John Tirman

The Twenty Years War

Our ventures in Iraq sustain a US frontier myth

By John Tirman
August 1, 2010

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TWENTY YEARS ago tomorrow, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait, seized the capital, occupied the country, and sent the Kuwaiti ruling family into Saudi Arabia. The United States, Britain, and other major powers responded quickly, imposed sanctions on Iraq and told Saddam to quit Kuwait. Thus began the first of three phases of what has become, in effect, our Twenty Years War, an extraordinary American venture. How and why has this happened?

Two strains of conventional wisdom purport to explain. The first focuses on Saddam, the Sunni Arab strongman who tyrannized the Iraqi public, launched a catastrophic war against Iran, attempted to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and sought to become the symbolic (and heroic) successor to the archetypal Arab nationalist, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. In this account, Saddam provoked maelstroms of instability in the region, repeatedly threatened neighbors, and grotesquely violated human-rights norms. For the sake of regional and possibly US security he had to be removed from Kuwait and the Kurdish provinces, militarily contained and weakened by sanctions, and, in 2003, deposed.

The second explanation acknowledges the centrality of Saddam’s malefactions, but notes that other bullies have been untouched by US military power and thus the bad boy story is insufficient. Two other reasons for action are offered. Oil is the most apparent. The first phase of the Twenty Years War — Desert Shield and Desert Storm — pivoted on Kuwait’s enormous oil reserves and the proximity to the preeminent Saudi fields. The other factor was Israel. Saddam was openly hostile, had launched his Scud missiles into Israel during Desert Storm, and supported Hamas. Thus, a convenient marriage of rationales led to the long and arduous US intervention.

But these explanations are incomplete. The Twenty Years War is only the latest manifestation of a recurrent American tendency: the “errand to the wilderness,’’ to use the Puritans’ phrase, in which we (European-origin Americans) would tame and subdue the savages of the wilderness, extract its bounty, and remake it in our own image. This errand took us across the North American continent, and when that was ours, we grabbed for the global frontier — often in “savage wars’’ — in the Pacific and Asia particularly.

The Iraq venture is very much in this spirit. While the lure of oil is obvious, Iraq also appeared as a hostile frontier of US-led globalization — alien, “backward,’’ resistant — which presented all the ingredients of what cultural theorist Richard Slotkin calls the Frontier Myth. The urge to extend “freedom’s empire,’’ the depiction of Saddam and indeed Arabs more broadly as savages, the bounty of oil, the attempts to reshape Iraq’s politics, economy and culture to our liking; all these objectives fit snugly in the long narrative of American globalism.

The taming of the Persian Gulf wilderness has been vexing. As we found in Vietnam, the savages are often uncooperative with our myth-making. The OPEC oil embargo and price hikes of the 1970s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the rise of Al Qaeda and other such violent groups all dealt severe shocks to our sense of the rightness of our involvement in the Gulf. The insurgencies that beset Operation Iraqi Freedom were upsetting not least because they disrupted and rebuked this civilizing mission.

There are costs to these ventures. Estimates range up to $3 trillion or more for the United States for the most recent war alone. More important are the human costs, for the frontier is often a place of violence. In Iraq over these two decades, the tolls are sobering: between 300,000 and 500,000 Iraqis dead as a result of the sanctions imposed from 1990 to 2003, and as many or more dead in the last seven years. Five million Iraqis were displaced. Living conditions are deplorable.

Such ventures are not the only ways America interacts with the rest of the world, of course. There are peaceful trading relations, cooperation on many issues, observance and enforcement of international and bilateral treaties, and so on. But it is no less striking that since the end of the Second World War, the US military has been in armed conflicts and confrontations in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, in addition to smaller skirmishes, for 33 years.

The Twenty Years War in Iraq has perhaps more than any others sustained the Frontier Myth as an animating set of norms of America’s global role. Along the way, the actual, human consequences are glossed, overlooked, forgotten. Is it possible to have a stock taking of this impulse? William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general, called the death and destruction of the conflict the “epistemology of war.’’ In that episteme we find the knowledge we need to understand our costly errand to the wilderness. The dead of Iraq are telling us something. Are we listening?

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies.

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