We are a clueless nation: America's congenital blind spot on Iraq

As our military contemplates Iraq again, we're beset by unchallenged magical thinking -- and a dangerous narcissism

Published July 4, 2014 3:59PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

We celebrate our national identity on the occasion of Independence Day. In our patriotic narrative we always see ourselves as heroic and selfless, advancing universal freedom and prosperity. Yet in 2014 we are a clueless nation, afflicted with attention deficit disorder, caught in a mindless repeat pattern.

We are now in the second month of an Iraqi crisis redux and the news wave is way too dominated by the same white male faces that got it so wrong last time.

As the U.S. military heads into Iraq again, the news media lacks sufficient Iraqi and Muslim voices offering us any authentic situational awareness of the facts on the ground or on what has transpired since we left. What images we do get are video loops of "marauding radical jihadis" who have commandeered American combat vehicles. Our fee-for-service armchair warriors say the rolling tide of soulless jihadis are a grave threat to U.S. interests and must be stopped.

In a matter of weeks they have upended what the U.S. thought it had accomplished over several years with the death of 4,500 American soldiers, the wounding of tens of thousands more, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars. The huge toll paid by Iraqi civilians along  the way was too often dismissed as collateral damage, and now we just don’t understand why they don’t love us "after all we have done for them."

The latest wave of  jihadis are like the gruesome aliens depicted in this summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” starring Tom Cruise as Marine Corps Major William Cage. These evildoers evidently just manifested  out of the sand with no warning. With a straight face, news anchors say nobody saw it coming.

Really? Since the last U.S. convoy rolled out of Iraq in December of 2011 the country has been in nothing but violent convulsion with thousands of Iraqi civilians of all ages being killed by terror bombings. In a matter of weeks after the U.S. patted itself on the back for another job well done, Iraqi security forces were targeted for attack on a regular basis. In the beginning of 2012 even the “secure” Green Zone came under mortar attack.

Even before the U.S. pulled up stakes, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s 2011 violent crackdowns on nonviolent Iraqi Arab Spring youth protestors was sowing the seeds for the more militant reaction that now threatens the entire region. Rather than constructively respond to the youthful protesters' valid grievances about his dysfunctional government’s self-dealing and poor public services, Maliki resorted to force. History goes on in foreign places even if we are not paying attention.

By July 23, 2012, the counter-surge was able to launch dozens of simultaneous attacks on Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite civilians that left 116 people dead and 300 wounded. Back then what was billed as The Islamic State of Iraq took credit.

“Nobody saw it coming” because once American skin was out of the game, after the U.S. military withdrew, the U.S. media dropped running coverage. GI Joe and Jane were off the set. Our news media had other things it needed to feature rather than the misery of a foreign people.  Our infotainment complex had to fill their news hole by keeping us up to date on the latest smartphone app, zero in on the arrest of the “tanning mom” and keep us current  on the omnipresent Kardashians.

With an American electorate kept so ill-informed and already often unable to find Iraq on a map, President Obama did not  have to fear contradiction when he declared  back in December 2011 in a weekend address  that with the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq “our war there will be over.” And in his subsequent State of the Union addresses he has continued the phony narrative that with the U.S. military exit from Iraq and Afghanistan “our longest war” would  “be over.”

Over? Because he said it was and because Americans were no longer in the casualty mix? Did any reporters ever get to ask the president just what he meant by over? Did we get a sense of what the contours of Pax Obama would look and feel like? Historically the end of war has meant peace.

It is this kind of unchallenged magical thinking, infused with a dangerous narcissism, that sets us up for things like the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. We use our full military might to overthrow existing social orders and insist on being surprised that there are violent consequences. Can we agree to include physics in the syllabus for statecraft?

Nobody saw the original 9/11 coming either. Just like Cruise’s Major Bill Cage in “Edge of Tomorrow,” we are caught in a bloody “Groundhog Day” haunted by the deja vu that we have been here before, but just can’t close the temporal loop to change the bloody outcome. We are always well-intentioned victims just trying to do our best to make the world safe for democracy. We say we are just sending 300 soldiers -- and then it's 750.

Our drone attacks, which occasionally kill innocent civilians, are just our way of reducing the risk to our  soldiers while taking the fight to the evildoers.

We do our best to keep them surgical -- but even in surgery, innocents die.

If only the locals could see the big picture.

By Robert Hennelly

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