The seventh anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq was quietly remembered over the last few days- a few demonstrators, a few spirited speeches against the war, but mostly short memories of what has been our most divisive war since Vietnam. How quickly we forget.
There are about 96,000 US troops in Iraq, down from 170,000 during the height of the surge. Most of our troops are encamped on the fringes of Baghdad or in the Green Zone and tasked with reserve missions rather than frontline combat or those night patrols over dangerous and bombed filled roads.
Over the coming months those numbers should drop again, although it is unlikely that the number of troops stationed in Iraq will ever be a mere token presence. It is also important to realize that our largest embassy in the world is in Iraq, and those civilian personnel will definitely remain in force for a considerable period of time. It is now up to the men and women in the khaki pants and shortsleeve shirts to become the face of American intervention.
Historians will have much to debate about the war – 4300 lives lost, ten times that number in casualties and perhaps as much as $ 3 trillion in national treasure. It is important to remember that the initial justifications for the war have all faded into the background- no WMDs, no clear ties to al Qaeda, and no real national security threat from the regime of Saddam Hussein. But in an unusual twist, Iraq will be remembered as our longest nation-building, domestic security and democracy enhancement project.
Today there is much to be pleased with in Iraq, although progress must be judged in tiny increments of improvement. Free and fair elections, relative peace, a budding economy, and increased levels of national unity. But as this slow improvement was taking place, Americans have moved on to the next war in neighboring Afghanistan or to fears about the economy and the endless domestic battles over health care reform.
The question of the day and every day in the coming years will likely be ” Was it all worth it?” Certainly the war was not worth it if the question is built on the initial justifications. But Americans are a people who rarely like to admit that a war was a waste or had no merit, and so building a new Iraq, a new democratic Iraq, a new united and properous Iraq will become the mantra for justifying all the dead and wounded and the price tag. Most wars are a waste of lives and money, few rise to the level of the ” greatness” as was the case in World War II, but the Iraq war is unique in that its justification evolved over time and the memory of all the miscalculations and arrogance are but a distant memory.