We don’t get it. We really don’t. We may not, in military terms, know how to win any more, but as a society we don’t get losing either. We don’t recognize it, even when it’s staring us in the face, when nothing — and I mean nothing — works out as planned. Take the upcoming 10th anniversary of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq as Exhibit A. You could describe what happened in that country as an unmitigated disaster — from the moment, in April 2003, U.S. troops first entered a Baghdad in flames and being looted (“stuff happens”) and were assigned to guard only the Interior Ministry(i.e. the secret police) and the Oil Ministry (well, you know what that is) to the moment in December 2011 when the last American combat unit slipped out of that land in the dead of the night (after lying to Iraqi colleagues about what they were doing).
As it happened, the country that we were going to garrison for a lifetime (to the thankful cheers of its inhabitants) while we imposed a Pax Americana on the rest of the region didn’t want us. The government we essentially installed chose Iran as an ally and business partner. The permanent bases we built to the tune of billions of dollars are now largely looted ghost towns. The reconstruction of the country that we promoted proved worse than farcical, as former State Department official Peter Van Buren, author of the already classic book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, reminds us. And an outfit proudly carrying the al-Qaeda brand name, which did not exist in Iraq before our invasion, is now thriving in a still destabilized country. Consider that just the start of a much longer list.
For Americans, however, a single issue overwhelms all of the above, one so monumental that we can’t keep our minds off it or on much of anything else when it comes to Iraq. I’m talking, of course, about “the surge,” those five brigades of extra combat troops that, in 2006, a desperate president decided to send into an occupied country collapsing in a maelstrom of insurgency and sectarian civil war. Admittedly, General David Petraeus, who led that surge, would later experience a farcical disaster of his own and is in retirement after going “all in” with his biographer. Still, as we learned in the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Pentagon chief, the question — the litmus test when it comes to Iraq — remains: Was the surge strategy he implemented a remarkable success or just a simple, straightforward success in essentially buying off the Sunni opposition and, for a period, giving the country a veneer of relative — extremely relative — calm? Was it responsible for allowing us to leave behind a shattered Iraq (and all of Washington’s shattered imperial dreams) with, as President Obama put it, our “heads held high”? Oh, and lest you think that only right-wing Republicans and the rest of the crew that once cheered us into Iraq and refused to face what was happening while we were there find the surge the ultimate measure of our stay, check out Tom Powers’s recent admiring portrait of the surge general in the New York Review of Books.
Here’s at least one explanation for our inability to look defeat in the face and recognize it for what it is: like the proverbial horseman who prefers not to change mounts in midstream, we have an aversion to changing experts in mid-disaster, even when those experts have batting averages for pure wrongness that should stagger the imagination. In fact, you could say that the more deeply, incontrovertibly, disastrously wrong you were about Iraq, the more likely the media was in the years after, on one disaster “anniversary” after another, to call on you for your opinion. At the fifth anniversary of the invasion, for example, the New York Times rounded up a range of “experts on military and foreign affairs” to look back. Six of them had been intimately involved in the catastrophe either as drumbeaters for the invasion, instigators of it, or facilitators of the occupation that followed. Somehow, that paper could not dig up a single expert who had actually opposed the invasion.
In other words, we’re talking here about a country that, for wisdom, regularly consults the walking dead, the zombies of our Iraq experience. And don’t think that, in the coming days, some of them won’t be back again to offer their balanced thoughts on what it all meant. Only one kind of expert has been noticeably missing all these years in the mainstream media when it comes to assessing our Iraq experience: those benighted, misguided types in their millions who, before March 2003, were foolish enough to go out into the streets of global cities and oppose the invasion entirely.