A Date That Will Live in Oblivion

Iraq-war George Packer in The New Yorker:

What President Obama called the end of the combat mission in Iraq is a meaningless milestone, constructed almost entirely out of thin air, and his second Oval Office speech marks a rare moment of dishonesty and disingenuousness on the part of a politician who usually resorts to rare candor at important moments. The fifty thousand troops who will remain in Iraq until the end of next year will still be combat troops in everything but name, because they will be aiding one side in an active war zone. The proclaimed end of Operation Iraqi Freedom has little or nothing to do with the military and political situation in Iraq, which is why Iraqis were barely aware when the last U.S. combat brigade crossed into Kuwait a few days ago. And for most of us, too—except, perhaps, those with real skin in the game, the million and a half Iraq war veterans and their families—there’s hardly any reality or substance to the moment.

It’s hard to have an honest emotional response or even know what one feels. After seven years of war, the occasion deserves some weight of feeling, but many Americans stopped paying attention a long time ago. And that’s exactly why the President made his announcement: because Americans want the war to be over, have wanted it for years. Tonight he told us what we wanted to hear. August 31, 2010, will go down in history as the day Americans could start not thinking about the war without feeling guilty.

This is not entirely ignoble, by the way. The war has gone on for a long time—almost as long as the Civil War and America’s part in the Second World War combined—and it has taken a heavy toll on the one half of one per cent of Americans who have fought it, and in a democracy this is an intolerable situation. A checked-out public, a stressed-out military, a war hardly anyone can explain: at some point it had to be declared over, and only the President could do it, and Obama is the President, and he was as good as his word in so declaring it on August 31, 2010, not a day sooner or later. He can claim full credit for sticking to his own date certain regardless of circumstances—for not postponing the artificial event that just happened until some future date certain. And in doing so, he restored a small measure of democratic credibility here at home. This is what it looks like when a wartime President is true to his word and the people are behind him. Strange, that it doesn’t look better than it does.