President George W. Bush.

Precisely seven days before Christmas, former president George W. Bush slipped into Santa Barbara as quiet as a mouse. Only a few hours later, he slipped back out again ​— ​almost as silently ​— ​after having delivered the keynote speech at a fundraiser for the Turner Foundation held at the hotel formerly known as the Miramar. 

Not having a four-digit donation to spare ​— ​that’s to left of the decimal point, by the way ​— ​I didn’t go. Probably just as well. I might have felt obligated to act the skunk at the garden party. And who needs that noise? The Turner Foundation does real work. Yes, its founders have been bosom buddies with every Republican president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. And yes, the Almighty is omnisciently omnipresent in every sentence of its mission statement. But along the way, the folks at Turner have fixed up a couple mega apartment complexes on the Westside that were so squalid and run-down that not even rats could live there. Better yet, they kept rents down, so the apartments remained affordable to the families living there.

Compared to the current occupant of the White House ​— ​that nonstop ejaculation of bile and vituperation ​— ​W. today embodies an almost doddering sense of decency. But given our self-devouring obsession with all things Trump, Bush’s presence ​— ​however fleeting ​— ​should alert us that some perspective is desperately needed. Yes, Trump sought to withhold military aid to a foreign government under military siege in order to extort that government to dig up campaign dirt that could prove damaging to a likely presidential rival. Although no actual dirt got dug and the aid in question ultimately got delivered, that still qualifies at attempted corruption and venality in the first degree. 

Now let’s look at Bush. In the wake of 9/11, he and his administration stampeded the United States into the wrong war at the wrong time against the wrong enemy under premeditatedly false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Between 2003 to the present, 4,500 American troops were killed in Iraq. When Afghanistan is thrown in, that number is closer to 6,900. When you factor in all allied troops and members of the Iraqi national police, the body count ​— ​as reckoned by Brown University’s Body Count Project ​— ​is 110,000. That doesn’t include the 52,000 men and women wearing American military uniforms who sustained combat-inflicted wounds. And that doesn’t include all the people who sustained lasting damage outside the theater of “direct combat.”  At last count, no less than 970,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war vets have filed disability claims with the government. 

Over the weekend, I chatted with John Tirman, who led MIT’s effort to track mortality rates in Iraq after the invasion. He conducted 1,800 on-the-ground household surveys in Iraq back in 2006 to compare post-war mortality rates with those before the invasion. He’s kept track of efforts to establish reliable numbers since. There are none. But he estimates that anywhere between 700,000 to 800,000 Iraqis got killed who might otherwise still be walking and talking. That’s fighters and civilians. Not all such deaths, he stressed, can be tied directly to combat. How many car crash victims died because the war prevented them from getting the care they otherwise might have gotten? 

In 2017, the New York Times dispatched reporters to the Iraqi city of Mosul to determine how smart our “smart bombs” actually were in the aftermath of 150 airstrikes designed to root out our latest enemy in the region, ISIS. The Times reporters found “collateral” civilian casualties resulted from the these strikes 31 times more frequently that U.S. military officials said they did. ISIS, Tirman also pointed out, qualified as “collateral damage.” Without the invasion, he said, there would be no ISIS.

Even as Congress issued Bush a blank check to wage war in October 2002, many voices were warning such a campaign could destabilize the entire region. Our congressmember at the time, Lois Capps, was one of them and voted against the war authorization act. Nearly 20 years later, what do we have to show for it? Just this week, U.S. fighter pilots killed 24 Iraqis in retaliatory bombing strikes for the death of one U.S. military contractor last week. Demonstrations against the Iraqi government ​— ​breathtaking in its corruption, incompetence, and brutality ​— ​have been met with barely restrained violence. Five hundred have been killed since October, with 19,000 wounded. 

Protestors are now shifting their outrage against Iraqi government officials ​— ​seen as stooges to Iran ​— ​to the United States. This week, they attacked the American Embassy in Baghdad. All this mayhem has spawned massive and global dislocation and displacement. Tirman estimates five million Iraqis have uprooted themselves, three million settling in other countries. Others put the number closer to eight million. No one really knows. It’s like trying to count drops of water in a river rushing downstream. 

The true cost to American taxpayers remains similarly murky. Tirman estimates it’s in the ballpark of $5 trillion. That includes the cost of care and benefits for returning vets over time. For every man, woman, and child in the United States, that translates to about $125,000. Defying statistical calibration are certain moral costs, such as new policies pushed by the Bush Administration that redefined what constitutes torture. Thanks to these changes, we can now legally get away with anything so long as it does not cause organ failure.

Organ failure.

Just 21 days after launching this war, Bush would famously stand under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” while dressed as the fighter pilot he never was. 

I hope the Turner Foundation made a ton of dough off the Bush fundraiser and I hope they continue to do great things. But even if I had the money, I couldn’t have gone. I’d have choked on the chicken. 


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