My son Jack was born just days before the war in Iraq began. So, for these last eight and a half years, it's been very easy for me to remember how long this horrible conflict has been going on.
Finally, as President Obama has announced, this American war will soon be over, with most of the 44,000 American troops still in Iraq coming home in time to be with their families for Christmas.
The initial feelings that rushed over me after hearing the White House announcement were of deep relief. But then they turned to deep sadness over the terrible cost of a war that was, from the beginning, wrong: intellectually, politically, strategically and, above all, morally.
The war in Iraq was fundamentally a war of choice, and it was the wrong choice.
From the outset, this war was fought on false pretenses, with false information, and for false purposes. And the official decisions to argue for this war and then carry it out were made at the height of political and moral irresponsibility -- especially when we see the failed results and consider both the human and financial costs.
This week, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a nine-term Republican from eastern North Carolina and long-time member of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke to the students of my class at Georgetown University. He called his decision to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq "a sin."
Even then, he didn't believe or trust "the intelligence" being used to support a war with Iraq, but confesses he feared the response of a "no vote" among his constituency in a district that includes Camp Lejeune and 60,000 retired members of the military.
Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11, as was falsely implied, and had no weapons of mass destruction, as was falsely claimed and endlessly repeated.
The full story of Jones' transformation by having personal encounters with families who lost their precious loved ones, and by the convictions of his own Christian faith, is detailed in the September/October issue of Sojourners .
In what he calls his "penance," the congressman has now written 10,000 letters to the families of fallen servicemen and women.
"We were lied to," Jones told my Georgetown students, and went on to describe his journey to find the truth. Because, for people of faith, "truth matters," he said.
Jones learned how the intelligence on Iraq was "manipulated" and "distorted" to justify going to war, and that this was a completely unnecessary war. Outside Jones' office on Capitol Hill is a wall of "the faces," as he puts it, of those who paid the ultimate price for the manipulation of the truth. And when Jones talks about these young soldiers, you can see how deeply their loss has affected him.
We were "misled" into war by the "previous administration," Jones said, and, so far, nobody has been held accountable for it. The names he mentioned when speaking about accountability were Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
"I think people should be held accountable for leading a country to war, if it can be demonstrated that officials manipulated intelligence and the truth," Jones said. There are wars that could be considered "just," he said, but this war was not.
Here are some of the costs of an unjust war:
* 4,499 U.S. military killed
* 32,200 wounded
* 110,000 estimated Iraqi civilian deaths
* 2.5 million internally displaced Iraqis
* $800 billion in federal funding for the Iraq War through FY2011
* An estimated $3-5 trillion total economic cost to the United States of the war in Iraq.
* As many as 300,000 U.S. troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
* 320,000 troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with traumatic brain injuries
* The number of suicide attempts by veterans could exceed an earlier official estimate of 1,000 a month.
Such a list takes my breath away and should drive each of us to pray for lives that have been so painfully and irreparably changed.
The war literally was sold to the American public with the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Many believed it at the time, and an invasion was mounted on what turned out to be false information. A decade of sanctions and United Nations inspections had already undermined the allegations. And in the almost nine years of war, not a single WMD has been found in Iraq.
The invasion began with triumphal claims that it would be a "cakewalk," and that U.S. forces would be welcomed as "liberators." That proved to be initially true with the unexpectedly easy removal of Saddam Hussein from power, which led to the famous claim of a flight-jacket-clad George W. Bush on a U.S. aircraft carrier six weeks after the invasion began: "Mission Accomplished!"
But then everything fell apart. Hussein's fighters had not surrendered, but simply melted into the cities, lying in wait to fight again. Al Qaeda, which had existed largely only in Afghanistan, formed an Iraqi branch. An invasion turned into an occupation and nearly five years of vicious and deadly street warfare, sectarian violence, and constant terrorist bombings.
By the time the heaviest fighting had died down, the Iraqi people were bitterly divided, huge parts of their country had been devastated, and corruption and fraud were rampant.
As U.S. combat troops return home, they leave behind a badly damaged nation that will require years, if not decades, of assistance and humanitarian development. Our responsibility does not end simply because our military presence in Iraq has.
Clearly, religious communities must reach out now more than ever to returning veterans to make sure they have the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they need.
One of the most unjust aspects of an unjust war is that a small minority of Americans have borne the brunt of the impact and cost of this war -- and in our volunteer army, those were disproportionately lower-income families.
Despite this tragically mistaken war, the sacrifices made by many servicemen and women have been extraordinary. And, even in the midst of war's brutalities, there have been many acts of real heroism -- soldiers risking and giving their own lives for their fellow soldiers and for the lives of Iraqis who also paid a heavy price.
No matter what our view of the war, it is our collective responsibility to be healers for those who are coming home