In May 2008, a family emergency brought me back to the United States from Baghdad, where I was on assignment for Newsweek, my then-employer. One day after my return home I was driving through a small town on the Texas Gulf Coast when something caught my eye. The main street was adorned with fluttering American flags; police cars and fire trucks had congregated in front of a local church. Curious, I picked up a copy of the local newspaper and discovered that the town was mourning a young soldier who had just been killed in Iraq, blown up by a roadside bomb. I later learned that virtually the entire population—a few thousand people—had turned out to accompany the body on its final journey to the grave.
I was struck by this event because it was one of the rare occasions I witnessed when Iraq left an immediate imprint on everyday America. It is a war that has had a profound and divisive effect on the national culture and yet remains, paradoxically, absent from our collective experience. For the nation that waged it, it was the invisible war, a conflict that came into focus only intermittently, and even then, without the immediacy with which previous generations lived through conflicts in Vietnam and Korea.
There are many reasons for the haze that surrounds Iraq. One of the most important has to do with the ambiguities of the policies behind it. The aims of the war were constantly shifting almost from the beginning. The Bush Administration had already succeeded in its objective of removing Saddam Hussein and his regime before the real war started. Within a few weeks of the fall of Baghdad, it became clear that Saddam’s much-touted arsenal of weapons of mass destruction—one of the principal motives for the war— did not exist. The Kurds, too, in whose name the war was supposedly being fought, carved out a largely functioning region of their own in Northern Iraq early after the invasion. And yet the conflict went on for another seven years (and for some branches of our national security establishment, continues even today).
The actual events in Iraq during this long span were almost always confusing—a characteristic of unconventional warfare. The Iraqis were at once our enemies and our friends. The enemies that we faced—or created, as some argued—were multifarious, spanning Sunni extremists and Shiite militias, who were, in turn, often implacably opposed to each other and to other groups, like the Christians, many of whom were chased out of the country. The US and its allies spent billions of dollars on infrastructure and governance—only to watch the money disappear into the sands of corruption, violence, and authoritarianism. The complexities of Iraqi society, with its ethnic and tribal ties that often cross-cut Sunni-Shia divisions, made the unfolding conflict even harder to understand.
As has often been noted, today’s professional US military is increasingly decoupled from society at large (especially from the educational, financial, and political leaders and institutions that run the country). Over 16 million Americans, or about 10 percent of the population, served in the armed forces in World War II, when military service was compulsory; and almost every family was touched by the war effort. By contrast, only 1 million Americans served in Iraq, about a third of one percent of the current population. Today’s journalists, academics, politicians, and big city dwellers often have little direct experience of the military; many of those who do hail from small towns like that one in Texas that I passed through, far from the places where those who shape our foreign policy like to congregate. The absence of a draft—which put the Vietnam War so visibly in the view of middle-class college students—has also muffled the domestic reverberations of the war. Many readers of this post will not have veterans of the Iraq War among their own relations or close acquaintances.
Despite its length and the vast resources (human and material) that it consumed, the Iraq conflict will be classified by most military historians as a classic “small war”—an asymmetrical fight against dispersed insurgents rather than a war against a massed conventional enemy. (For this reason it makes little sense to compare Iraq to the war in Vietnam, where American foes included not only Viet Cong guerrillas but also the regular North Vietnamese Army.) According to the military, 4,422 US service members lost their lives in Iraq. That is a horrifying number in absolute terms, but it is relatively small in proportion to the overall US population, let alone in proportion to the far higher number of Iraqis killed. One should not, of course, forget the 30,000 wounded American soldiers—many of them horribly maimed by remote-controlled insurgent bombs—and the perhaps tens of thousands of others who suffered traumatic brain injury and other less visible wounds from the war. Yet these veterans, too, are not numerous enough to leave a profound imprint on the national consciousness.
Americans never quite seemed to figure out what they thought of Iraq. Those who renounced the invasion engaged in few demonstrations once the war was underway, while those who approved of it seem to have largely tuned out the resulting conflict. Journalistic treatment of the war was spotty—intense at the beginning, almost non-existent toward the end. The war coincided with a dramatic decline in the fortunes of US media organizations, which eroded resources for reporting. Some outstanding coverage resulted nonetheless, but little of it seems to have been absorbed by the public at large. The Bush Administration promoted this indifference through its information-management efforts, including the overwhelming emphasis on “embedded” reporting at the beginning of the war, as well as the restrictions it imposed on the coverage of the arrival of those killed in action at Dover Air Force Base.
But journalists deserve a share of the blame, too—and not only for the failure to question more skeptically the Bush Administration’s claims about Saddam’s non-existent WMD. Journalists failed, above all, to show the war as it was. Americans who did not serve may think that they have some idea of what the war in Iraq was like, but they’re wrong. The culprit here is a culture of well-intentioned self-censorship that refuses to show the real conditions of modern warfare. You can search the seven years of US broadcast news from Iraq almost in vain for images of dead US soldiers, or the grotesque effects of a suicide bombing on buildings or bodies, or the corpses of Iraqi families who had been riddled with bullets by nervous young Americans manning nighttime checkpoints. (The photo of the blood-spattered Iraqi girl taken by the late Chris Hondros is one of the most disturbing exceptions.) For writers the task was somewhat easier: reporters like Peter Maass, Dexter Filkins, and C.J. Chivers were able to confront their readers with gruesome realities. But the problem remains. We can hardly expect Americans to comprehend the grisly reality of wars like the one in Iraq until we’re prepared to show the consequences of the policies we so blithely adopt. The Iraqis themselves, of course, need no counseling on this matter. The war was never invisible to them.