Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Changing Face of Victory

While we're on the subject of Iraq, I would be remiss to let yesterday go by without a word. What was significant about Tuesday, August 17, 2010? On that day, the last units of American combat troops left Iraq, hopefully, for good. We still have 50,000 on the ground, training the Iraqi army, but the women and men whose task it was to engage in battle are on their way home. One soldier was heard, shouting, "We won!"

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but contrast it with the American departure from another war zone. I was in seminary and over lunch a new student with whom I'd become acquainted mentioned he'd been a teacher in Viet Nam, and barely escaped the North Vietnamese takeover in one of the final airlifts out of Saigon. The scene he described was desperate and heartrending -- parents were begging soldiers to take their children to America while they remained behind. I often wonder if he had nightmares and wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Something nags at the back of my mind about using the word "victory" to describe our involvement in Iraq. Maybe it comes about from applying such terms to declared wars with identifiable foes and undeniable outcomes. World War II for example, resulted in our two great enemies becoming two of our greatest allies. Perhaps I'm missing the point, but it's not obvious to me that we've achieved this in Iraq. And that's due, to a certain extent, to the structure of Iraqi society, in which ethnic, rather than national, identity tends to predominate. You can't support one group without alienating the others, nor do they seem able to arrive at common goals. I have an idea it's something we didn't fully anticipate.

All this leads me to wonder if we're not witnessing the changing face of victory. If we can leave a war zone without doing so by the skin of our teeth, as in Viet Nam, does that now constitute "winning?" Can we expect more then the retention of our national pride? Once more, this is the problem inherent in situations that not only begin but end ambiguously. At what point can you declare them to be truly over? Are they ever?

I think time will show the psychology of the Iraq war has been characterized by projection and displacement. Projection because some are prone to identify oppressed peoples as the modern equivalent of our 13 colonies in 1776. Without examining the structure of a society and its capacity for self-government, they presume people will function in the same way as our forebears, and like it or not, this may not be true. Displacement because, unable to locate and punish the specific perpetrators of 9-11, our wrath was transferred to a more accessible target deemed blameworthy. As a psychological defensive strategy, displacement makes us feel better, but it doesn't eliminate what triggered our feelings to start with.

I don't know what history will say about the past eight years, but it will be an interesting read. We'll take sides, debate, and dispute until we're blue in the face, but unless we figure out how to live in a world that doesn't necessarily work like we're accustomed to thinking, we could easily create more problems than we solve. As I said two days ago, the international community has lost much of its blackness and whiteness, meaning we have to become more adept at visualizing the gradations between shades of gray. Those who can do so, and do so well, are the ones to whom everyone else will turn for leadership.

(Creative Commons image of Sailor Kissing Girl by Michael of San Diego via Flickr)
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