(US Troops Leaving Iraq, photo from www.defense.gov)
December 15, 2011 now stands in history as the day American troops left Iraq, thus ending the nearly nine-year war that began with the bravado of “shock and awe” and concluded with a quiet flag-lowering ceremony. 4,487 U.S. troops lost their lives in this war, with more than 30,000 wounded, many suffering severe brain injuries in roadside bombings that became the hallmark of modern warfare. Nobody really seems to know how many Iraqi civilians died in this conflict, though many estimates put the number at more than 100,000.
There, now, don’t we feel better?
We binged on revenge and vengeance, voraciously devouring all those we suspected of being part of the horror of September 11, 2011. So what if some innocent lives got caught in the crossfire? Nearly 3,000 innocent people died at the hands of madmen on 9/11. The ancient code was a clarion call: eye for an eye, life for a life.
We thought we were getting the “justice” we wanted, but now it all still feels wildly out of balance, unsatisfying, unfulfilled. Maybe even unworthy — not the heroism of the troops, heaven knows, more than a million served and tens of thousands suffered terrible wounds, many fatal, and we are grateful to them. But we do not dishonor their sacrifice by wondering if we should think twice next time before launching a “pre-emptive” war against shadowy targets defined by scurrilous information. We now know that the so-called “intelligence” that led to the decision to invade Iraq was not very smart at all, and deeply flawed if not deliberately false.
Beyond the body count and destruction of the cities and culture of Iraq, another legacy of this war haunts American society today. Peace may have returned to Baghdad, but goodwill is elusive in the United States. The War on Terrorism encouraged Americans to cultivate the habits of suspicion and reporting on our neighbors. “If you see something, say something” became the mantra of the first decade of the 21st Century, a line that George Orwell might have penned for Big Brother. Since we’re not really sure what that “something” is that we’re looking for, we start with the unfamiliar — the person who does not look like us, whose speaks with a different accent, who wears different clothing, who has religious customs that do not conform to our own ideas about religion. Time was when such people might have been Jews or Catholics or Mormons or African Methodists, but today they are Muslims.
Cultivating habits of suspicion of others quickly turns to isolation. If we keep “the other” out, then we will know who’s here, right? Just ask the people detained by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona about that logic.
We watch anxiously as the calendar turns to a new year, normally a time for resolutions to improve, to make a fresh start. But we can’t tell if those bright lights up ahead are cheerful holiday decorations or klieg lights announcing yet another contentious presidential campaign debate, or another sorry press conference about some ugly scandal, or police spotting yet another victim of random urban violence.
We want to turn off the lights for just a little while, hoping that the news of distant peace in Baghdad might begin to brighten our mood at home. But peace on the home front is not something that others can give to us, we have to create it for ourselves. We can start with re-establishing the idea of goodwill toward all. Those of us who profess to be Christian and Catholic have particular opportunities in this season to manifest our belief in the essential virtue of charity toward all as a cornerstone of true peace and real justice.
Let us also remember our troops still fighting in Afghanistan.