Consider two versions of our war in Iraq:
The first is the one that we know best, the "war of choice" that many Americans objected to from the beginning. It began in March 2003, more or less in reaction to the 9/11 attacks, even though many people knew, even then, that there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11.
Still, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man and a lot of us had the impression that he controlled weapons of mass destruction that could be a threat to our country. Some of our military officers thought that we didn't send enough troops to Iraq and that some of our soldiers' equipment wasn't up to par, but the campaign to take Baghdad was a rapid success. Who can forget Saddam's statue toppling into the street?
It turned out that Saddam had no WMD, but it was a pleasure to hang him anyway, and few could argue that he didn't have it coming. So did his sons, Uday and Qusay. And Chemical Ali. But in need of a new goal for the war, we decided to establish a democracy, which should be a good thing nearly anywhere in the world.
However, the troops that won the war were in insufficient numbers to establish peace. We underestimated the challenge of creating a stable government of any sort and, over the years, close to 4,000 Americans have died and many, many more — maybe 30,000 — have life-altering injuries. Don't even ask about the Iraqis. Nobody really knows.
Everyone agrees that the only solution in Iraq is political, but last year we sent in 30,000 more troops. The violence appears to have subsided significantly. Some are eager to consider this a major victory. But a couple of day ago (Jan. 7), my local newspaper reported a suicide attack that killed 11 Iraqis, one of a series of bombings in Baghdad. Two American soldiers were killed elsewhere in Iraq, as well.
And the next day's paper reported that a suicide bomber killed the head of a U.S.-backed Sunni group. Another suicide bomber close by injured 28 Iraqis. Maj. Andrew Olmstead, 38, and Capt. Thomas Casey, 32, were killed by snipers. Another American soldier was shot in the neck.
And today's newspaper? Nine American soldiers killed. Nine. Dead.
In the meantime, in spite of much wishful thinking, progress on the political front has been pretty much zero.
So this is the war that has killed so many Americans and others, has depleted our military, has cost our children and grandchildren many billions of dollars, has united and strengthened the resolve of our enemies, has alienated many of our friends, and has undermined our moral standing in the world, all while producing only the most questionable and tenuous results.
In fact, this is the sort of debacle that ought to get a president impeached.
But a second version of this war is one that's brutally honest about the role that crude oil and natural gas play in our involvement in the Middle East. At present, our economy — really, our very way of living — depends on a steady stream of around 20 million barrels of oil from abroad per day, a stream that can't be interrupted for long without everything falling apart.
In spite of our halfhearted efforts to decrease our petroleum dependence, it persists and will likely increase. And as long as we insist on our abundant lifestyles and an ever-expanding, petroleum-based economy, our government has an obligation to employ our military forces strategically to ensure that our supply of foreign oil is safe.
Our government has performed this task successfully for years in the Middle East and continues to do so, around the world. A democracy in Iraq would be nice, but of greater importance is our heavy footprint of power in the Middle East and in other places where the world's diminishing supply of petroleum remains.
In this version of the war, the soldiers who have died really did give their lives for our country. And President Bush is a hero.
So this second version of the war wasn't a "war of choice" at all; indeed, it was inevitable.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)