I had no idea that a verbal fight begun at the University of Richmond's salad bar in 2003 would end on the streets of Mosul, Iraq. That's the price you pay for playing Cassandra during a mounting geopolitical disaster.
Black flags flutter over large swaths of Iraq, banners raised by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known commonly as ISIS. These fellows are Sunni extremists so radical that they've alienated al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
I wish I'd been wrong at the salad bar, fresh into George W. Bush's invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. That day, a co-worker who shares my interests in military history stood beside me while we pushed our trays alongside the lettuce. He said that we'd finally stood up to the terrorists in Iraq. I replied that while I'd love to see Saddam Hussein with a rope around his neck (I got my wish), effectively we'd lost the war in Afghanistan.
My co-worker, from another political planet than mine, glared. "Now that we have taken care of Iraq, we can pivot the tanks left and get Syria," he said. "Then we'll clean out the nest in Iran."
I reminded him that Syrian tanks rolled into Iraq with us in 1991, that Hussein's Iraq had no connection to al-Qaida, and that the Middle East wasn't a Risk board.
Near the croutons, we began to shout. Students darted around us, eyes on the dressings. Even in those days before the iPhone and our addiction to the shiny-happy world of constant life streaming, college kids didn't want to hear about war, let alone see two middle-aged dudes re-enact it with carrot spears.
Perhaps 11 years on, our military out of Iraq, we civilians can enjoy a quiet lunch. Yet those men from ISIS, waving the flag of a reborn caliphate, remind us that what happens in Mosul may not stay in Mosul. After our routing of the Afghan Taliban and its al-Qaida guests not long after 9/11, analysts warned that we were fighting an apocalyptic ideology, not simply a group of jerks stoning women accused of adultery. So many of us misunderstood — and still misunderstand — the history of Islam, an honorable and usually peaceful religion. Bush's tactics of occupation served as a recruiting tool for jihadists; Obama's drone strikes kill leaders and, sometimes, innocents.
Neither approach combats the dreams of men wanting back the salad days of a long-lost medieval Islamic superpower. Yet the caliphate that ISIS envisions isn't the urbane civilization that built the Alhambra in Granada and ensured a measure of religious tolerance in Moorish Spain, until the Spanish booted out the last caliph in 1492. ISIS also bears no relation to the earlier Abbassid caliphs in Baghdad. They ruled one of the world's great centers of learning, until the Mongols so wrecked the city and its famous library that the waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of drowned books.
If Americans want to understand groups that seek to re-establish their vision of a pure, eighth-century Islam, they need look no further back than 1970s Cambodia. Anyone who recalls the amazing and dark film "The Killing Fields" will remember the forced march of the urban populace into the countryside, where millions died, and the famous line by a Khmer Rouge commander, "This is the year 1."
Yet we've forgotten this war, too. Pol Pot is long dead, though his type is still with us.
Perhaps, having left Iraq, Americans should simply shrug and go back to posting selfies on Instagram. Yet the reach of current events in Iraq may extend as far as our gas pumps, at which point Americans certainly will look up from their phones.
We should be concerned. Our nation drinks oil and the global market jacks up prices at the first sign of instability. Iran and Saudi Arabia already are fighting a proxy war in Syria. If the Persian Gulf goes up in flames as the Balkans did 100 years ago, it will mean economic sacrifice for us in a way that Bush's war of choice in 2003 did not. Though U.S. oil production has risen because of the contentious use of fracking, our other sources of oil are on the world market. The International Energy Agency claims that U.S. production soon may account for roughly half of the 19 million barrels of crude we consume every day. Everything else remains vulnerable to whatever goes down, or up in flames, in Mesopotamia.
So, it's cold consolation to me that I can trumpet my claim that started the Battle of the Salad Bar: We should have finished the job in Afghanistan and let Iraq fester. Colder still are the dashed hopes of those neoconservatives who sought to make the Middle East into a game of Risk at the cost of more than 4,000 U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of unnamed Iraqis. Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and your forgettable minions: Mission accomplished. You have as your legacy black flags over Mosul today and perhaps, a caliphate's "Guns of August" for our century. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
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