A war with Iran is awful, and Iraq knows it. Why doesn't America — especially Democrats?

If there were ever a lesson to be learned by Americans in Baghdad, it is that useless suffering is not a byproduct of war but the essential nature of it.
Image: An Iraqi demonstrator carries a flag during a protest over airstrikes that killed top Iranian and Iraqi military commanders in Najaf on Jan. 5, 2020.
A demonstrator carries a flag in Najaf, Iraq, on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, during a protest over airstrikes that killed top Iranian and Iraqi military commanders.Haidar Hamdani / AFP - Getty Images
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By Sam Thielman

When you drive from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the city's airport — where hotelier, former beauty pageant owner and U.S. President Donald Trump recently had Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani assassinated with a Reaper drone — you will see a pair of enormous crossed swords several stories high grace the skyline. Helmets of real, dead Iranian soldiers had been, until a few years after the U.S. invasion, cemented into the base of the swords, which were Saddam Hussein's monument to the Iran-Iraq War, a bloody and pointless conflict that neither country won despite horrific civilian attrition. Soleimani himself is now just such a trophy for the United States. We can add him to the pile.

Soleimani's killing is widely seen in the region as an act of war, but the leading Democratic presidential candidates — except for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — seem loath to criticize it as anything but strategically or bureaucratically imperfect. Soleimani, who also helped to direct the Syrian civil war for chlorine gas enthusiast and ironic Trump fan Bashar al-Assad, was killed because he was "a guy who had an awful lot of American blood on his hands," Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York, explained as he stumped for the Democrats' nomination in North Carolina.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a long statement more or less denouncing the slaying, the most coherent passage of which states that "before engaging in military action that could destabilize an entire region, we must take a strategic, deliberate approach that includes consultation with Congress, our allies, and stakeholders in the Middle East."

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Other candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — agreed: Soleimani deserved to die, but the wrong paperwork had been filed. (Warren, at least, quickly triangulated, calling the assassination an assassination.) Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who have been widely seen in the Democratic establishment as running unserious vanity campaigns, were firmer in their denunciations, which ought to embarrass the more seasoned candidates but probably won't.

If one Iranian general owes the American people an eye for an eye, what must we owe Iraq, where the most reliable and conservative estimate puts the civilian death toll of our ruinous 2003 invasion — conducted under wholly false pretenses — at 150,000? It was, after all, during the worst period of the war when 600 U.S. soldiers were killed by Iranian forces and their proxies, a network Soleimani directed, trained and supplied with improvised explosives. What stakeholders in our region must the Iraqis consult in their deliberations over how to take their due from us?

Soleimani was also instrumental in the regional struggle to beat back the nihilism of the hated Islamic State militant group, which made him a popular hero. As we calculate how many deaths are owed, and to whom, should we debit the victims of a resurgent ISIS? Should we credit the spared lives of the fighters themselves, many of whom are school-age boys?

The truth is that, once you're tallying columns of figures on the back of an envelope to determine whom to kill, you have made a serious mistake of a non-mathematical nature. The question of whether it is good and moral to use a flying robot to kill a high-level official of a country with which you are not at war during his state visit to a country you are occupying is not an especially complicated one. (It is not. But apparently one has to say this.)

Reliably, the people who suffer the most will be small children, old people and the very poor.

The Iraqis themselves appear to understand this. After the killing, the Iranian vows of retaliation and Trump's tweeted threat of war crimes, Iraq's parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from its borders. The resolution is nonbinding, but it is of a piece with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's own call to oust U.S. forces.

If there is a lesson to be learned in Baghdad, it is that useless suffering is not a byproduct of war but the essential nature of the thing. Violence begets violence, and however noble the reason for invasion, bombing or Reaper drone strike, the effect will be ruinous: destroyed infrastructure, economic devastation, graft, corruption and chaos. And, reliably, the people who suffer the most will be small children, old people and the very poor.

Take the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted eight years and is best remembered in the West, when it is remembered at all, for the attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja, where 5,000 civilians — many of them children — were massacred by Saddam Hussein's regime using nerve gas and mustard gas, which sinks into the ground and forms pockets that endanger construction workers and cause genetic disorders and cancers that still plague survivors today, decades after the initial attack.

Or look at downtown Baghdad, where, since the United States attacked it in 1991, electric power is spotty during the hottest hours of the day and a lattice of wires running from generators (or places where generators used to be) creeps into every house to run the air conditioners that keep the 7.6 million people who live in the city from cooking. East of the embassy, across the Tigris River, you can visit Karada, a lively district where, during Ramadan in 2016, ISIS killers bent on overthrowing the nation's government allied with the United States, set off a car bomb that killed 340 people who were doing their evening shopping.

Or take what is an ordinary day in Baghdad, before we decided to assassinate another country's military leader on its soil. After dinner there in September 2018, I was on the phone with my wife and my taciturn 8-month-old when I heard the thump-bang of a mortar explosion outside the stingy windows of the Babylon Hotel, a lavish Green Zone-adjacent holding pen for Westerners on work trips who are shepherded around the devastated city by their handlers during daylight hours. Alarms went off at the enormous U.S. Embassy complex across the Tigris, and an automated voice told me — in English — to stay away from the windows. I couldn't tell whether it had come from my building or somewhere else. I told my wife I'd call her back.

I ran downstairs. The concierge was standing placidly at his desk, a woman was fielding complaints from a little boy, and a single man was checking in. A bellman appeared to be hiding under his desk, but then he turned out to be changing a trash can liner. The concierge consoled me; the culprits, he said, were likely an Iran-backed militia — this turned out to be true — and the weapons they were using were "very inaccurate." A mortar attack was, in his neighborhood, as much a part of life as the actual weather.

I called my wife back to tell her nothing out of the ordinary had happened and went to bed. No one was harmed by the "very inaccurate" mortar rounds; the embassy wasn't even evacuated, although the U.S. Consulate to the south in Basra was, following protests over corruption that lit government buildings on fire. The residents there had no drinking water. That is an ad hoc currency in many places in Iraq — I often saw bodyguards use single water bottles as greetings to put border guards at ease and cases of the bottles as bribes.

Little is certain in war, but more of it does seem likely to make everyone thirstier.

Related:

The killing of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, means America has declared war

Trump's Iran attack distracts from impeachment — but it can still hurt him politically

Trump's policies on Iran, North Korea and Russia are cleaning up messes left by Obama, Bush and Clinton