One topic remains absent among the daily headlines and the 24-hour news cycle: Iraq. For half a decade, the war had entrenched itself into the national psyche. Americans, both those who supported and opposed the war, looked on anxiously as hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women — many of whom, loved ones — traveled to and from the Middle Eastern war theater for second, third, and fourth tours of duty. Their success was never a certainty; victory had to be achieved. Nothing could be taken for granted.
Yet now in the aftermath of success, something feels askew. The United States has, presumably, taken a deep national exhale. Due to the military surge and other developments on the ground, Iraq has largely been pacified; when asked, Americans respond that they are grateful. But nobody is really talking about how grateful we truly are, or how grateful we should be.
In 2006, at the height of carnage and civil war, if someone had said that three years hence Iraq would be a relatively peaceful oasis of parliamentarianism and constitutionalism, with low U.S. casualties, withdrawals in place, widespread security, and increasing normalcy, one would think that would be the primary news story of the decade. But it isn’t. That the United States turned a near-defeat into a victory is simply not being discussed — in the media, in the academia, and in politics.
Why is this so? Dexter Filkins of The New Republic — writing a review of Thomas E. Ricks’ The Gamble — believes this wartime apathy on the part of the public casts doubts about the future of American power and force-projection. He explains:
From centrality to banality: perhaps no other event in modern American history has gone from being contentious to being forgotten as quickly as the war in Iraq that an undertaking as momentous and as costly as America’s war in Iraq could vanish so quickly from the forefront of the national consciousness does not speak well of the United States in the early twenty-first century: not for its seriousness and not for its sense of responsibility.
Could anyone imagine the World War II generation treating its outcome of that struggle with a similarly blasÃ© attitude? Americans sacrificed then, not just on the European, African, and Far Eastern battlefields, but also at home: “victory gardens” were grown, war bonds were bought, and when the last of the Axis powers finally surrendered in late summer 1945, jubilation erupted throughout the nation.
Americans today seemingly do not have as strong of a sense of consequence as that generation. The true, gritty, unpleasant reality falls on deaf ears in an age of instant gratification, direct connections, instantaneous communication, and immediate access. It is almost as if deadly Iraq, for those four or five uncertain bloody years, represented an unreliable cell phone service which could eventually be fixed with better reception — albeit one thousands of miles away, with life-and-death results.
For many, the pending conclusion of the Iraq conflict seems to have a “take it or leave it” feel. Conservatives who supported the war effort seem happy it is over, if for no other reason than it relieves them of defending the unpopular at dinner parties. Just as Republicans are all too willing to craft a post-Bush political message, so too many national security conservatives seem to articulate a foreign policy message that circumvents the words “Bush” and “Iraq.” As for the war supporters who remained optimists during Iraq’s darkest days in 2005-06: in such a worldview, “American triumph” and “inevitability” seemed forever destined and intertwined. Such people seem not so much surprised by the turnaround as vindicated.
On the other side of the spectrum, those who opposed the war from the beginning — specifically those in Congress who claimed the war was “lost” and forecast that the 2007-08 surge would fail — remain hush-hush about achievements in Iraq, primarily because such admissions would prove their previous predications faulty, undermine their credibility, and the king of all horrors, lend credit to their public enemy, the retired George W. Bush.
Has the debate really become this cynical? Is the aversion to admitting mistakes the main obstacle that stands in the way of this country properly discussing contemporary Iraq? Filkins believes so, and continues, stating that Americans are also tired of hearing about Iraq:
The American people, we are told, appear to be exhausted by the war in Iraq. But exhausted by what, exactly? Certainly not from fighting it. The fighting is done by kids from the towns between the coasts, not by any of the big shots who really matter. And they are not exhausted by paying for it, either: another generation will do that. No, when Americans say that they are tired of the war in Iraq, what they really mean is that they are tired of watching it on television, or of reading about it on the Internet. As entertainment, as Topic A, the agony has become a bore. “A car bomb exploded today in a crowded Baghdad marketplace, killing 53 and wounding 112.” Click.
The irony of America’s big tune-out lies in its timing. It has taken place during what has been the most dramatic phase of the six-year-long conflict — more precisely, during the reversal of the war’s fortunes. It is this reversal, this unexpected turnaround to the possibility of something less than a disastrous outcome, that has allowed so many Americans guiltlessly to forget about it.
Should Filkins’s assessment be correct, this implies huge ramifications: Has a large chunk of Americans become so listless about this country that not only do they refuse to endure a struggle they deem unnecessary all the way “over there,” but also refuse to read, watch, or hear about how other Americans are, in fact, enduring this necessary struggle? In other words, their own apathy isn’t enough: apathy must permeate everywhere.
Until there is a dialogue in this country that weighs the successful U.S. emergence from Iraq, there should be cause for concern that this next generation of American leaders is not up to the task of global leadership.