Last week, the Pentagon announced the death of the first American serviceman in the war against ISIS. Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal was killed in what was described as a “non-combat incident” in Iraq, making him the first American to die in “Operation Inherent Resolve” – America’s latest military excursion into that country.
Cpl. Neal was only 19 years old. He would have only been eight at the outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and merely six on 9/11 – a child at the time of both these events. The fact that he ended up losing his life in Iraq is on one hand tragic, and on the other completely absurd.
The tragedy here is that a young man with a long future ahead of him ended up dying in a distant country before even reaching the age of twenty. The absurdity is that men such as him are still losing their lives as a result of still-inexplicable decisions made over a decade ago. The Iraq War never ended, but now it’s being fought by men who were just children when it started. Walter Lippman once said, “I don’t think old men ought to promote wars for young men to fight.” In our time, old men have been promoting wars that kids would ultimately end up fighting.
This is not just the case on the American side. Most of the Iraqis who have joined up with the utopian nihilists of Islamic State are themselves young men whose upbringing occurred against the backdrop of the American occupation of their country. They grew up watching their fathers and brothers being rounded up and detained by foreign soldiers, and bore witness as their once-stable country violently went to pieces around them. As shocking as the actions of IS have been, it’s not hard to imagine why so many people who grew up in such brutal circumstances might find a movement such as this attractive.
And again, behind their inglorious martyrdoms, are the machinations of former-Baath Party officials who once organized young Iraqis to die for the cause Arab Nationalism and who now do the same for religious extremism. The cause may be different, but in many ways the results are the same.
In this context it is stunning to remember the statements of those who assured us over a decade ago that the war in Iraq would take “weeks rather than months” to bring to its completion. The more cautious and conservative among them gave us an absolute maximum estimate of “five months” before we could go back to normalcy, and start watching America-friendly democracies begin to bloom across the Middle East. If this prediction had been in any way honest or correct, Cpl. Sean Neal may have been sitting in a college classroom today rather than lying in a flag-draped coffin on a military flight back home. Alas, it wasn’t.
One thing is certain however: Neal won’t be the last. Current and former American military officials are already preparing the public for a new conflict in Iraq – with scarcely suppressed and genuinely creepy elation – that they say will be “generational” and will take decades to bring to its completion. If recent history is any guide, their prediction of decades-long conflict means we should actually be preparing ourselves for a war which is going to last perhaps for a century. That’s not derisive rhetoric; history actually seems to be pointing in just that direction.
At the outset of the first Iraq War, in what would later become a deeply ironic statement, Christopher Hitchens predicted that war would last “something like one hundred years”. His prediction seems to have been prescient. Since the first bombs started dropping on that country in 1991, they have scarcely stopped falling since. We are 23 years into our forever war with Iraq and are already being girded for another long time-horizon before it will supposedly “end”.
The reality of course is that this war not going to end. In all likelihood many children growing up today are going to end up fighting and dying to continue it at some point. As implausible as this may sound, it would’ve probably come across as similarly unlikely to anyone who predicted that American kids who were just eight during the invasion of Iraq would still be perishing in that country over a decade later.
The fact that our wars are now being fought by people who were just children when they started is one of those grim, uncomfortable realities that we tend to elide in the interests of continuing on with business as usual. But, needless to say, it would be a lot fairer if the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Frums of the world sent their own children to finish what they started instead of sending everyone else’s.