The Scars of the U.S. War in Iraq

The American public doesn't care much to discuss the uncomfortable lessons of our involvement in Iraq over the past decade.

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Sgt. First Class Michael Duquette, 47, relaxes outside a black market fuel depot in Baghdad, Feb 15, 2008.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan

Hard as we Americans might try to forget the failures of our foray into Iraq that began 10 years ago this month, a number of reports making headlines this week are unwelcome but necessary reminders that the episode will likely be viewed as one of the great historical miscalculations in the era of U.S. supremacy.

The week kicked off with news that much of the $60 billion in American taxpayer dollars slated for Iraqi reconstruction was grossly mismanaged over the past decade, and that about $8 billion was outright wasted or unaccounted for. The findings came from Stuart Bowen, the U.S. inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, in a report titled "Learning from Iraq." The report looked only at funds spent on Iraqi reconstruction, and not the estimated $800 billion spent fighting the war and subsequent insurgency over the past decade. It shows a shocking lack of progress on both the development front and regarding the promotion of democracy, a key component of the Bush administration's justification for going to war following the revelation that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

"Our audits show a lack of accountability," Bowen told Spencer Ackerman of Wired's Danger Room, adding that, "we are not well structured to carry out stability and reconstruction operations." As Americans feel the pinch of the sequestration, which will result this year in across-the-board cuts in spending here at home roughly equal to the amount spent on rebuilding Iraq over the past decade, the irony is not lost.

Aside from driving up the national debt, the Iraq war revealed on multiple occasions moral failures within our armed forces and defense and intelligence leadership. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Abu Ghraib prison, where images of American servicemen humiliating and allegedly torturing Iraqi insurgents were seared into the minds of observers worldwide. Though Americans have mostly relegated this ugly episode in our nation's history to the past, a new documentary report by The Guardian and BBC Arabic reveals that the use of secret detention and torture centers by Shiite militias during the height of the insurgency were in part facilitated by the Pentagon.

The documentary contends that former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General David Petraeus allowed two veterans of America's so-called "dirty wars" in Central America during the 1980s to train Shiite sectarian militias to extract actionable intelligence from captured members of the Sunni insurgency between 2003 and 2006. While there are no accusations that American trainers actively took part in torture, the report claims that the two special advisers, Colonel James Steele and retired Colonel James Coffman, were aware of and present during interrogations where torture was employed.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the U.S. Withdraw from Iraq Too Soon?]

Finally, while Sen. Rand Paul's filibustering speech on drones stole headlines regarding the vote for John Brennan to become the next director of the CIA this week, it's a Senate report on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques that could pose a greater problem for Brennan either now or early in his tenure. Though the report remains classified, The New York Times reports that Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, will push for at least parts of it to be made public. Insiders note the report offers a scathing criticism of CIA interrogation programs like those portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty revealing a pattern of failure to disclose details or grossly distorting the success of the program.

If Zero Dark Thirty's performance at the Oscars is any indication—it was nominated but failed to win in any major categories—the American public doesn't care much to discuss the uncomfortable lessons of our involvement in Iraq over the past decade. As always, we avoid them at our own peril. As the saying goes, those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.

  • Read Christopher Preble: Was David Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Strategy Worth It?
  • Read Michael Noonan: Defense Spending Is Declining, Sequestration or Not
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