Thoughts on the end of the war in Iraq

Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq as they cross the border into Kuwait. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times / December 17, 2011)

Nine years of war. Nearly 4,500 American troops killed, scores of thousands more who will suffer a lifetime from their wounds and memories. More than 100,000 Iraqis dead. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

On the TV news I watch the last US troops exit Iraq into Kuwait and think, what was that all about? The waste sickens me.

I remember a few years ago stopping at a restaurant off the freeway near Riverside.  A popular family restaurant crowded with locals and travelers on a Saturday morning.

As I waited for a seat, I noticed a display near the cash register, where every customer pauses.  Photos of a young man surround an American flag. Here he’s a high school football player. There he is smiling and waiting tables at this very restaurant. In one he proudly poses in Army uniform with his parents, the restaurant’s owners.

A framed letter from the young man’s commanding officer says what a fine soldier he was, how popular he was in his platoon, and how he died in combat.

It’s the closest I ever got to the real cost of the war in Iraq.

Because of the all-volunteer military, few Americans serve or even know anyone who serves in the armed forces.

Our military men and women, serving deployment after deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan, are also members of the one-percent, as distant as the rich and powerful.

I bet people see who that shrine in the restaurant today don’t give it a second thought. Too soon, young people will say, “Iraq? Where’s Iraq? Was there a war?”

Flashman’s reaction following the Battle of Alma in the Crimean War comes to mind.

The camp ground was littered with spent shot and rubbish and pools of congealed blood — my stars, wouldn’t I just like to take one of our Ministers, or street-corner orators, or blood lusting, breakfast-scoffing papas, over to such a place as the Alma hills – not to let him see, because he’d just tut-tut and look anguished and have a good pray and not care a damn – but to shoot him in the belly with a soft-nosed bullet and let him die screaming where he belonged. That’s what they all deserve.

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser

My favorite anti-hero in all literature is Sir Harry Paget Flashman.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s brilliant series of historical novels, Flashman is a self-confessed coward, libertine, and scoundrel.

Sir Harry is also the most decorated soldier in Victorian England, lionized in the press as a hero of the British Empire.

Flashman has one redeeming virtue, at least for historians: he is a reluctant eyewitness and scrupulous reporter of major events worldwide in the nineteenth century, including British military engagements from the Khyber Pass in the First Afghan War to Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War, the American Civil War, Mexican revolution, and the Boxer Rebellion in Imperial China.

Flashman survives Custer’s Last Stand, survives another famous last stand: the slaughter of Elphinstones’ army at Gandamack, survives Chinese Gordon’s ill-fated mission to Khartoum, and through luck and cowardice squeaks by numerous other infamous massacres around the globe.

Crimean War soldiers, 1855

Flashman unwillingly sees action  in the Crimean War. Thousands of British soldiers perish from cold, exhaustion, and disease, far more than die in action.

And for what?  The reason given by the British government for its involvement in the Crimea was a long way from its real and deeper aims. Sound familiar?

Despite Flashy’s best efforts to avoid duty, he participates in as pointless and stupid a waste of lives and money as our misadventure in Iraq, though the Crimean War (1853-56) didn’t drag on for nine freakin’ years.

Flashman’s fictional memoir (and GMF’s extensive research; the book’s footnotes expand on Flashy’s observations) reveal the horror of the Crimea War and incompetence of Britain’s military leaders.

Flashy doesn’t flinch from telling the truth. I wish we had someone like him to report on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I owe a great debt to George MacDonald Fraser. Through the dozen or so Flashman books, I’ve learned a great deal about the  British Empire. This knowledge is relevant to world-changing events as they enfold today.

Afghanistan, China, India, Russia, Africa, Europe,  even the US,  are all locales for Flashman’s adventures and insightful commentary. George MacDonald Fraser connects our world to the extraordinary people and events of the nineteenth century.

George MacDonald Fraser knew war. He saw action in Burma during World War II. In one attack, the men to his left and right were killed.

The Flashman Papers are also great entertainment, and have kept me up late many a night reading and laughing.

For example, Flashman rode in the Crimean War’s famous Charge of the Light Brigade. In fact, as George MacDonald Fraser writes it, Flashy is responsible for instigating that military blunder.  As the brigade forms, a hung-over and terrified Flashman loudly farts, startles his horse, and triggers the senseless charge against entrenched Russian artillery.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

— Alfred, Lord Tennyson: The Charge of the Light Brigade

Our hero Flashy can answer Tennyson’s question, Was there a man dismay’d?

Come to think of it, a fart is as good an excuse to start the insanity as the Bush administration’s bogus claim of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Or any war.

Biography of the fictional(?) Sir Harry Flashman


One thought on “Thoughts on the end of the war in Iraq

  1. Steve says:

    Just found this…
    Harry Flashman and the Invasion of Iraq
    by H. C. Tayler
    Through the winter of 2002/3, as Britain and the United States prepare for war with Iraq, one man above all others is doing his utmost to avoid conflict. Step forward Captain Harry Flashman, a staff officer with the Queen’s Royal Hussars and distant descendant of legendary Victorian scoundrel General Sir Harry Flashman, VC. The passing generations have done nothing to fortify his moral fibre. Flashman’s journey begins with a posting to Plymouth, home of the Royal Marines, in time to join the impending Gulf deployment. Despite his protestations he is shipped to Kuwait to begin a relatively secure job with Brigade Headquarters. But his plans for a cosy war spent safely behind a desk are rudely interrupted by an enforced move to a front-line unit. After bust-ups with the Americans and a foiled attempt to avoid the invasion altogether, Flashman finds himself in the one place he has tried so hard to avoid: the very vanguard of the assault. Landing by helicopter with the Royal Marines, he is soon footslogging through the mud and fighting for his life as the men of 42 Commando seize their objectives on the Al Faw Peninsula. Based on the experiences of the author, Harry Flashman and the Invasion of Iraq is a historically accurate account of events in the Gulf during spring 2003 – embellished only slightly for the enjoyment of the reader.

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