private firms backstopping the military effort. Although much of their discussion of veterans’ mistreatment falls under the rubric of the Bush administration’s alleged efforts to cut or hide costs, Stiglitz and Bilmes also note that the cost of care is being shifted to the veteran and the veteran’s family, spreading the war’s emotional and monetary toll even wider.

The administration “has not flinched at asking for ever higher amounts of cash to pay troops while they are in combat, and it has not balked at the astronomical demands of private contractors such as Halliburton and Blackwater Security,” the authors complain. But it has “behaved as if there were a direct conflict of interest between funding the war and taking care of the veterans after they come home.”

Nor has war achieved the administration’s goals, Stiglitz and Blimes write, noting that Iraq has “descended into internecine conflict,” ranking above only Somalia and Myanmar in corruption. As for the war helping to bring democracy to the Middle East, the authors note that now “even the more modest goal of a stable and democratic Iraq appears unattainable.”

Steele’s “Defeat” also has a sense of exasperation at its core. He argues that the Bush administration’s belief that the troops would be welcomed as liberators disregards a long history of ambivalence and mistrust of the West by Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world. After toppling Saddam Hussein, Steele writes, the actions of coalition forces on the ground exacerbated that skepticism.

Steele is certainly not the only author to give Iraqis a voice, but his interviews with many locals are among the book’s strongest suits and they help him to lay out the reasoning behind his central argument: “The day on which Bush decided to have an occupation was the day he ensured its defeat.”

Although many may not agree with Steele’s overarching thesis of predestined doom, he, like other authors before him, provides plenty of examples of why U.S. intervention in Iraq has been a failure. Hubris, he shows, has kept the invaders out of touch with the population, while fear has led to the killing and incarceration of a multitude of innocent civilians.

Steele writes of a Baghdad veterinarian and his high-school-age son who described being stopped at a U.S. checkpoint in 2003, then taken into custody after soldiers found a pistol in their car, a common accouterment for Iraqis seeking a measure of safety in postwar Iraq. The father was released after a few weeks, but the boy spent 66 days in various jails, often living on about a cup of water a day. “At no time was I questioned, interrogated, or charged. It was punishment without trial,” the boy told Steele. “When the Americans first came to Baghdad I was happy, but I don’t want to speak about my feelings towards them now.”

Uncontrolled firing on civilians has been an endemic problem. While covering the war, I witnessed Marines at a makeshift checkpoint repeatedly open fire on civilian cars fleeing Baghdad. Steele cites documents outlining similar examples, noting the case of a driver killed for failing to get out of his car when warning shots were fired; an sergeant noted in the file that the driver likely didn’t know how to respond, adding, “If I was in his place I would have stayed put too.”

The question is what to do now. Both books argue that staying the course in Iraq is not an option. As Steele puts it, Bush’s goals of democracy, stability and security may one day be achieved, but they “cannot be imposed through the barrel of a foreign gun.” And even if those goals could be accomplished by remaining longer, how much more are Americans willing to pay? Stiglitz and Bilmes argue that the costs have already become too high.

“Staying another two years will simply add another 1,000 or more American bodies to the 4,000 who have already died in vain, and another 10,000 or more casualties to the 60,000 [Americans] who have already been injured,” they conclude. “When framed the correct way — not whether we should leave, but when we should leave — exit becomes simpler. It is a bleak situation. Leaving sooner rather than later is the only way to stop it from getting worse.” *

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