In the midst of our COVID mourning, we might forget the U.S. began a war in Iraq 18 years ago this week.
The war has had various inspiring names: Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003 to 2010, Operation New Dawn from 2010 to 2011, and Operation Inherent Resolve from August 2014 to the present. At the outset, the Bush administration promised the war would eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That sanctions could never work. That fighting would be quick, cheap at $50 billion to 60 billion, controllable, remake Iraq into a democracy, and be won with few civilian, allied or U.S. military casualties.
If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. The Iraq War at 18 offers lessons for understanding the costs of war. Whatever promises and hopes, war is rarely quick, cheap, effective, or controllable.
On March 19, 2003, the war began with a “shock and awe” aerial assault that left much of Iraq’s major cities in rubble, its top flight medical infrastructure damaged, half its doctors dead or running, its museums looted, and its renowned universities destroyed. US and coalition airstrikes alone killed thousands of civilians from 2003-2011. All told, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured — most of them Iraqi civilians and soldiers in the U.S. occupation and the civil war spawned by the local power vacuum and conflicts prompted by the invasion. Millions of Iraqis fled the country and many have yet to return.
At the peak of the war in 2007, there were about 165,000 U.S. military “boots on the ground” and thousands more in the region. There were daily reports of traumatic brain injuries, amputations, and active-duty suicides. One of the first Americans to die was Jose Antonio Gutierrez, a 22-year-old U.S. Marine, killed by friendly fire in Iraq on March 21, 2003. Born in Guatemala and raised mostly in an orphanage, Gutierrez entered the United States without papers at age 14 and became a permanent resident at age 18. He wasn’t made a U.S. citizen until after his death.
A generation later, and on the very day last year when the U.S. went into its first COVID lockdown, rocket fire rained down once more and killed Army Spc. Juan Covarrubias, age 27, and Marshall Roberts, age 28, of the Air National Guard in Camp Taji, Iraq. In between Lance Cpl. Gutierrez’s and Staff Sgt. Roberts’ deaths, the DoD has recorded about 4,600 other U.S. service members killed, more than 32,570 service members wounded, not to mention that Iraq was left in a state of historic destruction and social disintegration.
When the U.S. withdrew in 2011, Iraq had not become a democracy, and much of the country had yet to be repaired. Three years later, the U.S. returned to fight a new monster of its own creation: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When the U.S. returned to Iraq in 2014 to attack ISIS, we once again relied heavily on airpower, to devastating effect. By late 2020, the U.S. led coalition admitted their airstrikes in these regions killed 1,410 civilians. Independent monitoring groups like Airwars think the true number of civilians killed by U.S.-led airstrikes from 2014-2020 is somewhere between 8,310 and 13,187 civilians. The airstrikes were so intense in places like Mosul, that the U.N. estimated over 8,000 Mosul homes were destroyed.
Today there are still about 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Iraq, with many thousands more deployed in the region, and thousands more U.S. contractors also at work and at risk.
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, The Costs of War Project — which we direct — started looking at the Iraq War’s impact. The total number of people who have died from the Iraq War, including soldiers, militants, police, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers and Iraqi civilians, had reached at least 189,000 people, including at least 123,000 civilians. That number has only grown higher throughout the years.
But lives are not the only casualties of the last 18 years of war.
Truth and transparency went by the wayside before the war in 2002 and early 2003 when the Bush administration argued that the cause of the war was what we now understand were non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Transparency and decency were again assaulted in March 2003 when the Pentagon directed that the press would no longer be allowed to show the caskets of soldiers as their bodies were returned to Dover Air Force Base and when we learned of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers and contractors in Iraqi prisons.
And, while the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations were careful to claim that no expense would be spared in the care of American troops, the Pentagon budget almost without exception increased no matter how many troops were actually in the war zone, even when annual Iraq War spending itself declined. The Pentagon and State Department say that the Iraq Wars cost about $1 trillion. Even this astonishing figure is an undercounting, not including for instance, the ongoing obligations to care for veterans of the Iraq War and the ways it has increased overall Pentagon spending. The ballooning military budget is now more than half of all discretionary spending, has essentially starved the rest of U.S. discretionary spending.
Congressional authority to declare war also took a hit as the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force — the legal basis for the war against Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction — has been stretched to cover many other, sometimes marginally related uses of force, not only in Iraq but also “in Syria or elsewhere.” It is, today, finally under strong congressional consideration for repeal.
When the Iraq War became less popular, some then U.S. members of Congress were castigated for voting for it. And some, like John McCain, John Kerry and Joe Biden, have admitted regret for voting in favor of the war. Yet most politicians paid little price for supporting the war or for their overly optimistic assessments of its likely course. Instead, we will all pay the price for this war for decades to come — not least in care for Iraq War veterans and lost opportunities for public health, infrastructure, energy transition, and education.
Dr. Neta C. Crawford is the Chair of Boston University’s Department of Political Science and Dr. Catherine Lutz teaches at Brown University. They co-direct the Costs of War project at Boston University and at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
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