We have arrived at yet another milestone in the Iraq War. Four years ago the bombs and missiles began to pound Baghdad. To the south, coalition forces began their inexorable flood across the border from Kuwait. We rolled the Iraqi army. They were no match for the most highly trained and technically capable conventional military the planet has ever seen. We were slowed by the unexpected tenacity of some Iraqi soldiers in the middle of the country, and a dread sandstorm, but the fall of Baghdad was epically swift for a city that has been the scene of such sieges from time immemorial.
As Americans, we have a hard time placing into proper context our role in the history of the world. 1776 is a date so etched in our collective consciousness that the timelessness of a city like Baghdad, and a region like Mesopotamia, is hard to fathom. It might as well reside in the foggy realms of myth and oral history, the campfire stories of tribal elders and medicine men. But it is real. On a long enough timeline, our invasion of Iraq will take its place in regional history alongside the erasure of the Sumerians by the Amorites over 4,000 years ago, or the failure of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes to wrest control of the region from Alexander Severus. Obscure, but a thousand or two thousand years of distance is a great equalizer.
The cradle of civilization has always been a parade ground for mankind’s armies, and modern times appear no different. Indeed, it seems only fitting that oil, the lifeblood of modern civilization, would be found in abundance in a part of the world so rich in mankind’s formative history.
While we unwittingly take our place in the pantheon of military adventurism in the Middle East, among stories of both success and failure, those fomenting chaos in the region have a different sense of history, but it is typified by a memory that is far too unforgiving. The grievances of a thousand years past remain fresh wounds, festering and growing even more gangrenous with every seeming slight. Whereas the attention span of the average American is notoriously short, the collective sense of grievance propagated by generation after generation of Islamic extremist is equally ridiculous. Pit the two in a fight against one another and you have quagmire on one side, a culture of pathetic suffering on the other.
When we finally leave Iraq, it will be in defeat. The civil war will escalate, and we will have been responsible for creating conditions that allowed it to start. In addition, Islamic extremists the world over, who have been using the war in Iraq as one big recruiting drive, will say they had the fortitude to outlast the mightiest power in the world with little more than Kalashnikovs, RPGs, and IEDs, never mind the fact that it is Iraqis, religious extremists or not, who are ripping their country apart in a deadly power struggle. Once the last tank rumbles back across the Kuwaiti border or is loaded onto a ship in the port of Basra, the story of our misadventure in Iraq will be set in stone.
However, we will be in a better position regarding Islamic extremism than one might at first think. The reason for this is that while the United States has made a colossal strategic mistake in invading Iraq, providing relief to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with fomenting more distaste for the U.S. throughout the Islamic world, the culture of victimization that feeds Islamic extremism can never win. Without grievances to cite, real or imagined, without a culture of persecution that absolves local actors from any sort of blame for the desperate conditions that pervade many Middle Eastern nations, there is no extremism. It augers more conflict before wider regional reform takes hold, but it is as bright a silver lining as the United States can hope to get out of the very dark storm cloud of Iraq.
Of course, the greater tragedy of the Iraq war is not the fact that we have lost it, but the violence that will remain behind for the Iraqis, who now have a broken country. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since the invasion, tens of thousands more will likely die after we leave, and millions have fled, creating a refugee crisis as bad as any that has ever been seen. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Iraqis are fleeing across the Syrian border alone every day.
So while we mark a grim milestone in one of the longest wars our nation has ever fought, it is worth remembering that as bad as this war has been for us, we will more than likely break even in the long term, while the Iraqis will have to spend decades preventing their society from becoming completely feral. Happy anniversary.