I was pleased when I heard, on the radio yesterday, President Obama saying this at Fort Bragg:
As your Commander-in-Chief, I can tell you that it will indeed be a part of history. Those last American troops will move south on desert sands, and then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high. One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over.
I appreciated it because he said “America’s war in Iraq will be over.” At another point in the speech, he referred to the “end of our combat mission,” which was even better, and emphasized that what was happening was that responsibility was being handed over to Iraqi forces.
I was grateful that he had not said this was “the end of the war.” (I was also gratified that he, only slightly grudgingly, spoke of the troops accomplishment: “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” Something that, of course, we would not have done had Mr. Obama had his way.)
This was, unfortunately, about the only place where I would be so gratified. Elsewhere in the speech, he said “end of the war” over and over and over again. But I don’t blame the president. The news media were worse:
- BBC: Obama marks end of Iraq war at Fort Bragg
- AP: “After nearly 9 years, 4,500 U.S. dead and 100,000 Iraqi dead, U.S. officials formally shut down Iraq war“
- NYT: “U.S. War in Iraq Declared Officially Over“
- WashPost: “Iraq war draws to a solemn and quiet close“
And on and on. Among those I saw in a quick survey, only NPR got it right, in a headline that said “Iraq Mission Ends.”
Maybe I’m the only one who cares. But I became hypersensitized to the matter over all these years of antiwar folks saying “end the war,” when what they meant was that they wanted the U.S. forces to withdraw. Which is an entirely different thing.
The “end of the war in Iraq” is either something that happened several years in the past (the interpretation I prefer), or, more ominously, has yet to occur. There are a number of ways that you can speak, legitimately, of “the end of the Iraq war:”
- You can say it ended with the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, as that was when “war” in the Clausewitzian sense of armies clashing on battlefields with battle lines, and the control of a government at stake.
- You can say it ended with the Surge, which settled down the various insurgencies that erupted after the fall of Baghdad, leading most people speaking of a “war” continuing to that point.
- You can say it never ended, because Iraq’s security is far from that, say, of a Switzerland.
But in that last case — if you believe the “war” has continued up to this point — then withdrawing U.S. forces most assuredly does not “end” that war. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to make fighting flare back up dramatically.
I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that President Obama (and Bush before him) are right in their projection that things are sufficiently stable for Iraq to deal with the security vacuum created by a U.S. departure. I don’t know whether they are or not.
But I know this: Speaking of what is happening this month as “the end of the war” is highly inaccurate.