Commentary: Our debate over Iraq has been quieted by 9 years of war

Shadows of U.S. soldiers are cast against the wall as three Iraqi men are detained, May 23, 2003.
Shadows of U.S. soldiers are cast against the wall as three Iraqi men are detained, May 23, 2003. Carl Juste / Miami Herald / MCT

After this past weekend’s rather quiet end to the war in Iraq, it is kind of hard to remember how loud we were at the start.

The last detachment of American troops left early Sunday under a cover of darkness. Reporters on the ride into Kuwait described the troops as proud but also relieved, marking the significant moment modestly.

Almost nine years and 4,500 U.S. deaths later, the situation is more stable but not secure. It is over mostly because our resolve and the Iraqis’ patience have been exhausted. The withdrawal meets the promised dates by this president and the last president, and it is hard to find a voice saying it is premature.

The tone and the volume were different in the winter of 2003 when then-President George W. Bush was trying to make the case for war with Saddam Hussein. This nation was divided, not just into two but into three or four.

In the weeks before the war began on March 20, 2003, a Gallup Poll looked beyond the divided nation narrative. Of those polled, 32 percent favored the invasion and said their minds were made up, and 17 percent said they opposed the war and wouldn’t change their views. But in between were 27 percent who were in favor but felt their minds could be changed and 20 percent opposed who also weren’t certain they were correct.

So nearly half were conflicted, if not ambivalent. But since media coverage is attracted to the loudest noises, we were depicted as a people on either side of a clear divide. On one side were those who had no question but that war was the answer, that Saddam was a threat to more than his own beleaguered people, that we should take the battle to him before he brought it to us.

On the other were those who were just as sure that it was not only a mistake but an immoral act, that we were being manipulated.

They yelled at each other at fort gates, at courthouse doors, from freeway overpasses. If the rest of us happened by, they yelled at us as well. This was a time when we couldn’t order “French toast” instead of “Freedom Toast” without being considered unpatriotic; where we couldn’t say that a Saddam-less Middle East might not be beneficial without being considered a dupe.

Still, it was easy to be uncertain. Saddam fit the profile of someone who would lash out in order to maintain control. We had no real way of testing – not yet – the claims that he was in league with al-Qaida, that he had the means to do great damage.

At the same time, we weren’t certain this war was winnable, that we wouldn’t make things worse, that America wouldn’t suffer in the eyes of nations we need as allies and trade partners, that we had the whole story.

During this time, I volunteered to moderate a forum as part of the Tacoma Reads program which that year selected Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” The 1953 novel predicted a future where books were banned and firemen were responsible for burning them. The panelists planned to discuss modern parallels in the Patriot Act and allegations that the post-9/11 act led to censorship. But it quickly became a back and forth about the justifications, or lack of them, for the Iraq invasion.

I failed to moderate anything, certainly not the panelists nor the audience. No one was there to actually listen but only to lecture or to cheer their champion. I’m not sure who won, but I’m pretty sure who lost.

That war is over and while questions remain, the issue doesn’t resonate with Americans the way it did nearly nine years ago. As the members of the military come home, or move over to the still-unresolved war in Afghanistan, we have come up with other things to argue about.

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