The Common Good
November 2010

The Real Cost of the Iraq War

by Jim Wallis | November 2010

President Obama announced at the end of August that "the American combat mission in Iraq has ended." Watching the speech and listening to the commentary, I was gripped by a deep sadness.

President Obama announced at the end of August that "the American combat mission in Iraq has ended." Watching the speech and listening to the commentary, I was gripped by a deep sadness. Even now, more than seven years after it began, the goal of the Iraq war still isn't clear.

The war started on a false pretext -- that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them or hand them off to terrorists. The Bush administration's fearful predictions of "mushroom clouds" went along with insinuations that Iraq was somehow involved in 9/11, despite the fact that it was not. Saddam Hussein was certainly a terrible and brutal dictator, but bombing his people wasn't the only way to deal with him, as many church leaders pointed out at the time. And, of course, the U.S. hadn't made war on the countries of every other dictator who was as bad, or worse, than Hussein. But those dictators weren't sitting on deserts full of oil -- always the unspoken reality of our foreign policy in the Middle East.

The "shock and awe" of America's military easily defeated Hussein's army, but the post-invasion strategy was horribly botched. A complete misunderstanding of Iraq’s religious and ethnic conflicts was soon revealed, and incidents of prisoner abuse and torture shamed our image around the world. The decision to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq caused the U.S. to lose the moral high ground we had after the 9/11 attacks.

That's all history, and the president asked the nation to "turn the page." But what makes me so sad is the enormous human cost of the war, and the massive number of people -- in America and Iraq -- who have had their lives ended or changed forever; they will have a hard time turning the page.

It is precisely because of this human cost that Christians are supposed to ask the hardest questions about war, and many did about the war in Iraq. Many Christians around the world rejected the arguments for America going to war and opposed the U.S. invasion and occupation. They applied the peacemaking commands of Jesus and rigorous criteria for what constitutes a "just war" and found the Iraq war painfully lacking adequate moral justification. The global church was right in rejecting this war from the outset, and the government of the United States was wrong for fighting it.

The human cost of the Iraq war is breathtaking. Various websites publish the pictures of the more than 4,400 Americans who have died so far. Many of them were so young -- so many husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. I keep thinking about how much they will be missed by those who loved and needed them. I've listened to many stories of the almost 35,000 physically wounded, many who lost their arms and legs or their young bodies' strength, and the tens of thousands more who have lost their emotional and mental health. I winced when I saw a recent study reporting that there are about 18 suicides each day among returning veterans.

As people of faith and moral conscience, we must also consider the cost to the Iraqi people. Iraqi civilian casualties are now estimated at more than 100,000, with some estimates of more than 1.3 million. It's sad that there are no websites with their pictures. But just imagine them and all the families and children whose lives were forever changed.

The unbelievable financial cost of the Iraq war also has clear human consequences. What could that $1 trillion -- $745 billion in Iraq and $330 billion so far in Afghanistan -- have done instead of war? How might the eventual $3 trillion in estimated costs that include long-term consequences and veterans' needs have been better used?

Think of the price we paid for spending those precious resources on war: not rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, not making critical improvements in our schools, not paying for enough teachers, police, and firefighters, and not moving to a clean energy future as quickly as we need to. Think of how the money could have been used to create millions of jobs and prevent millions of foreclosures.

The president rightly praised the sacrifice of those in the military, many of whom served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, at great cost to their families. Many also showed compassion for the Iraqi people among whom they lived and fought. But they didn't decide to fight this war; politicians made that decision. To praise them now for their sacrifice is not to praise this unnecessary war, for which none of them should have been sent in the first place.

Was the war in Iraq worth the enormous human cost? My answer is no. That is both a political and a theological statement, and it is primarily a moral judgment -- which is exactly what those of us in the faith community are supposed to make about wars.

It matters less who was right or wrong about the war in Iraq. I feel little celebration in America for the "end" of our combat mission in Iraq. I feel mostly sadness.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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