Friday, March 24, 2006

What's really going on in Iraq?

In this time of government secrets and both danger and regulation restricting reporters on the ground in a country we've invaded, it's impossible for an outside commentator like me to answer the question posed by my own headline.

What's really going on in Iraq?

We really don't know, do we? Think about this... there's actually an active debate at the moment over whether or not Iraq is in a state of civil war. Is it? Isn't it? I couldn't tell you. Neither can people with better access and far better expertise. We simply don't know, at the moment.

But, whether or not Iraq is in civil war (and let's hope it isn't) the very fact that we're uncertain about it was one of the key arguments against invading and occupying the country in the first place. Those against the war believed that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the U.S. (and... it didn't, they were right about that, no matter speculations about Saddam's future intentions) and, more importantly, they warned that the operation would not be as cheap, easy or predictable as the Bush administration said it would be. But, nobody as far as I can tell, whether they were for or against the war, quite predicted that the situation would turn so chaotic that we wouldn't even know if Iraq had collapsed into civil war or not. The key warning from the anti-war folks was not that Iraq would certainly devolve into a civil war but that invading a country, even a far weaker country like Iraq, will certainly bring uncertainties that we'll have to deal with.

Think about it... we're currently occupying a country that has become so complicated that we can't even definitively describe the situation on the ground. We're now trapped in the realm of the unexpected and the unpredictable. We're paying lives and money in order to deal with a situation that we can't even describe.

It even turns out that while we thought and expected that Saddam's Republican Guard would be the main source of resistance that it was actually Saddam's guerilla fighters that were meant to oppose us.

Psrt of the anti-war rationale wasn't pacifist, it was practical. It was a warning that, in blatant spite of our military power, that the taskm of toppling a foreign government, occupying a foreign country, and then reshaping and rebuilding that country is so complicated that the reaction to our actions will be unpredictable and that it's at least likely, if not inevitable, that accomplishing all of that will be far more difficult and more costly than even the most candid and honest American government could ever predict.

For most of us who aren't in either the government or the military, this is just common sense. We've all tried to do things, in either our personal or professional lives, that seem so easy when we begin them. For me, it happens every time I write an article, whether it's a piece of straight reportage, analysis, or investigation. Every time I set down at my desk to knock one of those pieces out, it seems easy and clear. I know where it should start, where it should climax, and where it should end. It always seems to be the simple task of stringing words together according to where the start, climax and end should go. But... it never turns out that way. Complexities always creep in. I wind up having to explain something at a point that disrupts the narrative. Or, I wind up having to quote or explain a rebuttal or explanation at a point that destroys the story and turns what seemed so clear into a giant puzzle. This happens to me even when I'm writing the most straight forward stories. Complexity always sneaks in. The unexepected always turns up, and usually at the worst moments.

Okay, I was just writing about the travails of writing there. And, though I love to write and to read and though I have the utmost respect for writing and have devoted my very ability to pay rent and buy food to that craft, it's just writing. Sure, it can get hairy. But it's not war.

War is infinitely more complex than any article, or series of articles, that must explain frequent nuance.

An article can be complicated but... a war?

A war...

The ultimate stage where humans are both crafty to push what we think are the boundaries of human imagination and so desperate that they, at the same time, challenge what we think are the limits of human instinct.

If, for me, even a simple article can spiral out of control and, if for those of you not in my field, even an inventory in a retail store or a powerpoint presentation for a board meeting or even the seemingly simple procedures of filing taxes or disputing a traffic ticket can spiral out of control... then we all have to admit that war, a scenario that forces people, no matter what side they're on, to transcend both the highs and lows of not only human thought and human physical capacity or of human will, is almost always sure to create not only unexpected consequences, but unforseeable consequences and even unquantifiable realities.

Almost by instinct, I tend to sympathize with pacifists just because I don't want people to die for causes that are so abstract as the causes that tend to start, inflame, and fight wars.

But, beyond that (because that's really just an aesthetic preference on my part) I tend to oppose wars because they never have and probably never will, produce the results predicted by the people who either start them or who retaliate to continue them. People are simply so unpredictable that no side in a war will ever be able to say, with any certainty, what the results of the war will be. From a US standpoint, even wars that, had I been president at the time (like World War II) I would have fought, produced results that were unpredictable. Think about it, were you in power during the years of World War II, I'll bet you'd be like me and would have entered the war (though we all would have done it differently, perhaps entering at different times). But, who among us could have predicted that the result would have been the US launvhing two hydrogen bomb attacks and that the Russians would have either stolen or duplicated that technology and that the greater part of the post-World War II 20th century would have been defined by a stand off between two opposed powers who both could have wiped life from the Earth many times over?

See? Even World War II, our good war, our just war and our necessary war, yielded unimaginable consequences. I am a peacenik, if you define that as a person who will always error towards peace when making choices. I'm no pacifist, though. I would have, had I been in charge, sent the US into World War II, either just as Roosevelt did or even earlier than Roosevelt did.

My point in this isn't to say what even the neocons know -- that war is bad. My point is that war is worse than bad. Bad can be corrected and healed. War isn't just bad, it's unpredictable and, because it involves people who will push and redefine the limits of heroism, cowardice, creativity and endurance, it's not only something that's beyond our ability to forecast but it's beyond our ability to even describe or define.

As I said, I'm not a pure pacifist. Sometimes, we have to go to war. I support, in retrospect, World War II and I support, in shorter retrospect, our invasion of Afghanistan.

But when it comes to wars of choice, like our recent invasion of Iraq, I have to draw a line. If we find ourselves in the position we were in after 9-11, when we were savagely attacked and could identify a government harboring and supporting our attackers, then I can understand, even if I can't be enthusiastic about it, risking the uncertainties of war in order to both deprive our attackers of well documented and understood support and to punish our attackers for their crimes.

But, think about Iraq, where we were before we went to war and where we are now. Before the war we were, even without the benefit of hindsight, only in hypothetical danger. Now, we're occupying a country where we don't even know, with any certainty, what's going on. We basically risked dealing with the unpredictable nature of war, but we took that risk without properly understanding why we should take that risk.

What we did was gamble. There's nothing wrong with gambling. Taking risks in the face of the unknown is part of every human life, from the most mundane risks to the most profound.

But, smart leaders, leaders of societies and especially leaders of the US, which is the most powerful society on the planet at this point of history need to know when a gamble is warranted and necessary and when it isn't. We don't even know, right now, exactly what our invasion of Iraq has wrought. The question to me isn't so much "what went wrong?" or even "who was wrong?" The question to me is, "was this risk even worth taking?"


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