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Every now and then, I think back to the millions of people who turned out in this country and across the globe in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq. Until the recent Women’s March against Donald Trump, that may have been the largest set of demonstrations in American history or, at the very least, the largest against a war that had yet to be launched. Those who participated will remember that the protests were also a sea of homemade signs, some sardonic (“Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?”), some blunt (“Contain Saddam — and Bush”), some pointed indeed (“Pre-emptive war is terrorism”). In one of those demonstrations, I was carrying a sign which read “The Bush administration is a material breach” (a reference to that crew’s insistence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in “material breach” of a U.N. resolution for not fully disclosing its efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction… you know, those non-existent nukes that were slated to create future mushroom clouds over American cities). There was even one humorous sign I noted then that seems relevant to our Dystrumpian moment and the president’s stated wishes to “keep” Iraqi oil: “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand?”
But here’s the essential thing: the invasion to come had disaster written all over it and millions of people saw that perfectly clearly. They were, of course, the ones who weren’t consulted then and would never be remembered when what they feared actually occurred and played out so catastrophically. Unlike those who got us into the Iraq nightmare, one of the great blunders of modern times, or those who later prosecuted the ongoing war there, they would never be asked for their reflections on it.
They are now largely forgotten, as is the thought that, then as now, it didn’t necessarily take an expert to tell you the obvious: that America’s never-ending wars in the Middle East would come to no good; that all the promises about “winning,” whether then or today, have been or will prove so much hogwash. It didn’t take an expert, then or now, to know that Washington’s military-first efforts to “win” across the Greater Middle East were fated to end badly, whether we’re talking about the famed “surge” of 2007 in Iraq, President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009, or, in the age of Trump, the sudden surge of American air strikes in Yemen in the wake of a failed and now-controversial raid in which a Navy SEAL and possibly 10 children died. It seems that those included the most intensive day of drone strikes ever ordered and, more generally, an intensification of the Obama era campaign in that country. (This from a president who was supposed to be a noninterventionist!)
From 2003 on, it hasn’t been all that difficult to see just how poorly all of this would play out even as it happened. Of the surge in Iraq, for example, I wrote in 2008: “If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn’t be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.” And I was hardly alone in my “insight.”
Nonetheless, no matter what I or others outside the American mainstream media wrote at the time (and since), the surge’s cachet remained — and remains — strong indeed. That’s why it couldn’t be more useful to hear from an actual expert on just what went wrong and why. On the 10th anniversary of the original “surge” in Iraq, Major Danny Sjursen, TomDispatch regular, former history instructor at West Point, and the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, offers a personal look at the building of a legend, which helped make careers, including those of Trump’s top generals, and kept a disastrous war going.