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Issue Date:  March 30, 2007

Act to end the Iraq folly

Four years have passed since “Shock and Awe” was unleashed on an Iraq already staggering from the first Gulf War, nearly a decade of incessant bombing by the United States in northern and southern portions of the country and nearly as long under sanctions that we termed the most severe in human history.

Four years have passed. At least 3,219 U.S. soldiers, most of them just beyond boyhood, have died. Untold tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. It is a number we don’t keep. It is a number that early on our then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said flatly he wasn’t interested in.

Four years have passed. The United States in that time has spent in excess of $410 billion. According to the National Priorities Project (nationalpriorities.org), a long-established organization that tracks public spending, the United States spends $11 million an hour on the Iraq war.

The $410 billion is enough to send more than 54 million children to a year of Head Start, or to insure more than 245 million kids for a year. To place that last number in perspective, the Census Bureau’s figures for 2005 show that 8.3 million children were uninsured. They could be covered by medical insurance with a small portion of what we have spent in Iraq.

That amount would enable school districts across the country to hire an additional 7 million public school teachers. It is enough to give four-year scholarships at public universities to more than 19 million students. According to the Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics, a total of 17.3 million students are enrolled in public two- and four-year institutions of higher learning. Of that figure, 6.5 million are in two-year colleges. The picture is clear. What we spend in Iraq alone would be more than enough to give a scholarship to every kid in the country going to public colleges.

* * *

Four years have passed, and a country that was on the brink of disintegration when the bombs started raining down anew has been thoroughly shattered. A culture that was in disarray has been ground to dust. A middle class has been dispersed. Intellectuals, having sold their libraries and, finding themselves beyond any reasonable expectations of continuing their scholarship, have fled. Professionals, tired of being targeted by kidnappers and extortionists, have gone into exile and are settling in elsewhere. The pre-war Iraq has become a diaspora. The current Iraq is home to vicious sectarian killers, al-Qaida operatives and assorted other terrorists. It is a chaotic and deadly mix overseen by a deeply corrupt new government for which the United States has become a largely ineffective mediator, able to bring a bit of sanity to this or that location only for as long as troops are not needed elsewhere.

It is difficult to find -- amid a wide array of military brainpower and former high-level government and security personnel -- any voice that can make a convincing argument to stay the course, whatever that course might be at any given moment in this long, tragic national nightmare.

From WMD to “mission accomplished,” to “the insurgency is in its last throes” to “we’re making progress” to the “surge” is the answer, the Bush administration has trafficked in faulty intelligence, terrible decisions, miscalculations and deceit. It is time to end this folly.

* * *

Once the case could be made that the United States’ invasion and occupation had rid the world of a dictator. Indeed, that is the case, and he and a number of his henchman have since gone to the gallows.

But the argument could also be made that the world is populated with brutal leaders and that the killing fields are, even today, multiplying. As one conservative columnist commented at the beginning of the war, using the dictator or WMD rationale for preemptive war would keep us busy at war for many years.

In our own hemisphere, the list of atrocities -- tortures, massacres, assassinations -- and their attendant brutal dictators would fill volumes. And they already have in places like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Guatemala, where they are still opening mass graves and where one of the bloodiest dictators in Central America’s modern history -- Efraín Rios Montt -- runs free.

We have never asked for an accounting by or for any of them. They were our friends, they protected our interests, they were good for business in their ability to cut through the messy incidentals of justice for indigenous and marginalized and the like.

The United States has a variety of standards in its approach to the world and it is that inconsistency so glaringly bared that, as much as any failed war policy, is toppling us from our moral pedestal.

* * *

Four years have passed, and there were some protests on the March 19 anniversary. A few people were arrested, a few newspapers and some TV outlets took note. But it was all over as quickly as it began. Most of us, even if we deeply disagree with the policy of the past six years, can go about our lives without much distraction. The details of the war are a numbing, nagging background noise.

There’s no draft. That means only a tiny minority of U.S. parents have to work through the night sweats and the worry about what is happening to a son or daughter in the mayhem of Iraq. It is a tiny portion of young people who, in increasingly unjust redeployments, are asked to face the ultimate sacrifice.

Apparently an election in November that rearranged the Congress and in which dissatisfaction with the war was a primary issue was not enough to compel action. Our civic leaders aren’t listening and our religious leaders are largely silent. But our civic and religious traditions empower us in many ways. The Web site mentioned above for the National Priorities Project contains clear information and instruction on the simplest acts of democracy -- contacting legislators and making your voice heard.

There are many other sites that offer similar instruction and encouragement to act. Pick one and get going.

And we’d also strongly recommend hooking up with a local Pax Christi group, the Catholic peace organization that is part of an international movement of Catholic peace activists. It considers the issues of the day from the depths of the Catholic social justice tradition. The Pax Christi approach is thoughtful, prayerful and ultimately leads to action.

Four years have passed. The accumulated death and destruction has done nothing to move Iraq or the world toward the goals of peace and security. Quite the opposite has occurred. It is time to witness to a new way of approaching the world.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2007

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