The legacy of eight years of war
Published: Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 12:11
WASHINGTON - Think for a moment about the emotional seesaw of someone who has lost a loved one in Iraq and hears that the war is about to end.
At first, there is relief: Americans will finally stop dying in a distant desert. Then an indescribable sadness, because it comes too late.
Ami Neiberger-Miller was on a plane to Colorado filled with soldiers on the day before President Barack Obama's October announcement that all remaining troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year.
They were familiar company. She works for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, which aids the families of fallen members of the military.
The troops were on their way back from the war. They were dusty and tired. A homecoming with family and friends awaited them at the gate.
As they exited the plane, the other passengers and crew applauded. Quietly, Neiberger-Miller began to weep.
"Do you know someone in the military?" the passenger in the adjacent seat said gently.
She nodded. Her younger brother, Army Spec. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in 2007 by a roadside bomb, three days before his 22nd birthday.
"Our homecoming was a casket," she said.
The war began on the night of March 19, 2003. It was just past 9:30 in Washington, near dawn in Baghdad.
Millions watched it unfold. It was supposed to be quick, surgical and decisive.
"This will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory," President George W. Bush told the nation that night as the bombs began to fall.
But it became a slog; messier than anticipated, more costly in lives and treasure.
If an iconic image of the Vietnam War is people lining up for an evacuation helicopter atop a building near the American Embassy as Saigon fell, for Iraq, among many images, it might be the disturbing photograph of a prisoner at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison.
He was standing on a box in a twisted pose of crucifixion, arms outstretched, feet together. His head was covered in a dark pointed hood. His only clothing appeared to be a blanket, which hung from his shoulders. Electric wires were attached to his fingers.
It had an air of menace, like something out of a Wes Craven horror film, but also despair. You could not look away.
Somehow, it seemed that our moorings had shifted.
"It's not the defeat we got in Vietnam," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor and former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which the allies created to rule the country after the invasion. "There were real achievements in Iraq, but at considerable costs and considerable skepticism on the part of the American public as to whether it was worth it."
That question could haunt us for some time. Iraq has a fledgling democracy, but it's still torn by religious and tribal strife. It's taken nearly nine years and the price has been high: almost 4,500 Americans dead and a nearly $1 trillion unpaid bill.
The Bush administration's original projection was $60 billion, tops.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Afghanistan continues.
But Iraq, because it inexplicably shifted our purpose - and the world's support - away from avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, helped to usher in a period of political unease and mistrust.
And as the economy soured, anxiety grew. Being declared a hero by a patriotic public and smiling political leaders could provide little comfort.
"I come to the food pantry because I don't receive food stamps and my husband just got back from a tour overseas and is having trouble finding work," a woman in line at a Kansas City mobile food pantry said in a note to the organizers. "And, the pantry helps so much in feeding our children."
She wrote it on the back of a paper plate.
Now, as the 2012 presidential election looms, a long war of ambiguous purpose and results has led to wariness about more foreign entanglements.
"Any president is really going to think twice about one of these foreign adventures," said novelist Ward Just, whose stories can seem wistful for a time of more political clarity. "It would not be enough to say, if we don't go into Afghanistan the Taliban is going to run things. My guess is the next time that happens, some people might be entitled to say: ‘So what?' "
The war has touched every part of America, from sprawling cities to remote prairie towns, where a single death can reverberate like the rumble of distant thunder.
But unlike the Vietnam War, which played in America's living rooms every night, Iraq was a bewildering, faraway drama. For a lot of Americans without a personal investment, it was simply background noise.
"You won't find anybody who says they aren't supportive of the soldiers, unlike with Vietnam," said Cindi Staats, whose website, fallen-coalition-heroes.com, is a roll call of every American fatality. "But when this war was just raging we'd have several dying a week, and no one seemed to really know unless it was a local soldier and it was local news. For people to really care, you have to get them involved. We didn't have any of that."