1 million civilians dead, 37,000 American soldiers dead or injured — And we’ve learned nothing from the Iraq debacle
March 19, 2013

After 10 years, $2 trillion spent, an estimated 1 million civilians casualties, and almost 37,000 U.S. troops deceased or injured, one of the biggest enduring stories of the Iraq War has to be how little the debacle changed anything in the United States (or, arguably, in Iraq).

Today, on the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, America still has a massive, fiscally unsustainable defense budget; Congress still teems with lawmakers who fervently supported the Iraq War and who never admitted their mistake in promoting the WMD lies; the foreign policy establishment is still dominated by Iraq War proponents who never acknowledged their misjudgments and/or their willingness to suppress inconvenient information; the Washington press corps is still populated with reporters who failed to ask serious questions about the case for war; and the opinion news sphere is still promoting those who got the Iraq War flat wrong. And while there are some vague rumblings about the possibility of changed foreign policy outlooks, the fact remains that the Afghanistan War escalation, the intensifying drone war and the unauthorized Libya War suggest that the Iraq conflict’s lesson about the perils of “nation building,” “preemptive war” and blowback are still largely ignored.

To appreciate how little political fallout the Iraq War generated, consider how different the reaction was to American history’s most recent antecedent to the Iraq conflict. A generation ago, a similarly misguided war of choice in Vietnam resulted in such a fervent political backlash that a president was forced to opt against running for reelection, a slate of anti-war legislators was swept into Congress, and pro-Vietnam War Sen. Thomas Dodd and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution architect Sen. William Fulbright were voted out of office. At the same time, the leading voice in the establishment media dared to adversarially report fundamental flaws in the pro-war argument, to the point where it has become a mark of shame to admit you publicly backed the conflict.

To be sure, the reaction gap between Vietnam and Iraq can be explained, in part, by the fact that the former invasion generated more casualties, and by the fact that the former also involved mass conscription. That particular method of raising a fighting force tends to spread a war’s blood-and-guts consequences more widely through the population — and therefore creates the potential for a bigger political backlash — than a fighting force that is all volunteer.

However, that’s not the whole story. The other factor that explains the reaction gap between Vietnam and Iraq is a change in the political system. Simply put, in the last decade, that system has become almost completely impervious to any kind of consequences for bad decisions. Over time, such a lack of accountability has created a self-fulfilling feedback loop. With the public seeing no consequences for wrongdoing, the expectations of consequences, or feelings that they are even necessary, slowly but surely disappear.

This reality, of course, does not just define foreign affairs in the post-Iraq world. It is evident everywhere. From a refusal to prosecute a single banker connected to the financial meltdown, to the refusal to hold oil companies accountable for environmental destruction, to the refusal to hold education “reformers” responsible for the failure of their destructive policies, the modern era has taught us in myriad ways that there is no such thing as accountability for the politically connected.

In learning that lesson over and over and over again, most Americans have slowly come to accept that sad reality as immutable. Indeed, so accepting are we that few even flinch anymore when those who missed the financial crisis still appear on our televisions as financial experts, when those who have harmed America’s education system appear on our televisions as education specialists, or when still-unapologetic Iraq War cheerleaders appear on our televisions as Credible Foreign Policy Voices.

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