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The Iraq Disaster

Heights Columnist

Published: Sunday, December 4, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

The end of December will be here soon, and I think we all know what that means: all but a handful of the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq will be home within a matter of weeks. No doubt, many will feel that this is a closing chapter in American history, and that soon the nation will be able move on from the shameful debacle that was the 2003 invasion. Iraq will forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.

Or maybe they won't, because as quoted in a favorite Wu-Tang song of mine, "once an evil deed is done, then it never ends … it goes on, and it goes on forever." Interestingly enough, though, most of us probably aren't aware of just how evil a deed our government has been doing to the Iraqi people for nearly two decades.

I recently read an article by George Mason University Professor Hugh Gusterson titled, "How America's War Destroyed Iraq's Universities," an informative and lengthy piece about one of the most tragic consequences of our country's political and military involvement in Iraq. The gist of the article is as follows:

For millennia, Baghdad had been an "unrivaled center of scholarship and cultural exchange," and Iraq's universities produced competent doctors, scientists, engineers, and other academics that served as the bedrock of a well-educated society. As brutal a monster as he may have been, Saddam Hussein placed a high priority on education, creating a system that was "expansive, well resourced, globally connected, secular, and open to women."

This was all brilliantly undone by the combined efforts of the United States and United Nations, beginning in 1991 with sanctions imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths that resulted from the sanctions, irreparable damage was also done to the Iraqi education system. There were some five million youths in Iraq in the 1990s, and the U.N. allocated for each child's education barely eleven dollars per year. Kids went without textbooks, paper, pencils, and bookbags, and parents had to give their children chalk for them to bring schoolteachers. Iraq's literacy rate fell from 80 to 50 percent, and universities suffered from lack of equipment and supplies. Some 10,000 university professors fled Iraq between 1991 and 2003, while the sanctions were in place.

In no way did the end of the sanctions mean the end of the suffering, however. Following the 2003 invasion, the country was engulfed in chaos, and looting became an enormous problem. Some of the most notable instances of burglary took place at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, where the U.S. government quite literally did nothing to prevent such things from happening, resulting in the theft and destruction of priceless artifacts symbolizing Iraq's cultural patrimony.

In one of the most heart-wrenching passages, Gusterson quotes the book Erasing Iraq, saying "The Central al-Awqf Library, founded in 1920, contained 45,000 rare books and over 6,000 Ottoman documents. When arsonists set fire to the building on April 13 or 14, 2003, frenzied staff members managed to save 5,250 items, including a collection of Korans. Everything else was destroyed … the entire library at the University of Basra was reduced to ash, and the Central Public Library in Basra lost 100 percent of its collection … up to one million books and ten million unique documents have been destroyed, lost or stolen across Iraq since 2003."

That anyone could really believe we have done the Iraqi people a service is laughable. These kinds of horrors are so difficult to imagine because most of us have never had to live in such a nightmare. But others do, and we all have a few drops of blood on our hands because of it. Yes, with December comes final exams and with final exams comes plenty of stress, but let's try to put things in perspective, no?

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