I was walking to my second period class when my best friend came up to me, and told me that the World Trade Center had collapsed. I assured him such a thing could not possibly have happened because if it had, it would be all over the news, and we would be sent home for the day. When I arrived at the classroom the AV cart was in the middle of the floor — and the television was tuned to CNN. We were in 8th grade. A friend of ours lost a relative.
That night, my father sat with me as I lay awake in bed, and tried to explain what can only be described as the sheer madness of the world — madness that seemed so foreign to a twelve-year-old. September 11th, 2001 helped mold my generation. The veil of our childhood had been pierced by the wickedness of man’s hate for his fellow man, and all we could do at the time was watch events unfold — shocked, saddened, and confused. Our parents could not shield us. They couldn’t even shield themselves. And so they turned their grief and indignation into war.
That war eventually touched my small town as it touched many other towns and cities across the nation. Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter, a young man in my grade with whom I had gone to high school (but did not know personally), died valiantly defending his post in Ramadi on April 22, 2008. As a result of his actions, and those of a fellow Marine, Jonathan Yale, dozens of Marines and Iraqi civilians were saved.
It was as if a curse had been laid on my community. The conflict took on a personal feel as friends and neighbors came together in their outpouring of support and grief.
Here was someone barely out of high school, and willing to lay down his life for his country; our political leaders had thrown it away in a war on a nebulous concept: Terror. To me, Jordan was betrayed, and the best of my generation had a target on their backs.
The war took thousands of lives, and destabilized an entire region. But over the last decade and change, the country seemed to realize it — or so I thought.
Today, everywhere I look I see politicians talking about how the United States needs to “destroy ISIS.” It doesn’t matter what party one affiliates with. Everyone seems to be in agreement over one point: “We broke the region, and we can’t leave until we fix it.”
But what does “fixing it” mean?
If there is one lesson we should have learned from the war in Iraq, it is to have a plan for after “Mission Accomplished.” What does the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) post-ISIS look like? Whoever is talking, it always sounds a whole lot like they’re saying “we’re going to war, and we’re committing for an indefinite period of time.” Nobody actually acknowledges this, of course; they try to obscure it with language like, “coalition,” “special operations and trainers,” or “targeted strikes.” In reality, the MENA is a modern Vietnam.
In light of everything it has cost us so far — the lives and futures of thousands of our bravest young people, the trust and respect of those who return from service only to be denied the benefits and care they deserve, and the many trillions of dollars spent to continue our efforts — we have to acknowledge that the situation is a quagmire.
The entire “we have to fix it” argument is predicated on the idea that we can eventually bring stability to the region — and maybe not so eventually. Many Americans seem to believe that we can bring a swift end to the chaos. There’s just one overarching problem: We cannot.
The people there do not see our involvement as beneficial or even desirable. Data from the Arab Barometer indicates that the more we interfere, the more we are resented. A majority of Egyptians feel that US Intervention justifies armed opposition, while in Iraq negative views of the US are also predominant. In fact, there is not one country surveyed by the Arab Barometer that felt positively about our presence in the region.
World War II taught us that isolationism doesn’t work ,and diplomacy can fail. That combined with the rise of the Soviet Union, and the prospect of another global conflict, led us to embark on a course aggressive preemption and posturing. It just so happens that the MENA has been the battleground for this conflict for decades. To that end, we armed, trained, and empowered some of the most violent groups, individuals, and regimes there. We even encouraged Jihad to combat the ‘Red Menace.’
As part of these efforts, we have been trying to impose a political system on the MENA which it has never truly experienced, or organically sought. The political culture there is not so easily changed as our country seems to believe it is. In fact, political culture is not something that can change within a generation, and yet we keep trying — to disastrous results.
“There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”- Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H*
In our reckless pursuit for global dominance, thousands of innocent people have died (not the least of which are our own troops). For every person killed we risk radicalizing at least another. In 1996, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, went on 60 Minutes to defend years of U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq — an effort meant to punish Saddam Hussein. In the interview, correspondent Leslie Stahl called to the ambassador’s attention an alarming statistic; over 500,000 children had died as a result of the sanctions — more than were killed in Hiroshima.
“Was the price worth it?” she asked. Without missing a beat, the ambassador bluntly answered in the affirmative. Ms. Albright’s response underscores the main reason the United States is viewed so negatively in the MENA: The way we define collateral damage is unacceptable to the people who often find themselves under that umbrella.
Today, as popular as ‘tough talk’ is in the media, and as sadistically violent as the organization is, the individual members of ISIS are human beings. These are people with family, friends, acquaintances — and not all of them are true believers. Many are only involved for the paycheck because their only other options are jobs with unlivable wages. This does not excuse the wanton violence carried out in the name of ISIS, but it should inform our response to it. Our leaders, however, purposefully ignore this reality. Dehumanizing our enemies might make it easier to justify exterminating them, but it costs us perspective, and it is not a permanent solution.
Just recently the Department of Defense announced it was raising the number of allowable civilian casualties for drone strikes — depending on the target.
And therein lies the insanity of the whole situation. It is a never-ending cycle of violence; we use the presence of these terrorist groups as a justification for intervention. Then, our intervention alienates people, giving rise to more terrorism and violence against our troops — which we then use as justification for further intervention. And all the while military contractors and American companies fueling the effort get paid.
As an American, I remember the feeling of vulnerability following the 9/11 attacks; it reminded us, and the rest of the world, that the United States is not immune to attacks at home. However, our response — to overthrow two sovereign governments, and entangle ourselves in a never-ending war — was the least effective path we could have chosen. I sincerely hope that we are able to learn from our mistake.
At this point I’m not against the world containing ISIS, but eventually we will have to cut our losses — as well as those sustained by the people we claim to want to help. The terror group is now essentially a country with its own GDP and territory. Eliminating it will simply create another vacuum that will then be exploited by politically expedient leaders, seeking to look ‘tough.’ The fact is, the less involvement the US has, the better — both in terms of legitimizing our allies in the region, and silencing their critics who point to our intervention as a reason to justify their cause. In other words, the more we interfere, the more violent the resulting self-determination will be.
As an American, I remember the feeling of vulnerability following the 9/11 attacks; it reminded us, and the rest of the world, that the United States is not immune to attacks at home. However, our response — to overthrow two sovereign governments, and entangle ourselves in a never-ending war — was the least effective path we could have chosen. I sincerely hope that we are able to learn from our mistakes. Nation-building will never work. We must change course.
Special thanks to MF for help and guidance on this piece.