Iraq War Symposium in Columbus reflects on the conflict's purpose, impact
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with Dr. David Kieran of Columbus State University about the impact of the Iraq War.
Twenty years ago this month, U.S. forces invaded Iraq. The U.S. government's stated goal at the time was to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and end the rule of Saddam Hussein. While the U.S. did accomplish the latter, U.S. intelligence on those WMDs turned out to be less than reliable. What followed was years of military effort to stabilize the country at a cost of thousands of lives. This week, a symposium presented jointly by Columbus State University and the National Infantry Museum, looks back at the war and the lessons learned. The Iraq War: A 20 Year Retrospective begins Friday, March 10. Among the participants is Dr. David Kieran. He's associate professor and Col. Richard R Halleck Distinguished Chair in Military History at Columbus State University. He spoke with GPB's Peter Biello on Thursday.
Peter Biello: The start of this conflict was, for me, a moment kind of like 9/11. I remember where I was when then President George W. Bush made the announcement that this war was going to start. I was in college at the time. Where were you?
David Kieran: I was teaching high school in Connecticut. I graduated from college in 2000, and so the fall of my second year teaching was Sept. 11. And then a year and a half later was the beginning of the Iraq war. And so I remember vividly being with high school students in a town that had a lot of military personnel living in it, thinking about what this war would mean for the nation.
Peter Biello: What was the dialogue like among those you were teaching in and in your community? Because in mine it was very anti-conflict.
David Kieran: It was a mixed — mixed feelings, really. There was a number of people who were very skeptical of the war and very concerned that it was a departure from the fight against al-Qaida, that it was a war of choice rather than a war of necessity, that it would lead the United States to get bogged down in the Middle East. And then there were also many people who saw it as a necessary fight and were reluctant — and many others who were reluctant to speak out against the war and who saw the need to to really rally behind the troops as they went off to war.
Peter Biello: I remember at the time, in 2003, hearing a lot of comparisons to Vietnam, that once we were in we're going to be stuck in something like a quagmire. It seems to some extent that that turned out to be true. We were there, we caused some instability, and we tried to take on the responsibility of fixing things. But you're the historian, so you tell me. How do things look from your perspective? Does it compare to Vietnam?
David Kieran: Americans have been comparing conflicts to Vietnam almost since the moment the Vietnam War ended. But there was a lot of discussion of the idea that this was a war that the United States had entered, not of necessity, but of — of choice, and that it would lead them to become bogged down for years. And certainly that happened. The United States did end up having to make a much larger commitment with uncertain, for a long time, uncertain results in terms of the success of rebuilding Iraq and creating a stable state.
Peter Biello: How successful were American forces in stabilizing the country?
David Kieran: How successful the United States was in stabilizing Iraq is a question that historians and policymakers continue to debate. Certainly, the U.S. had worked very hard to quell sectarian violence and build a semblance of stable governance in Iraq. But there are still a lot of open questions. You know, we're still seeing what the effects of the U.S. war are on the Iraqi people and their well-being.
Peter Biello: What about mental health? You've written about the impact on mental health among those who've served in the military. What about those who have served in the Iraq war? Where was our mental health care system when those men and women were coming home from this conflict?
David Kieran: It's really important to understand that the United States did not enter Iraq thinking it would be a prolonged conflict of the sort it turned out to be. It was the first war of any length that the United States had fought with an all-volunteer military and was the first war that required multiple deployments of troops. And so there really wasn't a mental health infrastructure in the United States military that was up to the challenge that this war posed. And so that meant that military mental health providers, people in the VA, military leaders had to work in real time to figure out how to understand the mental health consequences of these wars and how best to treat soldiers and their families as they were returning. And as one person said to me, "We were trying to change the wheels on the bus, while the bus was going 60 miles an hour down the highway." And the military worked extremely hard to develop better protocols for understanding what the stressors soldiers faced. And so they made a lot of progress. But at the same time, there are still real needs that have been and continue to exist in terms of identifying service members who need care, encouraging them to seek help.
Peter Biello: We talked a moment ago about questions that are still up for debate with respect to this war among historians, academics. This one is probably another one of those kinds of questions. But with the hindsight that we have, to what extent was this war worth the cost? The cost of lives, the cost of treasure, the cost of the reputation to our country?
David Kieran: That remains the most significant question that Americans have to debate. And the 20th anniversary of the war's beginning is really a great moment to do that. Certainly, we have — now know that Saddam Hussein's program of weapons of mass destruction was not robust and was not in — as much of a danger as the Bush administration had argued that it was. We know that some of the intelligence going into the war was not as reliable as — as we might have hoped it would be. And so that does open up the question of — we need to continue to ask: under what circumstances should the United States go to war, and in particular, whether this war was a necessary war. And I think that we're going to see continued debate — and hopefully in a renewed look at that — as we as we hit the 20th anniversary.