The U.S. military finally has in custody one of the most brutal dictators in modern memory. His humiliating demise is a welcome relief, both for the American soldiers who have been hunting him and, more importantly, for the Iraqi people, many of whom feared he would somehow return to power even after his statues were toppled.
But capturing Saddam is only one phase of “regime change” in Iraq. The United States must now turn in earnest to the hand-over of political sovereignty to a new government. In the process, the United States must not ignore one crucial fact: Notwithstanding Saddam’s capture, the obvious futility of continued resistance, and the likelihood that life under a new government would be far better than that under Saddam, many Iraqis hate the United States and what we have done to their country. And many Iraqis will not be satisfied until American troops — all American troops — are gone.
On an emotional level, this might strike many Americans as profound ingratitude. Our men and women in uniform sacrificed much — nearly 500 have paid the ultimate sacrifice, and many thousands more have been wounded — to do for the Iraqi people that which they have been unable or unwilling to do themselves.
But any joy felt by Iraqis at Saddam’s end is tinged with a measure of resentment, humiliation, and sadness. The daily images of tearful Iraqis mourning the loss of loved ones — victims of a terrorist attack or innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of lethal military operations — are powerful reminders that war is, indeed, hell.
Certainly, the Bush administration believes that the vast majority of Iraqis embrace U.S. soldiers as liberators, and welcome our continued occupation of their country during the transition to full sovereignty and independence. We can be certain, however, given the carnage in Iraq, that that is not the case. Our military operations against Hussein’s regime threatened every Iraqi man, woman, and child — not just Saddam — and our continued presence in Iraq, is deeply humiliating, even to those Iraqis who hated Hussein. This is true even as our military achieved its central mission with remarkable skill and precision because even a nearly perfect military campaign unleashed a host of unforeseen consequences, many of them tragic. Although direct damage to civilian infrastructure caused by American munitions was limited, the American invaders found virtually all aspects of the Iraqi regime to be in a state of near total collapse. The frustration of Iraqis never enamored with Hussein’s brutal rule is now directed not at the perpetrators of attacks on a fragile civilian infrastructure, but rather at the men and women of the U.S. military pressed into post-war duty as armed social workers.
And even if the U.S. military were truly perfect — even if not a single innocent civilian had been hit by a stray bomb, a ricocheting bullet, or a misplaced artillery round — the victory would still have involved the killing and wounding of soldiers in the Iraqi military.
This is a point that the proponents of regime change seem to completely ignore. Schools can be rebuilt. Electrical power can be restored. The water can flow. All of the physical reminders of war’s brutal reality can be erased. But, even in a “perfect” war against a tyrannical regime, a war in which all military firepower is focused exclusively on the sources of that regime’s power, people will die. The soldiers may all be men, and under traditional norms of armed conflict “legitimate” military targets, but these men are fathers, brothers, and sons. The clear picture of the legitimacy of targeting these individuals in the pursuit of noble ends is further clouded by the realization that many of these individuals serve against their will, drafted into the military under penalty of prison or death.
Some argue that the United States is performing a great and moral mission by using its military might to overthrow undemocratic regimes. They assert that our military should be deployed around the globe on similar assignments, with the aim of making the world not just safer, but better, as the Bush National Security Strategy declares. They believe that foreign rulers, and foreign peoples, are legitimate targets for our bombs and missiles, even when these countries pose no threat to the citizens of the United States, or to America’s vital national interests.
We should not be surprised if those who lose fathers, brothers, and sons don’t see it that way. And we should not be surprised if Iraqis welcome our departure even more fervently than they celebrate the demise of Saddam Hussein.