Emerging from Iraq War Depression

As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into virtual civil war over the past several months — with 140,000 US troops presiding impotently over the carnage — it is more clear than ever that the US has lost in Iraq (no matter how one may define the vague US mission there) and that it is only a matter of time before US troops pack-up and head home defeated. After three and a half years and over 2,700 American military deaths, the clumsy US occupation has brought little reconstruction or political reconciliation. Instead, the situation on all levels — economically, in terms of health and education, from a human rights perspective, and with respect to public safety — is worse than it has ever been in Iraq’s history. There is still not sufficient electricity, water, employment, medicine in the hospitals, etc.

Sectarian groups and militias on all sides are operating death squads and torture chambers that make even Saddam Hussein’s gross human rights violations look at least more orderly if not more tame by comparison. According to figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue collected by the United Nations, 3,009 civilians were killed in sectarian and insurgent violence in August, 3,590 in July, 3,149 in June, 2,669 in May, 2284 in April, 2378 in March, 2,165 in February, and 1,778 in January — a total of at least 21,022 so far for 2006. And those are the ones whose bodies have been located and who have been counted — many people have simply disappeared. Wounded civilians and military members — often permanently disabled — total several times the number killed.

The catastrophe in Iraq is a continuing waste of lives and money on all sides. Over $316 billion has been spent by the US alone on Iraq to date according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office — for what? The US occupation — rather than containing the sectarian violence and insurgency — has only fueled these trends. It is becoming increasingly clear that healing and peace in Iraq are impossible with US troops there. Peace and stability in Iraq may be impossible for years given the mess that the US occupation has made of Iraqi society. The only silver lining may be that Bush is somewhat less likely to invade Iran or other countries in his remaining two years given the way the US military is tied down in Iraq.

As the situation in Iraq gets worse month after month and the bodies pile ever higher, the key question is whether there is any way to stop the occupation while Bush remains in power. At the outset of the war, Bush totally ignored huge international and some domestic opposition to the war. His administration has consistently been in its own world, unconcerned with facts that run contrary to their ideological positions. Early opponents of the war became dispirited as it became apparent that Bush would simply ignore our demands to stop the slaughter. Now, with a majority of the public turning against the war, Bush still seems unmoved and the situation seems particularly hopeless and depressing.

It is, however, a mistake to conclude that those of us living in the US should rest in our armchairs just because Bush has been able to ignore us so far. Social cracks are developing that are constraining Bush’s options and bringing closer the day when continuing the occupation as it has been will simply become impossible. To the extent more and more people refuse to accept the war and break the silence and depression surrounding the war disaster — in lots of small and large ways — the popular illusion that the Iraq quagmire is inevitable will further erode.

Increasing numbers of US troops are refusing to go along with the war. US generals just announced that they will have to maintain or even increase current troop levels for another year. It is getting harder and harder to find troops to send to Iraq without breaking the US military. Some military officials are even discussing offering citizenship to foreign nationals if they’ll go to Iraq to fight for the US first. Such a step is not symptomatic of a population united behind the war. Rather, it represents desperation on the part of government officials trying to maintain an unwinnable occupation that has lost public support.

Most of us aren’t soldiers, but we can publicly and strongly support military people who refuse to go or youth who refuse to join the military in the first place. There are all kinds of small ways to help advance a ground swell of opposition to the occupation: printing, distributing and wearing “stop the occupation” shirts, hanging up lawn signs, writing letters to the editor, bringing Iraq into conversation, turning out for anti-war marches and protests, etc. The only hope of ending the occupation sooner rather than later is shaking off our disempowerment and depression and refusing to let the occupation go on in silence.

While biking down the Oregon/California coast this summer, I rode into the tiny fog shrouded town of Albion. At the tiny market there, someone had set up a trailer filled with small wood crosses — one for each solder killed in Iraq. Now is not the time to forget Iraq and hope it will go away. The occupation is lingering on because the majority of Americans who oppose it haven’t translated their private opposition to public resistance. This time, the silent majority are those against the occupation. It’s time to end our silence.