Four Lessons from the Iraq War US Leaders Still Need to Learn

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On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq under the pretense of ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction.

Nearly 10 years later, President Obama addressed the issue of violence at home in his State of the Union, but it seems that we’re already forgetting some of the lessons we - and the Iraqi people - paid so dearly to learn.

1. You can’t fight senseless violence with violence. You end violence by building community.

When the US first invaded Iraq, our government thought it could simply enforce peace in Iraq with the barrel of a gun. Two years later, a full scale civil war engulfed the country and thousands of Iraqis and U.S. service people were dead, and the violence was only increasing.

Then the U.S. Armed Forces changed course and adopted a counter-insurgency policy that included infrastructure development, employment opportunities, and political reform.

Yet here at home, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, we heard calls from the NRA to place armed guards in every school.  Even Democrats like Rahm Emanuel have called for increased penalties for youth caught up in violence, as in the Hadiya Pendleton case.  

And in response to citizens in Brooklyn's East Flatbush neighborhood expressing their outrage at the brutal murder of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, NYPD claimed emergency powers, suspending constitutional guarantees for people in the area.  

These tactics will only make the problem worse.  As Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries says, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”  Attempts to stop violence by locking down communities will only drain our states and local governments of the resources that would be more effectively used to heal from the trauma of violence and rebuild our economies.

2. You have to understand the culture you’re working in.

When the United States first invaded Iraq, our leaders gave little thought to the ancient culture they were attacking. Because they had not bothered to talk to anyone on the ground, they failed to address the long-simmering tension between Iraq’s ethnic groups. So they shouldn’t have been surprised when civil war broke out between these groups.

Today’s leaders make the same mistake. They propose one-size solutions for the entire country, without thinking that the solutions in Chicago might be different for those in Los Angeles. Our leaders should not only learn more about people in the areas most affected by violence, they should also engage them in creating effective solutions.

3. Atrocities undermine the mission.

At the height of the Iraq War, occupation forces committed a series of atrocities, including the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the Haditha killings, and the Blackwater Baghdad shootings, among others. The systematic abuse and disrespect of the Iraqi people undermined popular support for the occupation forces.  

Police officers in cities across the country regularly shoot and kill the people they’re supposed to protect, with few ways for communities to hold the police accountable. Last month, LAPD officers shot at two pickup trucks as they hunted for Christopher Dorner. In one case, they shot 71-year-old Emma Hernandez, who bears little resemblance to Dorner, a 33-year-old African American man.  

And in the recent killing of Kimani Gray, an eyewitness reported seeing the police continue to shoot the boy even after he was down on the ground.  

Just as in Iraq, these abuses undermine the community’s trust in the police, which makes it even less likely that the police will be able to prevent crime before it happens.

4. War is expensive and ineffective.

The direct and indirect cost of the Iraq War is estimated to be $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars that could have been used to provide mental health services to Adam Lanza before he stole his mother’s gun. It could have built good schools and provided opportunities for Hadiya’s killer.

Though President Obama has wound down the war in Iraq, we continue to waste billions of dollars on locking people up and billions more on police. We must choose: do we want America to be first in incarceration or in education?

Take action by getting involved with Ella Baker Center or with an anti-violence group in your neighborhood. And encourage your lawmaker to stand for real solutions to violence, not more policing and longer sentencing.

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