Small Wars Journal

Charting a Course to Meaning: The Iraq War 19 Years On

Sun, 02/27/2022 - 12:15pm

Charting a Course to Meaning: The Iraq War 19 Years On

By Nathan White and Katherine Voyles

What happens during war and what happens in the aftermath of war are two different things. What’s more, how to make sense of what happens during war and how to make sense of what happens in the wake of war are also distinct from each other. Nineteen years on from the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, the nature and character of its aftermath are unsettled; this is true even though today the war itself is unpopular with the American public. Thomas E. Ricks, an important chronicler of the war, begins his 2006 book Fiasco this way: “The consequences of his [President Bush’s] choice [to invade Iraq] won’t be clear for decades.” Fifteen years on, Ricks is still right; the consequences, for U.S. domestic politics and culture, for U.S. foreign policy, for civil-military relations, and for the U.S.’s standing in the world are still not widely understood even if some of them are increasingly visible. In the face of the very human need to make meaning from almost two decades of war and in an attempt to think about what comes after war, what follows here does not chart the nature of the fallout from the invasion; instead, it thinks through why the consequences are hard to see and even harder to create consensus around. In light of those realities, it suggests that resilience during uncertainty and adversity is both a way of being in the world as well as a way to understand the complexities and contingencies of unsettled, anxious times.

A central difficulty in understanding the legacy of the Iraq war is time; the invasion was so long ago and the war went on for so long. About one quarter of Americans today were neither alive during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nor during the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 that precipitated it. The split between the roughly three-quarters of people who were living during that time and the quarter who were not means the invasion exists uneasily between lived experience and memory on the one hand and history on the other. This generational divide is absolutely crucial, but even pushing it too far obscures the reality of long tail of 9/11, the invasion, and all that comes after. In “This is Forever” Spencer Ackerman writes, “Treating the 9/11 era as the past obscures every relevant fact about 20 years’ worth of sprawling state violence. The most relevant fact is this: the 9/11 era proceeds.” Grappling with the legacy of the invasion and what it means is so difficult and so necessary because it demands attention to so many time scales at once: the immediacy of the day for those who lived through it, the mediated experience of that day for those who were too young to remember it or who were born after it, and its persistence today and into the foreseeable future. In light of these fraught dynamics it is worth thinking on a line from Matt Gallagher: “the battle over … memory is just beginning.” Gallagher was writing explicitly about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but his observation also applies to Iraq.

The battle over memory is itself a contest about whose memory counts. This battle for memory is also a battle about story: the stories about those memories, their shape, who tells them, and how durable they are. There are, of course, attempts to chronicle the aftermath of the invasion. Noreen Malone’s Season Five of the Slow Burn podcast focused on the run-up to the invasion. Slow Burn aims to recreate what it was like to live through tumultuous times when the outcome was still unknown—its first season focused on Watergate. Plunging back into the moment itself—doing away with the critical distance afforded by the passing of time—is one way to grapple with fallout. Another is explicitly and openly living into that critical distance. Mara Karlin’s The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War announces its relationship to the passage of time and its embrace of the perspective created by it in its very subtitle. This acknowledgement of critical distance shapes the narrative in important ways.

Between immersion and distance, between yesterday as today and what today as today show us about yesterday, there are still other stories to be told. Garrett Graff notes that we tell tidy histories of 9/11—it began at such and such a time and lasted for 102 minutes and then it was over—that absolutely do not match up with the experiences of the day itself. This mismatch, it seems to me, is crucial for understanding why what Ricks calls consequences are so elusive. Graff’s take on 9/11 feels very relevant to the invasion and the war. Its contours are well-defined (Shock and Awe, the 21 days to Baghdad, Mission Accomplished, The Surge, the rise of the Islamic State, and so on), but if we cannot even make sense of what it was like to experience those contours, how on earth can we make sense of their consequences?  Ackerman suggests:

The War on Terror is supposed to be yesterday’s story; but here I am, saying it’s tomorrow’s. Mainstream journalism, to put it as dispassionately as I can, forces apart kinds of writing that I think are better off connected: reporting from analysis; “national security” … from materialist critique; journalism from history; voice from integrity. 

Ackerman is about reorienting, turning to the future, examining the present with a clear-eyed understanding that—as William Faulkner taught us “the past isn’t even the past.” This turning involves using a wide variety of perspectives instead of siloing into forms of professional success and professionalism that foreclose embracing multiple theoretical and practical perspectives. It is an incredibly attractive outlook, even if not everyone signs up for materialist forms of critique. Fact and fiction, memory and narrative spin, truth and deception are braided together – in present remembrance or in past foresight. These realities still have very real consequences, as evidenced by the Iraq War itself.

Orientation, as well as critique, requires guideposts. Direction needs a point of reference. The initial popularity of the war with the American public obscures the difficulty of finding reference, of making meaning, of telling the story of the invasion, and what it wrought. The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca captured this reality through an analogy of a sailing ship: “When a man [sic] does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” So too, the legacy and future potential of Iraq—in a word, its resilience—can only be assessed in relation to a telos, a desired end state. The colloquial understanding of resilience as “bouncing back” captures the general contours of the term: adversity is overcome to become better than (or at least as good as) before. Resilience can be applied to nearly any context, and is often unreflectively assumed to be a good (or virtue) in itself (hint: it isn’t!). An assumption is already implicit within this judgment regarding the nature of the desired end state. This assumption is sometimes incorrect. We may think we know what the best outcome should be, but history and experience suggest that the correlation between intention and outcome is not as strong as one would expect or even hope. Without a clearly defined goal, to use the imagery of resilience, we could be “bouncing” all day long to no effect. Worse, we could be moving resiliently toward an evil end. This is just as true for nation states as it is for individuals. In fact, the same events that presumably evidence a nation’s resilience could mean the downfall of many individuals, or vice versa. Assessment of resilience, even with a clearly defined end state, depends on the context and framework to which it is applied.

A lack of clear direction has been identified as a reason for the downfall of Western intervention in the first place; government leaders gave no clear definable objective from the start, with devastating consequences. The reality has changed little nearly two decades later. Anthony Cordesman suggests: “From the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to the present, the United States has never had a workable grand strategy for Iraq or any consistent plans and actions that have gone beyond current events.” This is the center of what ails Western assessments of the Iraq War. No cohesive narrative is possible because there is no goal, no terminus, no meaningful ending to that narrative. Meaning is elusive in the absence of a durable construct for creating thorough-going meaningfulness. Assessment of resilience is incoherent in a context of ill-defined goals. To put a finer point on it, the lack of clear direction or a sustainable narrative regarding Coalition actions in Iraq led to a vacuum of meaningfulness in the West where no coherent overarching narrative was possible. Meaning making took on a distinctly individualistic character with different kinds of meaning being made around the same events.

This incoherence opens discussion of an even deeper issue–who defines the object of any particular effort. In relation to the Iraq conflict, Western government leaders’ lack of clear direction created confusion for both Americans and Iraqis around the purpose of the intervention, its end state, and the withdrawal strategy. These factors had a trickle-down effect in real time as the war unfolded, and in the war’s aftermath. Individual American Service Members, Iraqis, and the global public made meaning of the events of the war as best they could. At times these meanings overlapped or were similar, but at times they very sharply diverged. For American and Iraqi combatants, this meant seeing war experience as the survival of brothers and sisters at arms; for Iraqis at home, the war became another example of Western imperialism; many simply tried to survive experiences of war that threatened to destroy all that they held dear. For Americans at home, the war was nothing more than another news headline drowned in the noise of busyness. These diverse experiences shape narratives about the war, even as narratives in turn shape how we understand experiences. This cycle plays itself out in an already potentially atomizing and divisive context.

In the absence of a shared narrative about the goals or meaning of the Iraq War individuals are left to make their own meaning. And that may well be a hallmark of the War on Terror. All that remains in the wake of such monumental efforts (nearly $2 trillion spent, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost) is the individual narrative. Memoirs are an especially dominant way of telling stories in this era. They are of necessity retrospective (they have a telos) but that telos does not necessarily match the telos of the conflict. Memoirs provided a limited viewpoint. They are of necessity a snapshot of a life, not an attempt to paint a fully-rounded, cradle-to-grave portrait. They chronicle the experience of American snipers, presidents, and platoons, as well as of Iraqis caught up in the conflict. Time passes after the alleged end of the Iraq conflict but no larger telos is enshrined in totalizing lore—that is, not for many in the West. Others, especially non-Western entities such as the Islamic State, have had little troubling crafting all-encompassing narratives about the Iraq War and what it means for their identity, for their politics, and for their actions.

As the present slides into the past it’s ever more important that past approaches do not have to constrain future efforts. They do and even must, however, inform possibilities. What is needed is a narrative that both makes sense of what has come before and what will be, both at individual and corporate levels. George W. Bush, in his “War Ultimatum” speech given on March 17, 2003, cites the danger posed by chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists (and aided by Iraq) as justification for war. In so doing, he charts a course, reminiscent of Seneca’s nautical analogy: “Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety.” This seeming clarity, however, was built on a shifting foundation. Safety cannot be guaranteed, nor is it a concrete goal. It is a feeling, a sense, a subjective judgment. The West’s narrative about the Iraq war from the beginning was based in individualized meaning making.

The West need not choose only between individual meaning making, on one hand, and totalitarian meaning imposition, on the other hand. A third possibility exists that encompasses the wide range of individual experiences and collective traumas. Individuals can cooperatively form consensus around meaning – deciding not only what is meaningful for me, but also what is meaningful for us. Veterans of this war, the people of Iraq, and others for whom this war is significant have a say in the Iraq War’s legacy. Neither the passing of time nor the failure to define goals limits meaningful response to the conflict. Resilience in the aftermath of the Iraq War is in our collective hands.


The views here are their own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the U.S Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

About the Author(s)

Katherine Voyles is a Ph.D. in English who regularly uses that background to write in public on issues of national security in culture and the culture of national security; she is co-managing editor of The Strategy Bridge.

Nathan White is a Ph.D. in Religion and Philosophy, a former active duty Army officer and current reservist, who brings these roles to his expertise in the area of resilience. 



Thu, 11/24/2022 - 9:31am

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