It was Mary Vargas, a 44-year-old engineer in Renton, Washington, who carried U.S. therapy culture to its new zenith. Explaining why the war in Iraq was no longer her top election issue, she told Salon that, “when they didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction, I felt I could also focus on other things. I got validated.”
Yes, that’s right: war opposition as self-help. The end goal is not to seek justice for the victims, or punishment for the aggressors, but rather “validation” for the war’s critics. Once validated, it is of course time to reach for the talisman of self-help: “closure.” In this mindscape, Howard Dean’s wild scream was not so much a gaff as the second of the five stages of grieving: anger. The scream was a moment of uncontrolled release, a catharsis, allowing American liberals to externalize their rage and then move on, transferring their affections to more appropriate candidates.
All of the front-runners in the Democratic race borrow the language of pop therapy to discuss the war and the toll it has taken — not on Iraq (a country so absent from their campaigns it may as well be on another planet) but on Americans. To hear John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean tell it, the invasion was less a war of aggression against a sovereign nation than a civil war within the U.S., a traumatic event that severed Americans from their faith in politicians, from their rightful place in the world, and from their tax dollars.
“The price of unilateralism is too high and Americans are paying it in resources that could be used for health care, education, and our security here at home,” Kerry said on December 16. “We are paying that price in respect lost around the world ... And most importantly, that price is paid in the lives of young Americans forced to shoulder the burden of the mission alone.”
Conspicuously absent from Kerry’s tally are the lives of Iraqi civilians lost as a direct result of the invasion. Even Dean, the “anti-war candidate,” regularly suffers from the same myopic math. “There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn't be dead if we hadn't gone to war,” he said in November. On January 22, he updated the number of losses to “500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded.”
But on February 8, while Kerry was campaigning in Virginia and Dean was in Maine, the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion reached as high as 10,000. That number is the most authoritative estimate available, since the occupying authorities in Iraq refuse to keep statistic on civilian casualties. It comes from Iraq Body Count, a group of respected British and U.S. academics that bases its figures on cross referenced reports from journalists and human rights groups in the field.
John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count told me that while the passing of the grim 10,000 mark made the British papers and the BBC, it received “scandalously little attention in the United States” including from the leading Democratic candidates, even as they hammer Bush on his faulty intelligence. “If the war was fought on false pretences,” Sloboda says, “that means that every death caused by the war is a death on false pretences.”
And if that’s the case, the most urgent question is not, “Who knew what when?” but “Who owes what to whom?” In international law, countries that wage wars of aggression must pay reparations as a penalty for their crimes.
Yet in Iraq, this logic has been turned on its head. Not only are there no penalties for an illegal war, there are prizes, with the U.S. actively and openly rewarding itself with huge reconstruction contracts. “Our people risked their lives. Coalition, friendly coalition folks risked their lives and therefore, the contracting is going to reflect that,” Bush said on December 11.
And when the reconstruction spending has attracted scrutiny, it has not been over what is owed to Iraqis for their tremendous losses, but over what is owed to American taxpayers. “This war profiteering is poison to America poison to Americans’ faith in government and poison to our allies’ perception of our motives in Iraq,” John Edwards said in December. True, but he somehow failed to mention that it also poisons Iraqis not their faith, or their perceptions, but their bodies.
Every dollar wasted on an over-charging, underperforming U.S. contractor is a dinar not spent rebuilding Iraq’s bombed out water treatment and electricity plants. And it is Iraqis, not U.S. taxpayers, who are forced to drink typhoid and cholera infested water, and then to seek treatment in hospitals still flooded with raw sewage, where the drug supply is even more depleted than during the sanctions era.
There is currently no plan to compensate Iraqi civilians for deaths caused by the willful destruction of their basic infrastructure, or as a result of combat during the invasion. The occupying forces will only pay compensation for “instances where soldiers have acted negligently or wrongfully.” According to the latest estimates, U.S. troops have distributed roughly $2-million in compensation for deaths, injuries and property damage. That’s less than the price of two of the 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched during the war and a third of what Halliburton admits two of its employees accepted in bribes from a Kuwaiti contractor.
To talk about the price of the Iraq war strictly in terms of U.S. casualties and tax dollars is an obscenity. Yes, Americans were lied to by their politicians. Yes, they are owed answers. But the people of Iraq are owed a great deal more, and that enormous debt belongs at the very center of any civilized debate about the war.
In the U.S., a good start would be for the Democratic candidates to acknowledge some collective responsibility. Bush may have been the war’s initiator but in the language of self-help, he had plenty of enablers. They included Kerry and Edwards, among the 27 other Democratic Senators and 81 Democratic Members of the House of Representatives who voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war. They also included Howard Dean who believed and repeated Bush’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Playing its part too was a credulous and cheerleading press, which sold those claims to an overly trusting U.S. public, 76 per cent of whom supported the war, according to a CBS poll released two days after the invasion began. Why does this ancient history matter? Because so long as Bush’s opponents continue to cast themselves as the primary victims of his war, the real victims will remain invisible, unable to make their claims for justice. The focus will be on uncovering Bush’s lies a process geared towards absolving those who believed them, not on compensating those who died because of them.
If the war was wrong, then the U.S., as the main aggressor, must devote itself to making things right.
In the five stages of grieving, there is a step that comes after anger. It’s guilt, when the grieving party starts to wonder whether they did enough, if the loss was somehow their fault, how they can make amends. Moving on — the last and final stage — is supposed to come after that reckoning.