The war in Iraq is at the heart of the instability in the Middle East – and the U.S. It is now the third-longest-running war in U.S. history: longer than the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War. Only the Philippine-American and Vietnam Wars have lasted longer. Although control over Iraq’s oil was a major reason for the invasion, it was not the main factor. Overall strategic control over the region and teaching a “lesson” to any country that dares “step out of line” was the main objective. However, none of U.S. imperialism’s political, economic, or military objectives have been achieved. Far from demonstrating its power, U.S. imperialism has demonstrated the limits of its power. The results will be far-reaching both internationally and within the U.S. itself.
Far from bringing “democracy and freedom” to the people of Iraq, the U.S. invasion and occupation has created an inferno of chaos and destruction which is even worse than during the rule of Saddam Hussein, the former U.S. ally who was no friend of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people have been condemned to a living nightmare of unemployment, poverty, and sectarian bloodshed. They are subjected to the most demeaning and humiliating treatment on a daily basis through raids, checkpoints, arrests, extortion, beatings, and torture. Entire cities have been reduced to rubble. Basic services such as water and electricity are luxuries even for the rich, let alone the poor. Some estimates put the Iraqi death toll at 655,000 since the war began in early 2003. The United Nations estimates that more than two million Iraqis are now refugees in neighboring countries and that more than 1.9 million are internally displaced within Iraq – roughly 1/6 the country’s population. The current government is a puppet government with virtually no support among the population, and remains in power at the whim of the U.S. bayonets that back it.
Over 3,200 U.S. troops have been killed, with another 26,000 wounded. In the U.S., the economic cost of the war has meant across-the-board cuts in social services, health, and education, while a handful of corporations have made a veritable killing off of juicy government contracts. The continuation of the war can result only in a worsening of the situation both in Iraq and here at home.
It is now the most important issue on the minds of American workers and youth. 59 percent of Americans want the troops out immediately or within a year, and a majority oppose Bush’s plan for a troop “surge”. A majority do not trust the media or the military to tell the truth about what is happening in Iraq. A majority are in favor of Congress using its power to block funding to deploy any more troops. Instead, the Democrat-controlled Congress approved a $124 billion spending bill to continue funding the war. In an effort to appease the millions anti-war voters that swept them into legislative power in November 2006, they cynically tacked on an ultimately unenforceable “requirement” that the troops be withdrawn by September 2008. But the fact remains: they have voted to continue the death, destruction, and war profiteering, and betrayed the illusions of millions who sincerely thought they would be different than the Republicans.
One important reason for the “surge” was U.S. imperialism’s need to continue to put pressure on Iran, which in many ways holds the key to a U.S. exit. Bush hoped to show Iran that the U.S. military is not too overstretched, and that decision-makers in Washington do not have their hands tied no matter what the mood at home and the reality on the ground. But this is Bush’s last desperate roll of the dice on Iraq, as he hopes against all odds that a miracle will occur. But the initial results of the “surge” were as could be expected in such a dire situation. With half of the 30,000 total troop increase already in place, the monthly death toll in Iraq rose 15 percent in March. At least 2,078 Iraqi civilians, policemen and soldiers died across Iraq in March, 272 more than in February. While sectarian killings in Baghdad have fallen somewhat, the killings have simply spread to other parts of the country like Anbar Province where the concentration of occupation troops is lower – a classic guerrilla tactic. Overall car bomb attacks rose and the number of U.S. soldiers killed, 80, was in line with the grim averages of the previous months.
For all intents and purposes, the U.S. has already militarily and politically lost the war. The ruling class is increasingly divided and concerned about the course of the war. The constant stream of dead and wounded Americans and Iraqis, combined with the high costs and deep cuts, is having a profound effect on workers’ and young people’s consciousness. There is new generation whose world-view has been entirely shaped by the epoch of war, revolution, and counter-revolution through which we are living. They live in a world where the perpetual “war on terror” – a war of invasion abroad and economic attacks against working people here at home – is the norm. It should therefore come as no surprise that among growing layers of the youth in particular, we can see a profound questioning not only of the war but of the capitalist system itself.
A humiliating withdrawal would be a setback worse than their defeat in Vietnam, complicating their plans for further military conquest and domination, especially in light of the U.S.’s more unstable economic situation. But continuing this ill-conceived adventure can only exacerbate the contradictions rapidly accumulating in the U.S. and further destabilize the Middle East. There are sharp divisions over how to proceed, even within the Republican ranks. There are those who wish to “stay the course”, blindly following the path charted by Bush and his out-of-touch-with-reality neo-cons. Other, more far-sighted politicians like James Baker and the “old guard” of the U.S. ruling class, understand that this path is leading U.S. imperialism and capitalism straight over a cliff. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam War veteran, recently called the Iraq War “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” This is not the “loony-left” saying this, but a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. This reflects the depths of the divisions at the very top of the U.S. government.
A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations think tank bluntly asserts that the situation in Iraq is beyond repair, that a U.S. military victory is impossible in Iraq, and that “amateurish” post-invasion planning has seen Iraq collapse into civil war. According to the report: “The United States has already achieved all that it is likely to achieve in Iraq … Staying in Iraq can only drive up the price of those gains in blood, treasure and strategic position … The time has come to acknowledge that the United States must fundamentally recast its commitment to Iraq. It must do so without any illusions that there are unexplored or magic fixes, whether diplomatic or military … The crisis has now moved beyond the capacity of Washington to control on its own … The United States lacks the military resources and the domestic and international political support to master the situation … It is now just a matter of time … Better to withdraw as a coherent and somewhat volitional act than withdraw later in hectic response to public opposition to the war in the United States … Some disasters are irretrievable.”
Clearly, the more intelligent representatives of the ruling class see the danger of burning out the military and want to cut their losses. They recommend an immediate timetable for withdrawal, and for a political compromise to be reached by negotiating with Iran and Syria. But instead of following this advice, which from the perspective of the ruling class is as intelligent as it gets in the face of such a fiasco, Bush is sending a “surge” of troops to Iraq. In reality, this “surge” is nothing of the sort. The military is so over-extended that there are simply no fresh troops to send. In order to achieve the numbers required for this plan, the tours of duty of some troops are being extended, while the deployment of others is being accelerated. But even this will not save the situation. The 30,000 additional troops are a mere drop in the bucket. There are simply not enough troops to hold down a people that doesn’t want them there. Even the mightiest military machine in the world cannot afford to assign an armed guard to every Iraqi worker, peasant, or youth.
Ultimately, Bush is trying to buy more time at home and on the ground in Iraq, hoping to cobble together a political solution that can be passed off as victory to a war-weary population. Like Nixon, he is seeking “Peace with Honor.” But the longer it takes, the more unlikely it will work, and like Nixon, he will fail miserably. Incredibly, in their desperation to counteract growing Iranian / Shiia influence in Iraq and Lebanon, it has been revealed that the U.S. has been negotiating with and even funding various Sunni paramilitary groups in Iraq and elsewhere. Far from the hardline approach of “we do not negotiate with terrorists”, they are reportedly actually giving money to groups with ties to al Qaeda. The hypocrisy of imperialism knows no bounds.
However, Bush’s time and room for maneuver is fast running out. The price tag for the Iraq War is set to rise to nearly $589 billion – more than was spent on the Vietnam War. Even the world’s wealthiest nation cannot afford this colossal haemorraging of the national treasure forever. To meet these costs, spending on social programs has been cut to the bone – such is the cold, calculating logic of the profit system. Medicare and Medicaid, which have already been gutted, are to be further slashed by $78.6 billion over the next five years. Medicare recipients will also have to pay higher premiums for prescription drugs and doctors’ services, and annual indexing of income thresholds will be eliminated, which in effect means another $10 billion in cuts. Millions more will be cut from programs directly benefiting children. This is truly a budget of “guns before butter”. The U.S. is now ranked 37th in the world when it comes to health care indicators. This is “as good as it gets” in the epoch of capitalism’s decay, even during an economic expansion.
When we hear the term “military spending”, we often think of it abstractly, as though the military were doing the research, development, and manufacturing of arms and equipment itself. The reality is, the real winners from this war are the private armament, security, and construction companies that are making billions off of the U.S. treasury – working people’s tax dollars. And if the billions of dollars spent on the war wasn’t already a big enough waste, an auditors’ report to a House of Representatives committee overseeing work in Iraq found that contractor overcharges and unsupported expenses accounted for one in six dollars spent on the war so far. According to the report, some $10,000,000,000 has been “squandered” by the U.S. government in the course of the war. It also found that Defense and State department officials condoned or allowed repeated work delays, bloated expenses and payments for shoddy work or work never performed.
This is all part of the “privatization” of the war, whereby services formerly provided by the military itself are now contracted out to for-profit corporations. They do everything from providing security and interrogating prisoners to cooking and serving food, cleaning barracks, and fixing machinery. They do all of this with no oversight and no accountability to the military chain of command. As private corporations, the activities of mercenary companies like DynCorp and Blackwater Security are not subject to government oversight or examination through the Freedom of Information Act.
The use of private contractors has doubled since 2001 to about $400 billion a year in 2006. Companies such as Halliburton, Kellogg-Brown-Root, and Bechtel – all of them with close ties to the government – claim that competition over contracts between private companies provides savings and efficiency. But the fact is, there is usually zero competition involved. This is the ultimate form of war-profiteering: no-bid contracts with built-in profits, a system called “cost-plus”. In other words, the more they spend, the more profit they make. It’s no coincidence that the top 20 service contractors have spent nearly $300 million since 2000 on lobbying and have donated some $23 million to political campaigns of both parties. Waging war is big business and having friends in government sure doesn’t hurt.
This privatization of the military effort was worked out at the highest levels of government in the years before the Iraq War even began.The direct links between the Pentagon (Rumsfeld when he was Secretary of Defense), the State Department (Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Zalmay Khalilzad, Stephen Cambone), and the private sector (Pete Aldridge of Aerospace Corporation, Thomas White of Enron, Gordon England of General Dynamics, James Roche of Northrop Grumman) are eyeopening. The “revolving door” between government “service” and private corporations has been taken to a whole new level in the last 5 years.
Private contractors do far more than build military bases and serve food to soldiers. Of the estimated 100,000 private contractors operating in Iraq, several thousand are “security contractors” – i.e. private soldiers / mercenaries. Blackwater, the largest of these companies holds an estimated $500 million in known contracts, as well as an alleged “secret black budget”. These private soldiers are in effect accountable to no one but the owners of the companies they work for. They are paid far more than regular soldiers, and if they are killed or wounded, they aren’t counted in the overall military casualty figures as they are technically “civilians”. These mercenaries are typically paid $300 per day, but when they have to protect high level envoys this can double to $600 per day. Even when the U.S. military is is eventually forced to pull out of Iraq it is likely that these private soldiers will remain long afterward (until they too are forced out by events on the ground). Ultimately, they serve the same purpose as the soldiers in uniform – to protect the private profits of the corporations.
The disastrous course of the war has led to a simmering discontent in the U.S. But it is no longer just the “usual suspects” who are against the war – but the vast majority of the population, including millions of former ardent supporters of Bush and his foreign policy. Multiple and in many cases extended tours of duty, often against soldiers’ will through “stop loss” programs, have torn apart families, ruined civilian professional careers, and forced the “weekend warriors” of the National Guard and Reserves to become full time soldiers. Poor wages, bad conditions, shoddy equipment, and the growing realization that this is not a war worth fighting has led to growing opposition within the military itself. Iraq War veterans, military families, and even active duty soldiers are increasingly vocal in their opposition to the war. Several high-profile cases of veterans refusing to re-deploy to Iraq and at least one officer who has refused to serve in Iraq are indications that discontent within the military runs deep.
This is reflected in the number of soldiers that went AWOL in 2006, which jumped by 27 percent over 2005. Overall, the Army estimates about 22,500 soldiers have deserted since fiscal year 2000, though some soldiers’ rights advocates put the number at double that figure. In any case, the actual number is much higher as these figures do not reflect deserters from the National Guard or the Reserves. 16 soldiers have been put on trial, 90 percent of them have faced jail time. Others have been quietly released out of fear for what they could expose about the conduct of the military in Iraq. There is a growing community of self-exiled deserters in Canada.
Then there’s the treatment of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Disproportionately working class and poor, many join the military because there are no other economic or educational options available to them. As in all wars, these young men and women are treated as heroes as long as they are healthy and able to kill and die. But once they are no longer suited for this “work”, they are tossed aside and forgotten.
Although the number of U.S.military personnel being killed is nowhere near as high as it was in Vietnam, the number of soldiers being taken out of action each month is far higher than the death figures indicate. For every soldier killed there are roughly 8 others wounded. Due to modern battlefield medicine, more wounded soldiers than ever survive traumatic injury, but are left with permanent head damage, amputations, and mental illness.
Tens of thousands of veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with the rate of suicide, domestic violence, and even murder of spouses among veterans far higher than in the rest of the population. As reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, it is estimated that out of 103,788 returning veterans, 25 percent have had a mental health diagnosis with more than half of them having had two or more distinct conditions. Not surprisingly, those most at risk were the youngest soldiers and those with the most combat exposure. Twenty-two soldiers killed themselves in 2005, accounting for nearly one in five of all Army non-combat deaths. Many of them had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, severe depression, or anxiety disorder – and many had been redeployed to combat duty after being diagnosed with PTSD resulting from earlier deployments. As explained by Stephen Robinson, the former director of the National Gulf War Resource Center: “What you have is a military stretched so thin, they’ve resorted to keeping psychologically unfit soldiers at the front.”
Then there are the consequences of exposure to radioactive depleted uranium (DU), the full effects of which are not yet known. It is estimated that 56 percent of veterans from the first Gulf War suffer from exposure to DU. Not only are the affected veterans themselves ill, they bring the effects back to the U.S. A study of the families of 251 Gulf War veterans in Mississippi found that an astonishing 67 percent had children born without eyes, ears or a brain, had fused fingers, blood infections, respiratory problems or thyroid and other organ malformations. This is just the tip of the iceberg that will continue to affect veterans and their families for decades to come, as even more troops have been exposed to DU in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. All this while funding for veterans’ services has been systematically cut in order to pay for the war itself.
The callous treatment of the veterans was highlighted by the recent scandal at the Walter Reed Medical Center, where many traumatically injured veterans are treated. An investigation found that soldiers face a nightmare of poor conditions, understaffing, endless bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and general neglect. This led to the resignation of several top Army officials, including the Secretary of the Army, but those really responsible for these injured soldiers and the lack of planning to care for them remain in power. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, some 1.5 million military personnel have been deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – thousands of them are expected to join the ranks of the estimated 195,000 homeless veterans. This is the real “patriotism” of the ruling class toward the working class men and women they send off to fight and die in their wars.
Given the course of the war, and the generalized opposition to it, the potential exists for even larger mass mobilizations against it. The nation-wide mass demonstrations that preceded the war have yet to return on that scale, but the 500,000 that marched on Washington, DC on January 27, 2007, was one of the largest mobilizations since the war began. Although the movement is still largely dominated by petty-bourgeois pacifists, some recent demonstrations have been more militant, class-conscious and political, with rising participation by veterans, trade union locals, and even former supporters of the war. Unfortunately, the current leadership of the anti-war movement remains divided and politically unfocused, while organized labor as a whole has not placed itself at the head of the anti-war movement where it belongs. Many in the anti-war movement correctly condemn both corporate parties for their role in launching and continuing the war. But they offer no real solution other than semi-annual demonstrations and “hope” that the Democrats will “do the right thing.” Many youth in particular reject this class collaboration policy, but there is as of yet no concrete alternative.
The Democrats have once again shown their true colors by yet again voting to continue funding the war. Many Americans gave them another chance to “change their ways” after the November elections, but the result has been predictably the same. Most Democrats oppose the war not because it is a war of imperialist domination, but because it is complicating U.S. efforts to more aggressively conduct the “war on terror” in general, and because history shows that the patience of the U.S. working class will not last forever. Like many Republicans they understand that domestic and geopolitical reality will force them to withdraw from Iraq sooner or later – they simply want to turn the inevitable result to their advantage. In so doing, they are cynically using the lives of millions of Iraqis and thousands of Americans like pawns in their power struggle with the Republicans over which gang of billionaire politicians gets to loot the public coffers.
By voting to continue the war, they have provided Bush with the breathing space he needed to try and find some way out of the fiasco. They have allowed him to continue to wholesale destruction of Iraq and its people and have condemned hundreds if not thousands more U.S. soldiers to death and dismemberment. It is also important to note that a major provision in their timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is the privatization of 81 percent of Iraq’s currently nationalized oil industry. This would open Iraq up to “investment” by Exxon/Mobil, Chevron/Texaco, BP/Amoco, Royal Dutch/Shell. These “production sharing agreements” would guarantee them true superprofits, allowing them to receive as much as half of the country’s oil revenues for the first 15-30 years of the contracts’ lifespan, denying Iraq any income whatsoever until the corporations’ infrastructural “investments” have been recovered. No matter what the Democrats say in their election-year rhetoric, they will always defend the overall interests of their corporate paymasters over the interests of working people and the youth.
This lack of a political solution to end the war means that the economic, social, and political pressure cooker in the U.S. will continue to build up. Under these conditions, the demand for a mass party of labor on an anti-war platform could potentially get a mass echo and rapidly grow into a powerful challenge to the two-party system. What is needed is a bold lead by the labor movement, breaking its unholy alliance with the Democratic Party, and clearly linking the war in Iraq with the war on working people here at home. We need to organize even larger mass mobilizations with the working class at the forefront. We need to organize in our workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools around a program and policy of militant class independence that can truly address the needs of working people and the youth. We can depend only on our own class forces, organization, and mobilization.
The fact that a vast majority are already against the war causes some to question the usefulness of continuing the mass mobilizations. However, millions of others are finally realizing that we cannot simply wait around for the billionaire politicians to end the war. Life itself has forced them to draw increasingly radical conclusions, and given a clear lead, they will come out on the streets by the millions. We should also keep in mind that a military action against Iran, even if it is only airstrikes and not a full-fledged invasion, could unleash a renewal of the anti-war movement on a scale not seen since before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is clear that the human and political costs of the war are tremendous, leading to mass discontent and serious divisions within the ruling class. However, the accumulated effects of the economic cost of the war on the increasingly feeble U.S. economy may prove to be the most important long-term result of Bush’s policy. Some $456 billion has already been appropriated for the war, not included latest funding bill. Even the richest nation on earth cannot afford this policy of “guns before butter” indefinitely.