Shock & Awe


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH bumbled through his eight years in the Oval Office as if a mediocre actor playing a role that required more nuance and gravitas than he was capable of delivering—sort of like when Keanu Reeves tried to do Hamlet.  This deer-in-headlights quality, I’d argue, the same haplessness which made me cringe during every State of the Union address, was, paradoxically, the key to his popular appeal.  His obvious fallibility resonated with people.  It made him seem human.  We rooted for him to overcome his glaring deficiencies in public speaking, just as we root for Keanu to not flub a monologue. We wanted him to succeed.

But just as Reeves is, ahem, excellent at playing Ted, so Bush could kill certain roles, provided that they did not exceed the limits of his meager talents.  Case in point: when Bush emerged from the Lockheed Viking S-3 that had just landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, sporting a Top Gun-style flight suit, he looked as convincingly bad-ass as the privileged scion of an American blue blood family who avoided active duty in Vietnam could look.  The list of sitting presidents who could have pulled this off is short: Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Grant, Zachary Taylor, Washington.  Bush was soldier, cowboy, and Commander-in-Chief, all rolled in one: an embodiment of American will and might, moxie and swagger.

The nation's Top Gun

Later, after doffing the flight suit, the President gave a speech that began: “Thank you all very much. Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

High above him was an enormous star-spangled banner that read MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Mission Accomplished?

As theater, it was rousing.  As propaganda, it was masterful.  By any other metric, it was one of the more humiliating and shameful moments in the recent history of the United States.

That speech took place on May 1, 2003—nine years ago today.


Let’s begin with the deaths:

Number of Iraqi civilians killed as a result of U.S. invasion (Source: Iraq Body Count, 2012)

Total population of Iraq (Source: World Bank estimate, 2010)

Percentage of overall civilian population killed

Total population of the United States (Source: 2010 Census)

About 0.36 percent of the total U.S.population

Population of Dallas, Texas—ninth largest city in the United States (Source: 2010 Census)

Number of U.S. states with a population less than 1,124,390

The carnage the U.S. visited upon Iraq is analogous to a sovereign country invading the United States and obliterating every last man, woman, and child (children, I should stress, comprise 60 percent of the Iraqi population) in Dallas, Texas.  Or, if you prefer, obliterating more men, women, and children than now live in Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, or the District of Columbia.

The loss of life is staggering.  And, because it’s Iraqi life being lost, more or less unreported in the mainstream media.


Now, the flag-draped coffins they won’t show on the nightly news:

Casualties, U.S. military (Source:

Casualties, contractors

That’s “only” 6,000 deaths, a drop in the bucket compared with Iraqi losses.  That’s about the population of the Village of New Paltz, where I live.  Basically, we’ve sacrificed an entire small town to the invasion.

But not all the soldiers who come home alive come home intact:

Wounded, U.S. military (official report)

Wounded, U.S. military (estimate by the New England Journal of Medicine)

Estimates on this statistic vary wildly, and depend on how one defines wounded.  Is PTSD a wound?  Is depression?  And if being clinically depressed doesn’t count as being wounded, how do you do you account for these troubling numbers:

Percentage of U.S. population that served in Iraq and Afghanistan

Percentage of total U.S. suicides comprising Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers & veterans

Put another way, military personnel are 20 times as likely to commit suicide as civilians. A study by the Army—by the Army—found that the suicide soared by 80 percent since the Iraq invasion; the authors of the study characterized the marked increase as “unprecedented.”


The grim economics of the invasion are also staggering:

Cost of Iraq invasion (Source: Cost of War)

Cost of Afghan war

Cost of both wars

Federal surplus when George W. Bush took office, 2o01

Federal deficit, 2011 (Source: Dave Manuel)

When you consider the inherited surplus plus the bequeathed deficit, Bush managed to burn through $1.6 trillion in eight years.  Trillion.  Twelve zeroes.

Let’s look at some of those numbers again:

Cost of both wars, rounded to nearest hundred billion

Federal deficit, rounded to nearest hundred billion

I’m no math major, but those numbers seem really, really close.  So close that, if we had never invaded Iraq or toppled the Taliban (the latter action was arguably justified, but just as arguably imprudent; how can you bomb a Stone Age country back to the Stone Age?), we’d almost be breaking even now.

There are better ways to spend $1.3 trillion, seems to me.  Here’s another number:

Budget for Education, 2011

Is your school district desperate for cash?  Ours too.  Instead of spending all that money, and acquiring that debt, on Iraq, we could have increased the education budget twenty-fold, and still have $347 billion left over to invest in alternative energy and infrastructure.


Historically, when the nation is at war, the top marginal tax rate—that is, the percentage of income forked over by the ruling upper classes—shoots up.  The richest Americans paid at least 70% of their income in tax during World War I, the early Great Depression, the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam.  Franklin Roosevelt, one of the three best presidents in U.S. history, was downright pinko when it came to taxation:

Amount FDR twice attempted to tax all personal income exceeding $250,000 (in Depression dollars), to finance the war and spark the Great Recovery

Top marginal tax rate, 1944-1945 (Source: Outside the Beltway)

Not so Bush.  W. not only assumed the awesome financial responsibility of a war he knew damn well would drag on for years, he also simultaneously reduced the federal tax revenue, in the form of criminally-irresponsible tax cuts that favored the über-rich. Basically, he raped us in the bathroom during our dinner date…and then skipped out on the bill.

Top marginal tax rate, 2001

Top marginal tax rate, 2003 (i.e., the “Bush tax cuts”)

Right now, the top bracket is paying half what it did during the 1970s.  Half!

Yet the unctious likes of Grover Norquist, whose Harvard education, one supposes, did not include any courses in math, economics, or history, can somehow paralyze the entire Republican party with their dunderheaded—and, I’d argue, treasonous—no-tax pledge.

Save money for the rich, send the poor to fight the war: the GOP party line.  It’s no accident their presidential candidate is worth $200 million.


SEVEN YEARS AGO today, The Sunday Times published the so-called Downing Street memo, a classified document summarizing a 23 July, 2002, meeting of high-level advisors to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during which they discussed President Bush’s intention to invade Iraq.

The leaked memo included this bombshell (boldface mine):

C [Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

And this:

The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun “spikes of activity” to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

And this:

It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

 And also this:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.

The Downing Street memo revealed that the WMD threat was a steaming pile of Nigerien yellowcake, and basically proved that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condi Rice, and, et tu Brute, Secretary of State Colin Powell had knowingly manipulated the media to gin up the case for the (pre-ordained) invasion.

The Downing Street memo was the Watergate tape, the semen stain on the blue dress, the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud, that should have damned the Bush administration.

This did not come to pass.

Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal—what amounted to him lying about his involvement with a band of dirty tricksters.  For all his accomplishments—and he had more than a few—Nixon remains, in popular perception, a chancre on the penis of American history.

The GOP's original Dick

Bill Clinton was impeached because he lied about having “sexual relations with that woman,” Monica Lewinsky.  The sordid details of that imbroglio commanded the nation’s attention for months, drew a rebuke from Congress, and inspired one of the greatest Onion pieces of all time.  In retrospect, it seems quaint.

Sponge-worthy? Yes. Impeachment-worthy? No.

President Bush lied, and lied egregiously—not about campaign finance (bad, but not a matter of life and death) or Oval Office fellatio (who gives a crap), but about war.  He lied about war.  Children died because he lied.  Bush’s deliberate, calculated mendacity led directly to the United States invading a sovereign nation, albeit one with a homicidal ogre as sovereign, that had nothing to do with 9/11.  His lies led directly to the budget crisis and contributed in no small way to the economic collapse.  Because of his lies, we invaded a country, we killed Iraqi soldiers, we killed Iraqi civilians, we destroyed Iraqi infastructure, we tortured Iraqi POWs for sport, we waterboarded, we put our own sons and daughters “in harm’s way” (to use the troubled John McCain’s deceptively gentle euphemism), we subjected those sons and daughters to PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome and clinical depression, we drove them to suicide.

The Downing Street memo should have been the death knell of the Bush presidency.  But there was no resignation.  No impeachment.  No rebuke.  Congress did not even investigate.

Nor mine

For seven years, we’ve known about this, and done nothing.

Nixon was a cheater. Clinton was a cheater of a different kind.  Bush is a war criminal.  He has blood on his hands.


If 9/11 and the WMDs were merely an excuse to “take out Saddam,” as Bush was fond of putting it, and the decision to invade Iraq was made well before those events, the trillion-dollar question is: What was the impetus?

No one is suggesting that Saddam Hussein was a benevolent and beloved ruler, nor were many tears shed when he was executed.  But the “Saddam was a bad man” argument is a post hoc ergo proctor hoc rationalization for going to war.  It doesn’t justify what we did.  He was bad in 1991, too, and we allowed him to remain.

I don’t presume to know what compelled Bush to pursue war, but I will show you one last batch of numbers:

Average price of a barrel of crude, 1947-1973, in 2010 dollars

Highest price of a barrel of crude, 1947-1973, in 2010 dollars

Price of a barrel of crude, 1991, in 2010 dollars

Price of a barrel of crude on eve of 2003 Iraq invasion

Price of a barrel of crude, February, 2012

Who says a president has no control over gas prices?

To be fair, other factors contributed to the spike.  But it’s clear, when you look at this chart (courtesy: WTRG Economics), that the price didn’t begin to skyrocket until boots were on the ground in Baghdad:

On the eve of the invasion, which I never supported, I nonetheless dismissed the “No Blood For Oil” protesters as overly simplistic, as conspiracy theorists. Now I’m not so sure.  Perhaps Bush wasn’t lying about the mission being accomplished; perhaps the “mission” was to drive up oil prices.



Bush also said this in his speech nine years ago today: “The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.”

For the sake of America and the world, for the sake of my children and yours, for the sake of humanity, I pray that just this once, he wasn’t lying.


About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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