The 10th anniversary of the start of the second Iraq war is an opportunity to reflect on the economics of the conflict. I start by confessing deep heartache. I served as an infantryman in the Persian Gulf War, fighting over the same ground alongside many of the same men who invaded Iraq in 2003. I shall try to prevent the death and wounding of several old friends from coloring my analysis.
I begin with cost. The war in Iraq was expensive. More than 4,800 U.S. servicemen, several hundred coalition soldiers and 100,000 Iraqis died in the conflict. The financial cost to the U.S. is hard to figure, because costs for treating the wounded will continue another 50 years. The best estimates suggest current costs are just under $750 per U.S. citizen per year of conflict. It is hard to wrap one's mind around these figures, so a historical perspective helps. Total American deaths in Iraq are about equal to those at Gettysburg. The total costs are less than half of the recession debt. Still, these are daunting numbers, but cost alone does not determine value.
Some think we went to war over weapons of mass destruction, which materialized in numbers insufficient to justify the invasion. This intelligence error could be forgiven, since more than 150,000 Persian Gulf veterans were exposed to an Iraqi nerve agent at Kamiseyeh. Still, ending Saddam Hussein's regime was no more about WMD than our declaration of war on Imperial Germany was about the sinking of the Lusitania. Like it or not, we invaded Iraq solely to plant the seeds of democracy.
Reasonable men and women debate whether or not it is right for the United States to fight for the fundamental freedom of others. Indeed, both the extreme left and right offer the most vigorous criticism of this war. As I have argued, when libertarians and socialists agree, we ought to listen.
However, reasonable men and women must agree that Saddam Hussein and the regime he led offered one of the most despotic, murderous and criminal adventures of modern times. Hell welcomed his arrival, and Iraq is far better off without him.
It is also true that the war was unevenly prosecuted. The success of the initial attack was undone by an epic failure to plan for the post-war transition. For this the civilian and military leadership at the Department of Defense bear a heavy weight of failure. The success of the counterinsurgency redeemed an Army in the field, but not the leadership failure of 2003. All wars disappoint and fall short of plans.
Ten years after the invasion, it is too early to call it a success or failure. If, in a generation, Iraq remains even a weak democracy in a part of the world that is trapped between new-age fascists and medieval despots, it should be judged a worthy victory. If not, the weight of marble at Arlington will judge it a loss. And so it is left to the freedom-loving people of Iraq to make it a success.