Wars are lost before they are quit. The Germans lost
World War II by the end of 1942 when their Sixth Army
was destroyed at Stalingrad. Yet, they would “stay
the course” for another two and a half years. The
Japanese lost the Pacific war in June 1942 when their
aircraft carriers were sunk at the Battle of Midway.
They, too, would “stay the course” through two atom
bombs before abandoning their aspirations for empire.
The Iraq War was lost even before it was begun. The
reason is that it was founded on lies, it was begun in delusion, and it has been prosecuted with incompetence. As a result, it has metastasized vastly beyond the scope for which it was ever conceived, even as the means to fight it have shrunk dramatically.
The result is a “perfect storm” that makes it
impossible for the U.S. to win. The loss to U.S.
power in the world will be incalculable, far greater
than was the damage occasioned by the U.S. defeat in
As was Vietnam, the War in Iraq was founded on lies.
It was conceived in the waning days of the first Bush administration when the “crazies” as they were called — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle — were talking about taking over the Middle East. By the time Bush II came to power in 2001, these crazies, rechristened as “neocons,” were ready with a game plan. All they needed, they said in the Project for a New American Century, was “another Pearl Harbor,” something to galvanize the nation into action. Amazingly, that
catalytic event materialized on schedule as 9/11.
Within hours of the 9/11 attack in September 2001,
Donald Rumsfeld was telling those around him to “roll
it all up” into a plan for attacking Iraq. George W.
Bush was telling National Security Council
counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke to “find the
connections to Iraq.” But Paul O’Neil, Bush’s first
Treasury Secretary, has noted that the formal planning
for an invasion of Iraq began at Bush’s first cabinet
meeting, in January 2001.
That is why none of the putative rationales for War
ever panned out. None of them were true. Iraq had
had nothing to do with 9/11. It had no WMDs. It had
no connections with Al Qaeda. None of that mattered.
The American public was mercilessly flogged into a
frothing frenzy to embrace a nakedly colonialist war
to steal Iraq’s oil and put a stranglehold on China,
India, and Europe, America’s new industrial
Remember mushroom clouds over New York City? Remember
yellow cake uranium? Remember the aluminum tubes
whose only possible use was for uranium enrichment
centrifuges? Remember the tons of chemical and
biological weapons that could be launched on 45
minutes’ notice? Lies, all.
The lies ensured that the U.S. would never occupy a
moral high ground in the War. As each phony rationale
was exposed for the lie it was, another excuse was
offered up in its stead. No weapons of mass
destruction? Saddam was a bad guy anyway. No Iraqi
complicity in 9/11? We’re bringing freedom to the
Iraqi people. No connection between Saddam and al
Qaeda? We’re fighting a global Islamic jihad.
The lies of Iraq have left a growing, cancerous legacy
of doubt, shame, and revulsion in the American psyche.
The symptoms can only be suppressed through the
contrivance of ever more desperate lies. Witness,
for example, the current lie that Iraq is a battle
“for the survival of Western Civilization,” juxtaposed
with another current lie, that it is a “comma” in the
unfolding of the modern Middle East. Which is it? Of
course, it is neither but just as surely, it cannot
possibly be both. But that is the problem that liars
create for themselves when their lies begin to
The fragility of the Iraq War’s rationale — and its
consequent collapse — is revealed in the fact that
Bush could ask no sacrifice of the nation to fight it,
for if there was any pain to be borne, people might
look harder at the justification.
The neocons remembered all too well that it was the
imposition of the draft in Vietnam and suburban middle
class white boys coming home in body bags that had
soured the nation on that War. So, there would be no
draft for Iraq. The War would be fought by the
downtrodden and destitute, the socially invisible, the economically unemployable, and the politically impotent.
Similarly, there would be no increase in taxes, in
fact, just the opposite. Taxes would be cut every
year, effectively a bribe to conscript the American
public’s commitment to an indefensible and unwinnable
war. But the tax cuts didn’t make the cost of the War disappear. They only postponed them. Eventually, they will precipitate a financial crisis that will bring the entire house of cards tumbling down and the nation’s economy with it.
A similarly vast edifice of official deceit formed the
public discourse about Vietnam and doomed it just as
surely as have Bush’s lies about Iraq.
In 1946, Truman rebuffed Ho Chi Mihn’s request for
help in throwing out the French colonial occupiers.
Ho turned to the Russians, in the process helping the
Americans convert a legitimate war of national
liberation in which the U.S. was on the wrong side,
into a war against communist “aggression” in which the
U.S. could lie to itself about being a fictive savior.
It was Eisenhower who backed out of the
Geneva-sponsored elections of 1956 that were intended
to unite Vietnam. He wrote privately that, “our guys
would have lost.” It was Kennedy who retailed the
“domino theory” even though it had been repudiated by
the CIA in 1961, long before the 1965 escalation that
would make the War irreversible.
It was Johnson who, in 1964, faked the Tonkin Gulf
incident into an attack on the U.S. and the
justification for full-scale war. And it was Nixon
who lied about a “secret plan to end the War,” all the
while planning to increase its intensity and expand it
into Laos and Cambodia.
Gradually, however, the truth leaked out. At first it
was a few courageous journalists who knew the truth
first hand and dared tell it. The dikes burst when
Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, a
meticulous chronology of official U.S. lying about the
It was the American people, tired of being lied to,
who gave up on the War and the politicians who had
sold it. Johnson convened his committee of “Wise Men”
to craft a face-saving pull-out, just as Bush, for the
same purpose, has convened his “Iraq Study Group”
headed by Bush family consigliore and Republican
fixer, James Baker.
In addition to the foundation of lies on which it was
premised, the Iraq War was also lost because of the debilitating delusion of the war-mongers themselves, chickenhawks almost to a man.
Remember “a cakewalk” and our being “welcomed as
liberators”? Remember “flowers being strewn in our
path”? Remember “a self-funding war,” one that would
be over “not in months, but in weeks”? Remember Paul
Wolfowitz telling Congress there was “no reason to
believe there should be a problem with sectarian
The delusion was inevitable, for once leaders begin to
lie to their own people, they inevitably succumb to
the seduction of the lies themselves.
It was just such delusion that enabled Donald Rumsfeld
to persuade himself that the War could be fought and
won with 160,000 troops. When the more sober voice of
General Eric Shinseki, a man who had actually seen
combat, cautioned that it would take 500,000 troops to
secure Iraq, he was forced out of his job, replaced by
a more politically ambitious yes-man who would
traitorously anoint the administration’s
politically-tainted Kool-Aid as militarily-sound wine.
It was the same delusional thinking that led Rumsfeld
to threaten to fire anyone who asked about post-War
planning. Why plan, when victory is assured?
Similarly, Bush fantasized that victory could be
secured with air power alone instead of by boots on
the ground, that “hearts and minds” could be won by
the issuance of heavy ordinance from the bomb bays of
B-52’s. The result was Bush’s fantastically
hubristic, “Bring ‘em on,” and the later,
catastrophically misguided, “Mission Accomplished”
stunt in May 2003.
The delusion soon folded back onto the lies, like
fabric onto itself, creating a multi-layered psychotic
fantasy world where massacre was liberation, stooges
were statesmen, theft was largesse, setbacks were
progress. Was it lying or delusion that prompted Dick
Cheney to suggest just over a year ago that the
insurgency was “in its last throes”?
Or consider Bush’s pathologically optimistic claims
for improvement at every turn: the “conclusion of
military hostilities”; handing over of “sovereignty”;
the capture of Saddam Hussein; election of an interim government; constitutional elections; formation of the “unity” government; capture of al Zarqawi; installation of a new Prime Minister; etc. Lies or delusions? More importantly, does it matter?
Indeed, rather than the democratic, orderly outcome
Bush fantasizes, the situation has become steadily, relentlessly, horrifically worse. Sectarian militias control the country in a hyper-violent Road Warrior-like dystopia where mayhem engulfs everybody as it escalates beyond anybody’s capacity to control.
The Iraqi police and military, our purported
“partners,” have become havens and protection rackets
for such militias, for theocrats-cum-thugs who have
turned Iraq into a free-fire zone for
terrorists-in-training from all over the world.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, controls nothing but the
ground it stands on and even that evaporates the
minute it leaves. Its most noteworthy features are
its inherent proclivity for catalyzing violence and
its sheer impotence in the face of the breakdown of
all forms of order.
Identically delusional thinking had infected strategy
in Vietnam where the U.S. imagined that by taking an
air-based military war to the North it could solve a ground-based political problem in the South.
Operation ROLLING THUNDER dropped four times more tons
of bombs on Vietnam than were expended in all of World
War II combined — twenty-two tons of explosives for
every square mile, or seven hundred pounds for every
man, woman, and child in the country.
The more the political situation deteriorated in the
South, the more the U.S. bombed the North. The
greater the Viet Cong hold on the rural population in
the South, the more the U.S. bombed the North. The heavy-handed American presence led to massive economic disruption, rampant corruption, and millions of displaced refugees. All of these gave ammunition for increased Viet Cong recruitment, further fanning the flames of anti-Americanism.
An identical indictment is now inescapable regarding
U.S. efforts in Iraq, which, according to the National Intelligence Estimate, have proven nothing so much as a recruiting bonanza for terrorists throughout the Muslim world.
In addition to its foundation on lies and its genesis
in delusion, the Iraq War’s prosecution has been
fraught with calamitous incompetence.
It was precisely such incompetence that motivated Paul
Bremer to disband the organs of the Iraqi state,
including the Iraqi military. He released a quarter
of a million trained, unemployed killers into the
civilian population, there, to join the ranks of
Kurdish separatists, Shi’ite militiamen, Sunni
nationalists, foreign terrorists, domestic jihadists-in-training, and Rumsfeld’s notorious “Baathist dead-enders.”
It was an even more idiotic ilk of incompetence that
then failed to secure ammunition depots throughout the
country, turning over to this selfsame legion of
resistance fighters thousands of tons of ammunition, explosives, and weaponry.
It was incompetence of the highest order that failed
to adapt ground strategy to the realities of urban
guerilla warfare. It is there, on the ground, that an occupation succeeds or fails. And to succeed, the occupier must win the “hearts and minds” of the occupied people. But instead of winning hearts and minds, the U.S. used apocalyptic violence against a civilian population simply resisting invasion by a
The U.S. has killed 650,000 Iraqis since the invasion
of 2003. That is on top of the 500,000 Iraqi children
under the age of five killed as a result of the U.S.
sponsored economic sanctions of the 1990s. Together,
that is the equivalent of another country coming into
the U.S. and killing 14 million Americans. And we
stupidly, obscenely balm our consciences with drivel
about them “hating us for our freedoms.”
Fallujah, Najaf, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha, are
synonymous in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world
with wanton massacre, religious despoilation,
systematized torture, and ritualistic rape and murder,
all inextricably part of the U.S. occupation and its grotesquely savage style of “pacification.”
The consequence, as articulated by U.S. colonel
Frederick Wellman has been all too predictable: “The insurgency doesn’t seem to be running out of new recruits. When I kill one of them, I create three.”
Imagine! Next we’ll be hearing reports of having to
destroy villages in order to save them.
During the Battle of Britain, as German bombs rained
down on London, Winston Churchill declared, “What kind
of a people do they think we are? Is it possible they
do not realize we shall never cease to persevere
against them until they have been taught a lesson that
they and the world will never forget?”
A critical part of the lies/delusion/incompetence
complex of the Iraq War lay in the cultural conceit
that such sentiments are felt only by Englishmen or by
people of European descent. In fact, they are felt by
any people invaded, brutalized, robbed, and deprived
of their essential human dignity. This is no less
true in Iraq than it was in Vietnam.
There, the ground strategy, “Search and Destroy,”
held that U.S. superiority in mobility, firepower, and communications would assure victory. The human element was secondary. To take a single example, Operation JIM BOWIE in March 1966 involved six U.S. army battalions sent to flush out a reported Viet Cong stronghold in Binh Dinh province.
Over the three-week course of the campaign, 30,000
helicopter sorties were flown. The Air Force dropped
215 tons of bombs and 102 tons of napalm. A total of
20,000 rounds of heavy artillery were fired, 95,000
gallons of fuel used, and 1,252,000 pounds of supplies
were expended. The result? The campaign recorded 27
Viet Cong killed, 17 more captured, and 19 individual
Most fatefully of all, the U.S. stuck with its
mechanistic strategy of attrition in Vietnam, even
after it had failed. For attrition to work, three
fundamental conditions must apply: you must be able
to control the timing and location of engagement with
the enemy; the enemy’s losses must exceed his
replacement rate; and your own losses must be
sustainable within your own war-making context.
Amazingly, none of these conditions applied during
Vietnam. The enemy initiated 90% of combat
engagements. Their replacement rate exceeded their
losses by over half a million men a year. And the
U.S. could not sustain its own losses in the face of
collapsing political consensus at home. Even more
amazing, it was known at the time that these
requisites for success did not exist, yet the strategy
was never changed. Nor has it changed for the
identical U.S. strategy in Iraq.
It is one of the enduring truisms of Vietnam — as it
will one day be of Iraq — that U.S. forces never lost
a major battle. But it is a meaningless truism, for
while the U.S. won all the battles, it still lost the
War. Despite the deaths of 58,000 Americans and over
3 million southeast Asians, the expenditure of over
half a trillion dollars and the loss of incalculable
American prestige, the U.S. left Vietnam in
humiliation, helicopters skirting from the roof of the
Saigon embassy as the North Vietnamese Army broke down
Vietnam was lost — and only later quit — because
American presidents could not, against the exposed
fabric of their lies, their arrogant delusion, and
their gross incompetence, hold together a domestic
political consensus to continue the war. The same can
now be said of Iraq.
But in several important ways, Iraq will prove far
more devastating for the U.S. than did Vietnam. It
has increased Islamic radicalism in moderate Muslim
states that are U.S. allies, including Jordan, Saudi
Arabia, Egypt, and, importantly, Pakistan. It has
greatly increased Iran’s stature in the Middle East
and, because of Iran’s close ties with Russia and
China, their power in the world. And its offshoot
War, Lebanon, has laid bare the impotence of the U.S. allied-Israeli army — supposedly one of the most powerful armies in the world — against a rag-tag band of 2,000 Hezzbolah guerilla fighters.
Worse, even as the War is lost but cannot, for
political reasons, yet be quit, it is being expanded
to a global scale. What was to have been a surgical
war, over in months (“if not weeks”), has broadened dramatically, dragging the entire western world into its deadly maw. Iraq has greatly increased the motivation, number, skill, coordination, confidence, and reach of combatants battling the U.S., both in Iraq itself and throughout the rest of the world.
Successful strategy involves securing achievable ends
from available means. The tragedy of Iraq, the one
that guarantees its legacy as an incomparable
catastrophe for the U.S., is that while the ends have
exploded, vastly beyond America’s capacity to control,
the means to secure those ends — soldiers, materiale,
allies, finances, and political will — have shrunk dramatically. This is an ironclad prescription for disaster.
The War has not only drained the U.S. of over a
trillion dollars of wealth, it has bogged the U.S.
military in an unwinnable quagmire that has laid bare
its once useful (because intimidating) façade of
invincibility. In its place, it has left the
undeniable recognition of the vulnerability of
American “power” and the fragility of American will.
These exposed weaknesses will only invite more
challenges to American power, dragging the U.S. into a bottomless black hole of conflict that it cannot afford not to fight but that it will prove equally unable to win.
Finally and most importantly, the War has stripped the
U.S. of incalculable moral standing in the world,
increasing its enemies, driving away allies, and in
the process making the now larger war on terror all
the more unwinnable. More than all the other
treasures squandered, it is that very moral standing,
with itself and with the world, that the U.S. would
need to win the vastly larger war that Iraq has now
become. But it is precisely because it has squandered
that standing — at the very moment that it needed it
most — that the War in Iraq is lost.
Robert Freeman writes on history, economics and education. His earlier pieces, “Is Iraq Another
Vietnam? Actually It May Become Worse,” and “Is Iraq
a Success?” were also published by CommonDreams.org. He
can be reached at email@example.com.