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Troops Out, Now What?

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Jose Vasquez -

Jose VasquezMarch 19th marked the sad anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Nine tumultuous years after "shock and awe," the people of Iraq struggle to rebuild their society while dealing with the aftermath of a disastrous occupation. When the last combat brigades pulled out in December 2011, putting Iraq in their rear-view mirrors, what was the legacy they left in their wake and the burdens they brought home with them?

As both an organizer active with Iraq Veterans Against the War and a student of anthropology, I have worked closely with U.S. military veterans who served in the so-called "Global War of Terror," particularly those involved in peace and social justice movements. Looking back, I see many lessons to be drawn from this costly debacle.

The Perils of Militarism

The first lesson is that militarism in the U.S. seems to have a gravitational force pulling a wide array of resources and sectors into its orbit. Our involvement with Iraq serves as a case study for how deeply rooted militarism is in American culture and political life. The Bush administration gambled on this fact as it made the case for war. The entire undertaking, however, was doomed from the outset given the well-documented false pretenses underpinning their arguments, inept leadership by the Coalition Provisional Authority, and rampant corruption of private contractors who operated with impunity, all with deadly consequences for the Iraqi population.

Even members of the academic community were drawn to the tremendous power and influence the military-industrial complex enjoys. Social scientists were employed as part of the U.S. military's Human Terrain System (HTS) program to assist combat commanders in getting a better understanding of Iraqi and Afghan culture and social structure as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy. This program and articles published by anthropologists working in it prompted a heated debate within the American Anthropological Association, which had previously passed resolutions against the Iraq war and torture. The debate centered on the issue of professional ethics guiding anthropologists engaged in research involving human subjects.

With counter-insurgency strategy relying heavily on building relationships with the local population, critics argued these anthropologists were violating norms of obtaining informed consent from the Iraqi participants where they worked and that reporting their findings for use in military operations put civilian lives at risk. As a response, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists gathered signers for an online petition and initiated a number of editorials for academic and popular publications. Thus, while the pull toward militarism is strong there are always socially responsible people willing to fight against it.

Yellow Ribbons and Purple Hearts

The second lesson is that the logic of militarism shapes the national dialogue and makes going to and supporting war a primary responsibility of the citizenry. The mission to topple Saddam Hussein, driven by claims that he allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction and connections to al Qaeda leaders, led many enlistees and service members to view service in Iraq as a just cause, likened to the fight against fascism during WWII. Calls for civilians to "Support the Troops" and do their part to ensure their service is honored in some way was the dominant rhetoric across the mainstream political spectrum. While I think veterans deserve our respect, it should not come at the cost of blindly accepting unjust wars or committing huge expenditures unquestioningly.

Yet, for the over two million troops and veterans who served a tour in Iraq, re-adjusting to life back home has not been a smooth transition. While the total number of troops who were killed or wounded in Iraq is far less when compared to previous major conflicts, the war is no less devastating for the troops, vets and their families. Multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both have left many veterans with serious physical and psychological injuries.

Impaired to the point of being unemployable, their capacity to function in a difficult economy for healthy people, much less a veteran with wrestling with rehabilitation and trauma, is severely limited. The recent revelations of a four-tour Army staff sergeant who allegedly massacred 17 civilians in Afghanistan highlight the depth of the problem. My organization has launched the Operation Recovery campaign to raise awareness about the widespread nature of trauma and to stop the deployment of traumatized troops.

Although improvements to the GI Bill came late in the war, many veterans still find it difficult to maintain a stable lifestyle conducive to completing a college education. Overcoming the effects of military sexual trauma, post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury can be a daunting task. Even when one seeks care at a Veterans Affairs (VA) health facility, many veterans face long wait times or bureaucracy that frustrates and makes getting care elusive. A plethora of veterans' organizations has sprung up to meet the demands of a new and growing veterans population.

The Long Shadow of War

The final lesson is that civilians have paid the biggest price for what U.S. militarism creates. The toll on Iraqi civil society has and continues to be tremendous. Estimates of civilian deaths between 2003 and 2011 because of coalition or sectarian violence range from 115,000 to 157,000 according to The number of wounded is difficult to quantify accurately but is in the hundreds of thousands. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports the number of internally displaced people at over 1.3 million, while the number of Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries or elsewhere is over 1.6 million.

The amount of damage caused by air strikes and ground fighting has impaired basic services such as access to the clean water, reliable electricity and medical services. After years of sanctions and occupation, Iraqi society has been left to sort out the mess in the aftermath. Few acknowledge the widespread mental and emotional trauma that Iraqis face as they deal with the loss of their families, security, and communities. In spite of it all, pro-democracy movements critical of the U.S., the Maliki government, and in solidarity with the "Arab Spring" uprisings, have swept across Iraq according to a blog by Ali Issa, an Iraqi-American organizer with the War Resisters League.

The environmental devastation caused by coalition munitions and the prolonged occupation presence, has created a wasteland of nuclear and chemical waste ruining crops, water tables, and a compromising the gene pool. The city of Fallujah alone has seen a 15 fold increase in birth defects and cancer between 2008 and 2009 according to The Guardian, among a relatively young and healthy population before the occupation.

Iraqi and international physicians as well as U.S. military veterans have worked to draw attention to this important issue. Dubbed the "agent orange" of the 21st century, depleted uranium (DU) will continue to have a devastating impact on Iraqi society for generations to come. On the flip-side, veterans are suffering from a whole host of service-related health problems linked to DU exposure. Some have argued Gulf War syndrome -- a complex array of symptoms that defy conventional diagnoses -- is a result of DU or nerve agent exposure and combat veterans report a number of serious ailments including chronic fatigue, skins conditions, unexplained headaches, neurological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and menstrual disorders.

Although the outlook seems bleak, as the vast majority of people not directly affected by the war will quickly forget about Iraqis and the veterans, I take heart in the incredible human capacity for empathy with the "other," and the will to dedicate oneself to achieving justice.


Jose Vasquez is the Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served fourteen years in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged in 2007 as a conscientious objector. Jose was a key organizer of Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan - Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations and represented IVAW in the editing process for the book published by Haymarket . He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center conducting research on the politics of veteran status in contemporary American society.

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