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McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • The Iraq War and its first casualty: the truth

  • Almost 14 years ago, chatting in his California living room with a Peoria Journal Star editor, Vice Admiral James Stockdale - war hero and native of Abingdon, Ill. - was asked, "Was Vietnam a mistake?"
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  • Almost 14 years ago, chatting in his California living room with a Peoria Journal Star editor, Vice Admiral James Stockdale - war hero and native of Abingdon, Ill. - was asked, "Was Vietnam a mistake?"
    If anybody in the world had the right to answer that question and the unique insight to do so without challenge, it was Stockdale, the late Navy pilot who personally was witness to the lie of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that prompted direct U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, who called the Johnson administration out on it years later, who led the squadron that fired the first shots of that conflict in the initial bombing run on North Vietnam, who later spent 71/2 years as the senior POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, who was tortured repeatedly, who missed a big chunk of his kids' childhoods.
    And yet a defiant Stockdale bristled at the question: "I think that's an unfair question to ask of me ... since my whole life was built around it," he told the author of this editorial back in 1999. "I didn't start it, but I did help to end it." At the time it was a surprising answer from someone who had paid a far higher price than the politicians who had made the decision to send him so very far away to fight.
    Maybe it should not have been.
    Indeed, were one to ask the veterans of this generation's Gulf of Tonkin - the Iraq War, like Vietnam a war of choice, fought under false pretenses - if it were a mistake, how would they answer? Depends, though one would not be surprised to hear many say, as Stockdale did, that as warriors they were called to duty by their commander in chief, that they had a job to do and they did it, and that it's up to the rest of us to second-guess.
    And so we do that now, a decade to the day that U.S. soldiers set foot in Iraq to begin their march to Baghdad with a White House justifying the preemptive invasion through emphatic assertions of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, what President Bush called "the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," and repeated allusions to 9-11, the first more forgivable than the last. Alas, no WMDs were discovered. All but the blindest apologists have rejected any significant connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's 9-11.
    And so, at the risk of raising the ire of some of those good soldiers, might America ask: Should Iraq have ever happened?
    From the get-go this opinion page had misgivings about the war but this is not an "I told you so," as once the decision was made we wanted to be proved wrong, for the sake of the nation, certainly for the sake of the soldiers and their families who as always were asked to bear a disproportionate share of the sacrifice. Every war produces better and worse. On balance, what did the Iraq War get us?
    Page 2 of 2 - The vicious despot Hussein was quickly deposed and ultimately tried and executed. Shed no tears - most Iraqis didn't - he got what he deserved. Unfortunately, Iraq today is still a violent place. On the eve of this anniversary, explosions were heard across the capital. A Ministry of Finance official was assassinated. By mid-afternoon there were more than 50 dead and nearly 200 wounded - including children on their way to school - from 18 car bombings, and they were still counting. Many bore the fingerprints of al-Qaida in Iraq, weakened but not gone.
    The eight-year, eight-month-long war and occupation were far from the cakewalk in the desert some in the White House and its neocon cheering section predicted they would be, and democracy has not exactly flourished along the banks of the Euphrates. Sunni and Shiite remain at each other's throats. Corruption and human rights abuses are rampant. Economically, the young nation has not bounced back. Poverty and joblessness are high. America's attempt at nation building there was amateurishly bungled at first and we arguably have little to no influence there now (though some will blame that as much on the Obama-directed departure in 2011 as on his predecessor's missteps).
    The likes of nearby Syria and Iran were hardly cowed into submission. Iraq may no longer be a threat to its neighbors but its former nemesis Iran is. Now we're told that nation is trying to build nuclear weapons.
    Here at home, there was a direct financial cost of nearly $850 billion, though many economists say that's lowball. In any case, it was borrowed money, as Uncle Sam ran up record deficits even before the current occupant of the White House arrived and the red ink got worse. Promised oil revenues did not go to cover the war's costs.
    While the rest of us went about our business - President Bush championed tax cuts and told us to go shopping - nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers lost their lives (including 162 Illinoisans, several from this area, may they rest in peace), with many more losing limbs and minds. Arguably never before has a war been fought by this nation that so few noticed, to our enduring shame.
    Of course, the answer to the question above is that time will tell. That said, from the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 to the run-up to war in 2003, the lesson that was lost - and that one feels more strongly about than ever - is that the least America's leaders owe their citizens, and especially those they send into harm's way, is the truth. Maybe our soldiers are better than many of the rest of us, for whom it's hard to forget or forgive. May it not happen again.
    — Journal Star of Peoria, Ill

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