By Wil Forbis
March 1st, 2005
(Note: I did some minor updates to this piece on March 5, 2005. And again March 19, 2005.)
Slightly less than 2 years ago, just a few months after the invasion of Iraq, I penned the infamous and controversial Acid Logic column entitled, “The Tricky Math of Moral Calculus” wherein I sniggerlingly took it upon myself to try and quantify whether or not the incursion was “worth it.” While I had formally come out against the war, I freely admit my opposition was lukewarm at best, and I did have high hopes that in the end, more good than harm would come of it. Since then of course, Iraq has descended into chaos (on the day I write this 125 people were blown up by a terrorist car bombing) and it has become obvious, regardless whether or not it was worth it (and let me say quite clearly right now, it was not) the ones who are paying the highest price of this debacle are innocent Iraqi civilians.
Since the invasion there has been an endless succession of events arguing that the Iraq war was, as Wilfred Brimly might say, the wrong thing to do at the wrong time to do it. No WMDs found, a brutal insurgent war that continues to this day, the announcement that the death toll of innocents had passed the 100,000 mark*, and an ever rising number of American deaths. And with each event, while I would momentarily pause to reflect on the lives lost I was then hit by a far more primal emotion – boy, do I look stupid! Stupid, because I knew the original article was still out there, with my name on it, showcasing a naiveté that surpassed that of a ten-year-old boy accepting a limo ride into Neverland Ranch. And I decided, as Acid Logic heralded in its first war issue, now would be a good time to reexamine the my tricky math and call out its errors, all the while hoping I might also find some means of redemption. In the process known as “fisking” I would pull out segments of the of the initial article and annotate my current feelings.
* UPDATE: March 18, 2005- I have to concede that the 100,000 amount - the source for much of he consternation in this article - does not sound all that solid when one examines this article by Fred Kaplan in Slate magazine. So who knows -maybe in a year I'll be fisking this piece.
March 20, 2005 - Ok - there's a long a growing discussion on the web about this study. I'll provide a link to this site, which links to others and it's up to you, dear reader, to make up your mind.
In the original piece I began by setting up the premise that the determination of the justness (even unintended justness) of the war was comparable to an elementary school math problem. I will skip past my standard long-winded comical introduction to arrive at the paragraph below where I proffer my ambiguous and shaky opposition to the war.
Like most people, I had conflicting feelings about the war on Iraq. I was certainly never convinced they had weapons of mass destruction. It never seemed like a “legal” war. But at the same time, Saddam and his sons were bastards, and there was no denying that the Iraqi people would be better off without them. I also didn’t see him ever leaving power unless forced. And the arguments that the war was simply a US grab for oil felt too simplistic, too easy, like “U.S. Foreign Policy for Dummies.” (I’ve become far more interested in the argument that the war was provoked, for a multitude of complex reasons, by a group of far right presidential advisors known as the NeoCons. But it’s hard to print all that on a protest sign.) My head was swirling with contradictions.
I’m both disappointed by my lack of sophistication and awed at my insight when I read the above paragraph. First, one cannot deny Iraq’s status as an oil-bearing nation was key to its being selected for invasion. While I still think the “Fahrenheit 9/11” argument that the war was simply a land grab continues to understate the complex web of history between western and Arab nations, there’s little doubt had Saddam been running an iceberg in the Artic he would have received far less attention. In some weird sense, one can see glimmers of Jimmy Carter’s Carter Doctrine in the Iraq invasion.
That said, I’m also reminded how little was known about the neo-cons this early in the war. As effective as the anti-war movement was (not effective enough to actually stop the war, I grant) I think it was to their detriment that they were unwilling to concede that they were fighting an enemy with a cogent (though perhaps insane) vision of U.S. defanging the Middle East via a domino process of Democratization at gunpoint. Instead they relied on conventional neo-Marxist anti-Imperialism arguments.
So let’s continue.
Once the bombs started dropping, and the innocent dead were piling up, I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that President Bush had blown it big time. You might recall that period of the war – Iraqis were fighting back, the Arab street was more enraged than ever, and the blood of innocents was splattering on the streets. It looked like we were headed for another Viet Nam (as well as many more September 11ths.)
And then, suddenly, it stopped. Baghdad went without a fight. The hordes of angry guerrilla warriors pouring in from Syria simply disappeared. And many Iraqis seemed genuinely overjoyed at the fall of Saddam and the appearance of U.S. Forces (bringing with them, “Democracy, Whiskey, and Sexy…” though not necessarily in that order.)
This statement can clearly be viewed as gullible at best, the work of an ill informed author making statements about the military forces of a country he had little understanding of. (At this point I probably couldn’t tell a Shia from a Sunni for Allah’s sake.) In hindsight, most of Saddam’s Ba’athist forces merely went underground to continue their battle as guerilla warriors. Additionally they were aided by foreign insurgents who still make their way into Iraq to contribute to the Holy War.
Once things settled down I started to contemplate what had happened. Yes, the war was still illegal, the WMD’s still hadn’t been found, and one had to worry whether this boost in confidence for the U.S. military (Overcoming much of the legacy of Viet Nam – this is our first “real” victory since WWII.) would mean cocky invasions of other countries. BUT, the outcome of the war still “felt” like a good thing. Looters and vigilantes may had overtaken Baghdad, and the Iraqi people were making clear that they opposed a continued U.S. presence in their country, but none of that could even begin to compare to life under Saddam. (Some of the best reporting I saw on the war came from Salon’s Phillip Robertson, and the only thing more memorable than his reports of the Iraqi’s jubilation at freedom were his reports of their descriptions of the terror (and gore) of life under Saddam.) It seemed like the best possible outcome.
Of course, the WMDs, what any intellectual honest person would concede was the main argument for going to war, were never found! I strongly suspect they never existed, but even if, as some stipulate, they were smuggled away to Syria (a possibility I’m doubtful of but willing to entertain), the arguments for war are invalidated. If the war merely accomplished the redistribution of weapons from one Arab regime to another,at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, what was the point? (If one buys that WMDs did exist, I suppose you could justify invading Iraq without warning and without seeking U.N. approval, thus keeping the element of surprise, but I suspect there would be numerous unplanned repercussions from such an act.)
And, can we say today that life for most Iraqis is better than “life under Saddam”? I’m not sure and I mean that in the most honest sense. I don’t say it as a snide way of saying “no,” I mean I’m really not sure. The Shias are obviously a lot freer; free to practice their rather arcane fundamentalist religion in ways they could not when Saddam was in power. But they also live under the constant fear of terrorist attack. Additionally, breaking Saddam’s authoritarian rule has freed all the major players of Iraq – the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – to possibly engage in Civil war. (It’s hard not to argue that what is already happening, Shias being targeted by Sunni fundamentalists both local and foreign, is not already a civil war.)
As always, there was a price. While the war was going on, I, and many other people were watching the Iraqi Body Count web site. As a web site, it made no bones about its anti-war beliefs (if a web site can have beliefs), but it seemed to do a fair and thorough job of tallying the war’s innocent dead. And each time I visited the site, I have to confess I was shocked and awed but what I saw. I was amazed the numbers were so low**. At last count (04/27/03) the numbers were around 2000-2500. Not bad for a war where Jeneane Garafalo had warned us of hundreds of thousands perished.
It is here I really have to eat crow. I made fun of the delightful Ms. Garafalo for her admonition that hundreds of thousands of innocents had perished and we now know that at least 100,000 did – and that number has undoubtedly risen since first reported. That of course, does not include the numbers of people killed by terrorists or just plain criminals emboldened by the lack of law and order. There is no way to deny that the war lay forth a scourge of death upon the nation of Iraq, and that fact, perhaps greater than any other proves the absolute folly of the war. I owe Ms. Garafalo a deep and sincere aplogy and in penance, I will be making repeated viewing of “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” and fast forward past the Uma Thurman parts.
But were the numbers low enough? 2500 was still a lot of people with families left grieving. People who had done nothing to deserve their fate. It was while contemplating this I began crafting a word problem for the moral calculus of the war. If a war lasts three weeks, and leaves 2500 innocent people dead, but results in the ouster of a dictator who, over 30 years of rule, is estimated to be responsible for the death of a million people, is it “worth it?”
Clearly, the phrasing of the question implies a “yes” answer. But this is a vast simplification of the Iraq war. On one level, it implies that the U.S. should run all over the place toppling dictators and saving lives because no doubt the math is in our favor. But there’s no thought implied in the question as to whether that’s the role of the United States.
At first glance, the answer, even to the math impaired would seem obvious. Of course it was. Some have even said the amount of innocents killed in this particular three weeks was akin to three weeks of normal Saddam rule (One million divided by thirty, divided by 52, times three. Hey, even I can figure that out.) There are of course, certain caveats that made the calculation more difficult. We should probably also add to the number of Iraqi dead a percentage of the Iraqi army who were killed, as many of them were simply conscripts forced into war. The one million number also holds Saddam responsible for the deaths of his own troops on the first Gulf War, which I find disingenuous. (Ditto for the Iran/Iraq war.) He didn’t actively will their deaths the way he did the prisoners he tossed into plastic shredders, or the Kurds he gassed en masse. But even with these alterations, then numbers eventually come out well in favor of the fall of Saddam.
This, I think, is a pretty honest paragraph, releasing Saddam from the responsibility for deaths he did not directly demand. Of course, true honesty would demand I make a stab at ascertaining the real number of deaths (short of the million figure) Saddam ordered. Laziness prevented me from doing so two years ago and continues to now.
Of course, unlike math, the real world has one big gray area: The future. Two plus two will always equal four, but there's no guarantee that preemptively attacking Iraq will result in less death. If the war on Iraq generates a nuclear terrorist act as its response, we’ll all have a lot of thinking to do. If Iraq falls into a decades long quagmire of constantly warring religious sects with thousands of innocents caught in the crossfire, second thoughts will abound. Or the dark side of democracy could rear its head with the Iraqi people electing a new oppressor, as bad as Saddam. Even worse, the Arab nations could destabilize like a row of dominoes, plunging the area into chaos. These are all possible, if not likely scenarios.
And it's these thoughts about the future that make me realize that, while I think we are right to celebrate Iraqi's freedom from the shackles of Saddam, there's no easy answer to my word problem.
But as I said at the beginning, I was never very good at math.
The sheer snide cowardice of these final paragraphs causes even me to grin with pride at my audacity. Clearly I was so determined to cover my ass in case things did go wrong, which they did, that I made nodding allusions to various doomsday scenarios that were making the rounds and then concluded that there was “no easy answer.” (A conclusion that can be applied to almost any problem one examines for longer than two minutes.)
In penance let me offer a real prediction that I can live or die by in the future. The terrorist insurgency will remain in place for decades to come nipping at the Iraq security forces and bare innocents, taking dozens at a time. (I suspect we’ll also see some large scale attacks wiping out hundreds of civilians at once.) But slowly, marginalized groups like the Sunnis and Al Sadr’s brigade* will come to see the advantage of playing the political card, similar to Palestinian groups doing so now. (Not that I have any faith in that situation.) The insurgents won’t be so much defeated, as acclimated into larger Iraqi society. Kurdish territory will remain part of Iraq, but in name only. U.S troops will slowly withdraw but not to a timetable of anyone’s liking. I’ll go out on a limb as say less than 10,000 troops in Iraq by 2008.
* If occupational forces did one thing right in this whole war is was managing to work with Shia cleric Al Sistani to defuse the Shia rebellion that could have launched the country into a real civil war.
That’s my prediction. But let’s see how it’s doing in a couple years.
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Wil Forbis is a
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