By Ken Sehested
I don’t know what it was that penetrated my groggy reading of the Sunday morning paper, sitting at the kitchen table, the coffee maker’s final perks hacking like a smoker’s cough. Something, subliminally, coming from the radio news caught my attention. So I walked over to turn up the volume.
“They’re coming home.” U.S. soldiers from Iraq — the remaining few thousand crossing the border into Kuwait just as the sun arose. A few will remain, along with a Marine guard unit and (likely) hundreds of $1,000-a-day mercenaries hired to protect personnel at the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad.
I know that Kuwait border crossing. I spent four days there in late February 2003, less than three weeks before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. About 30 of us in a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation drove from Baghdad to the border’s edge. We pitched tents a few hundred feet from the checkpoint on the main artery connecting the two countries. A 10-foot high dirt berm, built after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, marked the border as far as the eye could see.
We began Lent a week early, watching, praying, fasting and talking to interested reporters about politically realistic alternatives to war. A few international media took the time to drive the route soon to be flooded with the invasion’s ground troops.
At last Thursday’s formal transition ceremony in a corner of the Baghdad airport, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the war’s toll — 4,500 deaths and 32,000 wounded, nearly $1 trillion in direct costs — was justified and that the 1.5 million troops that rotated through during the war could leave “with lasting pride.”
Economists argue over whether the final tab will be $2 or $3 trillion, with ongoing costs for treating wounded soldiers and interest on the debt that pays the bill.
Iraqi fatalities — estimates begin at 100,000 — and many times that number of wounded, were not mentioned, nor were the 4 million refugees. No wonder that neither Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nor President Jalal Talabani showed up to claim their reserved seats at Thursday’s flag lowering.
Few people notice that U.S. combat operations against Iraqis never ended following the previous war. Remember those “no-fly” zones? Though Saddam’s army was quickly dispatched in 1991 from its occupation of Kuwait, U.S. and British planes struck targets in Iraq virtually every day from the end of Operation Instant Thunder to the outbreak of Shock and Awe. There’s a hole in public memory of dozen of years’ siege of Iraq, with largely unpublished results.
Panetta’s “lasting pride,” therefore, must stretch across a whole generation of combat operations: 19 years and 11 months. I can’t help but remember the ancient historian Tacitus’ comment about Roman imperial reach. “They make a desolation. They call it peace.”
Every empire claims divine sponsorship for its lasting pride. Rome, depicted as the beast in John’s Revelation, claimed: “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief” (18:7). Just as Babylon had previously claimed: “I am, and there is no one beside me” (Isaiah 47:8). Just as Egypt had claimed before Babylon: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17).
Yet hundreds, maybe thousands, of choirs this Christmas season will announce by way of Handel’s “Messiah” the New Testament’s ultimate counter-claim to imperial hubris: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
And somewhere, someone is singing, “Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home.”