Column, 646 words

A Zero on the Home Front’s Richter Scale

Donald Kaul

Among the strange things that happened last year — and there were many — perhaps the strangest was the end of the Iraq War.

Did you notice it? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It hardly even registered on the home front’s Richter scale.

We didn’t leave in triumph (that was World War II). We didn’t leave in confused embarrassment (that was Vietnam). We just left. We practically tiptoed away, hoping nobody would notice. And nobody did, hardly.

I remember the end of World War II. I was a 10-year-old in Detroit. My parents took me downtown to experience the celebration, for which I am forever grateful.

V-J Day in Times Square (Library of Congress)

V-J Day in Times Square (Library of Congress)

It was an extraordinary moment — an explosion of joy and relief and sense of victory, unlike any I had seen before or since. They didn’t call it “V-J Day” for nothing. It stood for Victory over Japan, and the entire nation gloried in that triumph.

That’s why hundreds of thousands of Detroiters, along with millions elsewhere, spilled out of our homes to share our feeling of exultation with the people who had shared the pain of that war.

That was the key, I think: World War II was a shared experience. People hung one-star flags in their windows to indicate the military service of a family member — a sad gold star to indicate a death. Butter and meat were rationed, as was gasoline. Middle-aged neighbors volunteered as “air raid wardens” to patrol the streets in their white helmets during practice drills.

Even I, a kid, pulled my red wagon around the neighborhood collecting newspapers for the “paper drives,” all in the name of the war effort.

The war, for us, only lasted four years. But it had seemed an eternity, and the nation reacted to its abrupt end like an inflated balloon suddenly unsealed.

That was Detroit that night, and New York and Chicago and San Francisco and every other city of size in the country.

Compare the conduct of that war to the Iraq conflict. Was anything asked of the American people in the Iraq War? Anything at all?

Certainly not taxes. They were cut so that “job creators” could create jobs, which they did — mainly in China.

Nor participation. We’ve got an all-volunteer armed force coupled with a large number of contracted mercenaries. You didn’t join up unless you wanted to (or couldn’t get a better job).

I remember President George W. Bush being asked at the beginning of the conflict what the American people could do to contribute to the war effort. “Go shopping,” he said. That was the great sacrifice we were asked to make.

The young men and women we sent to fight that eight-year war bore virtually the entire burden of it — nearly 4,500 U.S. military deaths, along with about 1,500 military contractors, and God knows how many thousands of Iraqis, both friend and foe. Thousands more Americans were maimed or psychologically damaged, their futures truncated. (The unemployment rate for returning veterans 20-24 years old is 30 percent.)

The war cost well over $800 billion and counting, mocking Bush adviser Paul Wolfowitz’s prediction that it would pay for itself.

It was a lousy war from the beginning, sold to the American people on false pretenses, and it has done us precious little good. We were hardly out of the door when the sectarian rivalries that existed before we got there began to shred the country again.

So much for creating a model democracy, which was one of the stated goals of the invasion.

The chief result of the war was the strengthened position of Iran, our sworn enemy in the region.

Some wars end with a bang, others with a whimper. The end of the Iraq War was accompanied by the sound of one hand clapping.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. otherwords.org