Iraq Lessons

I have been thinking about the Iraq War lately, a week after its 10th-year anniversary. Through a blog post by Paul Krugman, I read an excellent piece by Kathleen Geier that I highly recommend. It’s a depressing read to see a group of individuals with influence argue for exactly the wrong thing. Maybe worse is how they forgave themselves with barely an apology.

From the piece:

This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

I’m not entirely sure society collectively has learned much from the Iraq War. Modern war allows people to feel pretty insulated from its effects, so people had no trouble tuning out a year or two into the mess. But I know that at the very least, the Iraq War influenced many individuals who were still coming of age at the time of the invasion.

I was in high school when it happened. Now when I look back at the entire episode, I think to myself, this was the first time I realized that a majority of adults are completely full of shit. Here, I thought, is group-think at its worst, not in a totalitarian society that literally monitors what people say and think as in 1984, but in what should be a free and thoughtful society. The thinkers, the politicians, the opinion-writers simply plant a toxic seed in the viewer’s mind full of half-truths and and an array of half-assed justifications: tyrant, oil, WMDs, freedom, like pharmaceuticals prescribed en masse to a sick populace. And then we see other people agreeing throughout the media-sphere, and arguing on behalf of war in some arena of ideas that is empty of any nourishing logic or critical thinking.

These are smart people, who have gone to good schools, who get paid to think about hard and complex issues for a living, and who can dress up ideas in nice prose. And in the end, they were exceedingly bad at what they do for a living at an incredibly important point in our history. What startled me the most was that these people never gave any regard to the real world, where real people would die and face the consequences. It was about ego, and image, and wanting to appear a certain way (or not wanting to appear a certain way: hippie). These are things any high-schooler is well acquainted with. Somehow, I thought, people must grow up from these kinds of traits. There has to be less name-calling, bullying, and image-consciousness as people get older. But it wasn’t true, and I learned my lesson then.

I was in an English Lit class when we had a sort of mini-debate about the Iraq War. Every week, my English teacher liked to include 10 minutes of in-class discussion on different events in the world to keep the class fresh and to try and get people to see the connections between developing good, evidence-based arguments and the world outside of writing literature analyses. I was an awkward, over-achieving kid who didn’t typically talk very much, but I loved these debates, as I was always well-read on current events. I remember passionately arguing against the Iraq War in class, asking basic questions. Has anything changed in Iraq since 9/11 that necessitates action? Or since the Persian Gulf War? And if it’s freedom we care about, or even 9/11 we care about, why not attack Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 Hijackers were from? Why are we close allies with Saudi Arabia? Why don’t we care about North Korea? I look back at much of my life and often times think: you were so stupid. But this wasn’t one of those times. These were simple questions that I had asked. Why didn’t the people in our media and the people holding elected office also ask these questions? Why did they brush them off with labels like hippie or traitor? Why did all but 1 Republican senator, and a majority of Democratic senators, vote for the Iraq Resolution?

The point of Krugman’s post is that the many commentators who argued on behalf of the war still have their jobs, and it is truly a mystery as to why. Some people feel bad for them, and feel bad for people like Colin Powell, as if they were innocent bystanders in the evil Bush-Cheney plan to invade Iraq. But these men and women had real power, and they paid none of the consequences resulting from their decisions. Thousands of American lives, and perhaps over a hundred thousand Iraqi lives, have been lost as a result.

There were some voices of reason at the time that we should remember and aspire to.

Governor Howard Dean, in February 2003:

Secretary Powell’s recent presentation at the UN showed the extent to which we have Iraq under an audio and visual microscope. Given that, I was impressed not by the vastness of evidence presented by the Secretary, but rather by its sketchiness. He said there would be no smoking gun, and there was none.

Senator Robert Byrd, in March 2003:

BYRD: Well, I’m not in favor of war in Iraq at this point. I don’t see Iraq as being directly and imminently an enemy or an attacker or a danger to the United States. Iraq is not an imminent — an imminent — I mean, directly ready to attack the United States.

KING: But how about long range?

BYRD: Well, maybe. There are others that are more imminently threatening, for example, North Korea.

But we just ought to lay this out on the table. Iraq does not directly constitute an imminent threat to the United States or to the American people.

KING: But obvious, though, he’s a despot, right? It’s obvious there are a lot of things there that shouldn’t be there for peace in the world.

BYRD: Yes, there’s no question. He’s a liar, he’s a prevaricator, he delays, he — I don’t — I hold no brief for him as an individual or for his policies. There’s no question about that. But here we are, about to make war on a nation that has not provoked us into war. We’re not under an attack. We’re not under the threat of an imminent attack from Iraq.

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