On the eve of its invasion of Iraq in 2003, America seemed gripped by a fever. The White House warned a nation still traumatized by 9/11 that Iraq was hatching terrorist plots involving chemicals, biological weapons, and nuclear suitcase bombs.
U.S. infantry soldiers on the Iraqi border, where I was a news reporter, ritualistically shaved their heads before battle. Their commanders told them to expect Saddam to retaliate with chemical weapons that could stop their hearts in an instant.
It turned out much of that panic was manufactured, so that President George W. Bush could boast his invasion would protect the “homeland” and the rest of the world.
U.S. military commanders parroted Bush’s language during the mismanaged war and occupation that followed. Yet those bloody years uncovered no weapons of mass destruction and instead unleashed legions of new terrorists. The U.S. occupation of Iraq normalized torture, impunity, manipulation of intelligence, and a new level of official mendacity.
I have dedicated much of the last two decades to chronicling the damage and suffering in Iraq; now, as we mark twenty years since the invasion, I want to take stock of another victim of the United States’ fateful war of choice—America itself.
Today, Iraq and its neighbors continue to suffer from the cascade of violence and state failure triggered by America’s war. Perhaps less conspicuous is the harm America caused itself, and not just in terms of blood and treasure. The Iraq war inflicted deep damage on American rule of law, democracy, and security. Until America takes inventory of this caustic toll, it stands little chance of building an order that can make America itself, along with the entire world, more hospitable.
The most obvious damages to the United States from the Iraq war are easily quantifiable.
Even today, the U.S. government doesn’t publish data on how many military personnel and contractors were deployed to Iraq, but Pentagon records suggest more than 1 million served in that combat zone.
Many of these combat veterans carry deep scars. The Brown University Costs of War project estimates that 1.8 million U.S. veterans today have a recognized disability as a result of the post-9/11 wars, about double the disability rate from wars in earlier eras. Of Americans who served in the military after 9/11, 40 percent have a service-connected disability; 36 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; and 20 percent suffer traumatic brain injury. The U.S. government belatedly acknowledged disease caused by burn pits.
At least 300,000 Iraqi civilians were killed during the war. Nearly 5,000 U.S. military personnel and more than 3,500 contractors were killed in Iraq. According to the Brown University project, the Iraq war cost at least $2 trillion; another estimate puts the total cost at $3 trillion and rising.
A great many lives were cut short, while millions more—in America as well as Iraq—have been forever shaped by their defining experience in the war.
Then, there are the less tangible costs. Chief among them: America inflicted profound harm on its credibility.
After 9/11, the United States moved to a war footing and, for a time, enjoyed widespread international support. Then, U.S. leaders decided to invade Iraq, inventing justifications that exploited international goodwill and fears at home. To this day, Americans are reluctant to confront the harm this headlong rush to war caused to American interests and institutions.
American leaders reached new heights in dishonesty and impunity in Iraq—first by falsifying intelligence and making up their case for war, then by resorting to torture and indiscriminate detention while conducting the war, and ultimately by learning they could lie at will with no political consequence. Some politicians at the time didn’t actively support the Iraq invasion, but most of them avoided active criticism of the war’s mismanagement, leaving no one in the American government to scrutinize systemic failures in the intelligence, security, and foreign policy bureaucracies. These failures ushered in the chaos in which first al-Qaeda and then ISIS thrived.
Our current season of brazen political dishonesty came into its full during the Iraq war.
Our current season of brazen political dishonesty came into its full during the Iraq war. On May 1, 2003, with the initial invasion still underway, Bush gave a speech about Iraq on an aircraft carrier, standing before a huge banner that declared “Mission Accomplished.” And so it was: not the mission to secure Iraq, which was hurtling toward abject failure, but the mission to establish a new politics that was immune to facts. Today, a majority of Americans still believe Bush’s lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the false claim that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11. Bush’s success at political dishonesty established the template for Donald Trump’s Big Lie nineteen years later.
Meanwhile, the million or more who served on Iraq’s battlefields were saddled with impossible tasks under dangerous conditions. Even those who opposed official misconduct were immersed in a system that rewarded liars at the highest levels. The United States repeatedly declared victory in Iraq with distasteful and false metrics like Iraqi forces trained, terrorists and “anti-Iraqi forces” killed, and the nominal restoration of Iraqi sovereignty—no matter if sloppy American occupation policies had eviscerated state institutions and rendered Iraq almost ungovernable.
Long after American officials stopped thinking about Iraq, their legacy lingered. In 2019, an Iraqi presidential adviser told me his government was following the American example of Guantanamo Bay when it decided how to collectively punish communities where ISIS thrived.
There is no way to spin a benefit to America out of the Iraqi invasion. It shattered global norms and what remained of the international liberal order; that order had brought consistency to the world and benefited America economically and strategically.
U.S. intentions in Ukraine, for example, are viewed with deep and justified skepticism by countries in the Global South in general, and the Middle East in particular. How can Washington convince the world that it’s fighting for freedom against tyranny (which is true in Ukraine), when it still pretends it was doing the same in Iraq in 2003?
War Mentality Comes Home
Most Americans deployed in Iraq did not take part in combat. And the overwhelming majority did nothing illegal or dishonorable. Yet all the Americans who fought in Iraq were party to a rotten mission, even if they did not personally commit war crimes or torture detainees. And they saw that peers and leaders who were guilty of offenses against humanity and American law rarely suffered any consequence.
We see the impact of the Iraq war’s mores and tactics on the most worrying trends in American public life, some of which predate 2003 but all of which worsened in the war’s wake. We see it in a political culture in which liars no longer bother to pretend they’re telling the truth. We see it in the militarized style of policing that has worsened the epidemic of law enforcement violence against civilians. We see it in the callous indifference to democracy by a great many Americans, who subscribe to the argument that the United States is a “republic, not a democracy,” with rights and freedoms reserved for a select few.
It’s uncomfortable to discuss, but some of the soldiers deployed in Iraq also developed a taste for impunity. During the pandemic I visited a terrorism suspect being held in a federal detention facility in Manhattan. The ponderous Federal Bureau of Prisons guard who escorted me to the visiting rooms reminisced about his time as an infantryman in Iraq in the mid-2000s.
“Over there, we were gods,” he sighed. “We could do whatever we wanted. I miss it.”
I wasn’t surprised when I later read reports that in the summer of 2020 the Trump administration dispatched armed personnel from the Bureau of Prisons, in uniform but without identifying badges, to attack Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon and Washington, DC.
Some of the most dangerous ringleaders of the January 6, 2021 coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol served in the U.S. military during the War on Terror; one in five of the indicted insurrectionists were veterans. It’s difficult to know how their military experience might have influenced them. But we do know that they had witnessed, from within, many of their peers and commanders violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice without repercussions.
Fixing What’s Broken
Fortunately, the United States can repair some of the great errors that began with the invasion of Iraq. All is not lost.
Around the world, many leaders still seek American help. The United States’ appeal and soft power rests on its image of being a City on a Hill, a country ripe with opportunity and freedoms. Despite its flaws, the United States still attracts talented migrants. Its moral brand draws support from aspirational and like-minded individuals and governments around the world.
Many Iraqis, despite the harm caused to their country, believe in a productive role for America. Iraq’s foreign minister visited Washington in February and praised the American role in Iraq. Even the new prime minister, who is supposedly from the anti-American wing of Iraqi politics, has pledged to work closely with the United States, and has even risked some of his own political capital to support a U.S. crackdown on the smuggling of dollars out of Iraq for money-laundering, sanctions-busting, and other illegal schemes.
Many Iraqis, despite the harm caused to their country, still believe in a productive role for America.
A similar faith persists across the world, evident in the coalition that has, despite its reservations, coalesced under American leadership to support Ukraine.
History offers countless examples of just societies and global compacts fashioned in the wake of vast disorder. For the United States, a first step toward a just new order requires naming the mistakes—the violations of law and morality, the crimes against humanity. A second step involves embracing the full implications of Joe Biden’s correct position that American policy has to be consistent at home and abroad.
Of late, there have been hopeful steps in the right direction. In December, both houses of Congress passed a bill supporting universal jurisdiction for some war crimes—a significant move in the right direction. The United States should get much more serious about addressing the problem of violent extremists and white supremacists in the ranks of the military and law enforcement.
America can begin to repair the damage from the Iraq invasion with moral leadership: embracing the rule of law at home and abroad; promoting democracy even when it carries a cost; and centering justice and human well-being in policy. That formula illuminates the path forward in every area, no different for international peace and security than for rights and prosperity, in the United States or the global commons, the worldwide homeland that we all share.
Header image: In February 2005, a protester in Washington, D.C. dresses as a detainee in Abu Ghraib prison to oppose the human rights abuses of the administration of George W. Bush.