It’s a war still making its way into the history books.
More than a year after its official end, and a decade after its start, scholars have just begun to assess the Iraq war and its legacy. School textbooks barely mention the war. Historians can’t even agree on what to call it.
Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
“The Iraq war is not something in the distant and settled past, but has consequences that are still unfolding around us now,” said Vejas Liulevicius, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee and director of UT’s Center for the Study of War and Society.
“It’s very live still, and many of us know people who gave their lives there. That immediacy doesn’t go away, so I don’t see this as a settled matter,” Liulevicius said. There’s that sense that one doesn’t want to wade into the debate before all the facts have come in. That’s the case with every war, and my conviction is that we can never really come to a settled conclusion, because there are always new facts emerging.”
The social studies classes in Knox County, Tenn., schools, for example, rely on textbooks printed in 2005, barely two years into the war. Classes typically don’t reach that chapter of U.S. history until the last 11 days of the school year, said Judy Newgent, the school system’s social studies specialist.
“We just don’t have a lot of material on that time,” she said. “We look forward to expanding on those topics in the future.”
Some Americans barely even noticed when the war ended. The multiple-choice media environment of today, with video on demand and customizable news feeds, could allow a reader or viewer to go the duration of the war without ever reading or watching a single story about the conflict.
Even those who followed every story often remember only what they choose.
Contrast that with the way World War II dominated everyday life in the 1940s, through newspaper coverage, newsreels at the matinee, radio broadcasts, bond drives and rationing.
“For a nation to be at war meant something very different in 1944 than it did in the 2000s,” Liulevicius said. “For the past decade, people have had the increasing ability to customize their own media consumption.
“Veterans have been expressing how strange it is to come back to the U.S. and see a society not engaged with what’s going on. One columnist has called the Iraq and Afghanistan wars a kind of “white noise” in modern American society. And as with a lot of the transmissions of white noise, the hearer often hears what he or she wants to.”
The war’s recency tends to blind veterans and others involved to the historical significance of what they did. History, after all, happens to other people in the pages of a dusty book.
The flood of stories that emerged from the Iraq war makes for overwhelming reading — and some of the best stories never even made it to paper.
“So much of the historical record of this war will be told in emails, instant messages and blog posts,” Liulevicius said. “There are photos taken on phones. On the one hand, the technology allows veterans to capture so much as it happens, but on the other hand, it’s very ephemeral. I’m not sure an email carries the same power as a letter to someone reading it years later — if it survives that long.”
Imagine how many of those stories died inside crashed hard drives and discarded cell phones.
The center originally saw life in the 1990s as a way to capture the experiences of dying World War II veterans through interviews and donations of letters, diaries, photos and other scraps of history. The mission now covers stories of all wars from the 1940s to the present.
Not a single veteran of the Iraq War has stepped forward so far to share that generation’s stories. Liulevicius expects that silence won’t last.
“None of our conflicts should be forgotten, but for now we’re not seeing that sense of urgency that we see with older wars,” he said. “In a lot of cases, rather than feeling the urge to share their experiences right now, their motivation is to get on with their lives, finish their studies and start careers. It’s around the time people have established their careers and begun to reflect on their lives that the moment seems right.”
Historians estimate that process usually takes an average of about 10-20 years. Erich Maria Remarque published “All Quiet on the Western Front,” his classic novel of a German soldier’s life in the trenches of World War I, in 1929 — a little more than 10 years after that war’s official end.
“There’s almost a mathematical regularity to it,” Liulevicius said. “Go to any war, and about 10 years later, you’ll see an explosion of writing about it. There’s a human urge to tell stories. Part of the urge of telling these meaningful stories is about trying to understand what these experiences meant for you and for your generation. Sooner or later, a whole generation starts asking those questions.”
The answers might prove more elusive.