I'm a retired Air Force colonel and a teacher, and over the years I've taught a great many people about the military, sometimes starting out with a quote from Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer Abroad:" "I asked Tom if countries always apologized when they had done wrong, and he says - 'Yes, the little ones does.' " That raises the question: Do we in America have the humility to admit when we are wrong?
If we had known in 2003 what we know now - before we cut taxes on the wealthy and asked the rest of America to pay $600 billion and counting on the war, before at least 50,000 Iraqi men, women and children died, before over 3,000 Americans were killed, and before 20,000 came home with banged up brains and missing limbs - would we have invaded and occupied Iraq? I think not.
The Bush war in Iraq is lost. It is what retired Lt. Gen. William Odom calls "the greatest strategic mistake the United States has made." The Bush administration's strategy set up the conditions for civil war, and by making Donald Rumsfeld the scapegoat or suggesting the Iraqi leadership is the reason for civil war in Iraq, we merely blame others for our mistakes. Doug Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, cautions, "Whatever the Democrats do, they should reject the current schoolboy excuse we hear from active and retired generals that 'Rumsfeld made me do it.' "
Where to begin to fix this mess? First, the new Congress must make Iraq yesterday's issue. We must not escalate the war there, and we must not increase the size of our military forces so we can engage in more adventures like Iraq.
Second, follow the advice of former military "green hawks" like retired General Chuck Wald, who argue "that a tough military and foreign policy won't be enough to ensure energy security, and the only real solution lies in changing consumption at home."
Third, whatever we do, we need to raise taxes to pay for it. By not paying for the war in Iraq we have created inequality in America that will take years to heal. The folly of the class war that's been created on the home front is a close second to the folly of the Bush war in Iraq. The real cost to this country of the Iraq war is likely to be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, up to 10 times more than previously stated by the Bush administration. The difference during past wars is that presidents raised taxes to pay for them and made sure the wealthy paid their fair share. Is there no outrage for making our children and grandchildren repay our war debts?
Fourth, tell the American people what faces us in the Middle East. Iran is the dominant player. The threat of nuclear weapons proliferation in the region will continue. Iraq will eventually become a confederation of three states, as both former Ambassador Peter Galbraith and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., assume. Our role will be to operate control zones, limit the violence by leveraging our technology, and return to a containment policy. And this new containment policy must be coupled with a long-term solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. NATO could help by establishing bases in both Israel and Palestine.
Fifth, we should expect both Republicans and Democrats to blame our departure from Iraq on the Iraqis. This is degrading to a member of the profession of arms because it's a failure to admit responsibility for a flawed strategy. What we can do for our troops is to bring them home, take care of them when they get here and make those responsible for the war accountable.
Ivan Doig wrote that "maybe it is an American condition, in this strange nation we have become, all helmet and wallet and no brain or heart." We can change that. Edward Abbey, that cantankerous Westerner, told us how to do it. He said, "A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government."
James Callard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired Air Force colonel who taught national security policy at the National War College in Washington, D.C. He now teaches at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., where he lives, and the University of Colorado, Denver.