20 Years On, What Did the Iraq War Truly Cost Us?

The war claimed more than lives and treasure — it claimed a future’s worth of lost opportunities. Now, younger generations are demanding them back.
Neither the war nor the Bush administration's lies have aged well in history. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Most of us who were alive then remember where we were on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War this March, I wonder how many also remember where we were that day.

On 9/11, I was a Catholic school eighth grader. I’ll never forget my teacher, Mrs. Anderson, wheeling the TV into the room and saying simply, “I have something to tell you.” That afternoon, the school held a prayer service and sent us home early.

On March 19, 2003, when I was a freshman in Catholic high school, the TVs came out again. In stark, night-vision footage, bombs exploded over Baghdad. We were barely teenagers yet here we were again, watching explosions vaporize human beings on TV.

READ: Iraqi Women Face War

But this time, the bell rang, classes changed, and folks just carried on. I trudged to my next class, heartsick and bewildered.

Looking back, it’s easier to understand those reactions as a result of the trauma we all suffered after 9/11. People felt wounded, insecure — a feeling the Bush administration exploited with its bald-faced lies that Iraq was linked to the attacks and armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Neither the war nor those lies have aged well in history, which plenty of smart people warned about in real time. Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers died in the war, along with upwards of a million Iraqis, and the violence unleashed a shock wave of instability across the Middle East.

But when I think about the cost of the war now, I also think about the other futures that were lost as that numb pall fell over my classroom.

The Iraq War super-charged the militarized spending that was already surging after 9/11, which totaled over $21 trillion as of 2021. The National Priorities Project calculates that just a fraction of that sum could have totally decarbonized the U.S. power grid, created millions of good jobs, wiped out all student debt, and all but ended child poverty in this country — with plenty left over.

Imagine what our world would look like today if we’d made those choices. Instead it was war, torture, mass surveillance, and other scandals that filled the space in our imagination where those dreams might have gone. Our gloomy present era of polarization and alternative facts feels like a direct result of this malaise.

But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.

It may have taken the climate crisis and another traumatizing, mass casualty event — the COVID-19 pandemic — but younger generations have burst open the numb, negligent politics of the Iraq War era with demands for all that was due plus interest.

Why can’t everyone have affordable health care, a livable planet, and paths to pursue a better life? The movements for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and student debt cancellation are posing these questions in a new, serious way that politicians actually have to answer.

Granted, their answers haven’t been very good yet. Military spending is still climbing, the planet is still warming, and our democracy, civil rights, and human rights feel shakier than ever.

Still, there are signs of progress.

Pandemic supports, however temporary, managed to bring down poverty during an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Last year the U.S. launched its biggest-ever investment in green jobs. And even Joe Biden, who once represented creditors from Delaware, has embraced the cause of reducing student debt.

Of course, this is the floor of what we need, not the ceiling. And there are wounds from the last 20 years, especially in the greater Middle East, that won’t heal anytime soon.

But despite the gloom, the astounding social movements of the last few years have made easier to remember a time when the world felt brighter. Thanks to them, it might be.

Editor’s note: The introduction of this op-ed, distributed by OtherWords.org. was adapted from an earlier piece published in 2021.

Peter Certo

Peter Certo

Peter Certo is the editorial manager of the Institute for Policy Studies and editor of OtherWords.org.

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