Is the war really over?

photo by Cristi Pintilie

The war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003, among protests that spanned the globe.


It ended on Dec. 15 with a weary sigh of relief as the colors were struck and folded and the last U.S. troops made their way home.

From around the country came a collective sigh, “Thank God it’s over!” Whether any mission was accomplished remains for history to decide, though we can’t even agree why the United States invaded Iraq in the first place. There were no weapons of mass destruction, nor was there any tie to 9/11, as so many Americans were led to believe.

And yet for all the uncertainty about the purpose and the outcome of the war, there’s little doubt that it hurt this nation by costing dollars, limbs and lives. Those are costs we’re going to feel for a very long time.

Let’s deal with the least important cost — the money. Politicians and activists will disagree about expenses related to the war. The Coloradoan recently quoted a figure of $800 billion. But the figure of $3 trillion is not unreasonable. That’s the estimate reached by Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War. Their estimate, which includes hidden costs such as lifetime care for wounded veterans, is lower than the estimate of $3.5 trillion suggested by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

When you think of the ’90s and wonder where the money went, remember that figure — $3.5 trillion. But money is just money. It’s cold, dirty, uncaring. You might love it, but it doesn’t love you. The real cost of this war, as with all wars, is in human suffering.

More than 4,000 Americans died in that war — sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. They left behind friends, spouses, children and parents who will spend this holiday season with a hole in their hearts. The war in Iraq will define their lives in a way that the rest of us can’t comprehend.

But American losses are a drop in the bucket compared to civilian deaths in Iraq. Getting an accurate accounting of the number of Iraqi men, women and children killed as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom is difficult, in part because the U.S. government wants it to be difficult. But Iraq Body Count, which collected documented reports of Iraqi civilian deaths, reached a total of 104,122 to 113,770. Those figures are in alignment with the Iraqi Health Ministry’s own numbers based on death certificates. The health ministry issued 87,215 death certificates for violent deaths but estimates that some 20 percent of deaths went unreported.

Sure, freedom isn’t free, but more than 100,000 dead civilians is a high price to pay when you didn’t ask to be liberated.

The war will go on for U.S. troops who were injured, returning without arms, legs, jaws, noses and eyes — the kinds of injuries sustained when soft human flesh meets IEDs. This war had double the amputation rate of previous wars, and double amputations were one of the signature wounds of this war. Tens of thousands of veterans returned with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) that will require extended care.

One particularly tragic injury that our papers have been loathe to report on is the number of men who had their testicles and penises blown off. A British paper quoted one surgeon as saying there was a time when he was amputating penises and testicles almost daily. To be a young man and lose your ability to enjoy sex and become a father must be beyond devastating.

Tens of thousands of veterans also struggle with the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Suicide, depression, and violence within families — these will last long after the last round was fired.

The official war may be over in the eyes of the public, but many of those who served in Iraq — and those who live there — are still fighting for a new normal, fighting for healing, fighting for their lives.

To learn what you can do to help veterans of this war, go to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) at