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Point Austin: Ten Years of War

The high price of forgetting Iraq

By Michael King, Fri., March 22, 2013

Ten years later, what more is there to say about the U.S. War on Iraq?

Conceived in arrogance and deception, executed with bureaucratic indifference and technological brutality, abandoned with embarrassment and negligence – it's understandable that most Americans, not to mention public officials, would rather change the subject. Yet, since willful amnesia is often our dominant political posture, one feels obligated to acknowledge the bloody anniversary in some way, if only to remind ourselves how readily, as a country, we slide into belligerence and militarism.

Writing in The Nation, Jonathan Schell provides a grim, useful summary ("The Iraq Invasion, Ten Years Later") of the decade. "An unbroken record of waste, futility and shame presents itself. ... There was the passage by Congress of the dangerously vague and elastic Authorization for Use of Military Force. ... There was the infamous day the 'shock and awe' campaign was unleashed, when a great and ancient city was bombarded. ... There were the flimsy deceptions and self-deceptions ... the false allegations that Iraq's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. There was the culpable, willful credulity with which these allegations were accepted by the craven U.S. news media. ... There were the Iraqi prisoners led around on leashes like dogs at Abu Ghraib. There were the Iraqi death squads and torture squads allied with and advised by the United States. ... There was the surprising, protracted failure of the occupation to restore even basic services, such as electricity, water, and sanitation. Above all, there were those who lost their lives for nothing – the more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians (many more, if you count excess deaths, direct and indirect, caused by the invasion and occupation) and the more than 4,400 American soldiers."

Passive Voices

It's also worth reiterating that all of this disaster was not just a mistake, or a blunder, or (to use one of the pompous euphemisms) a "strategic miscalculation" – it was illegal. UT Journalism Professor Robert Jensen, in a recent piece for Truthout, put the matter succinctly: "No matter how much we all ignore it, here is the reality: The U.S. invasion of Iraq was unlawful. The leaders who planned and executed the war are criminals. U.S. citizens bear some responsibility for not holding those leaders accountable." It remains notable (though unsurprising) that the architects of and apologists for the war remain in regular rotation on the cable TV talk shows, and warmonger-in-chief Dick Cheney is still going around bragging that he wouldn't have changed a thing.

The new version of pop political history is that "nobody could have foreseen" the disastrous results of the war – although at the time, plenty of people did foresee them, and were immediately marginalized – and we can't blame the promoters and the pundits for their understandable mistakes. On Salon this week, Alex Pareene featured a blistering summary of Sunday morning's news-talk shows, which marked the tenth anniversary with head-nodding reams of mainstream ignorance: "To celebrate, America's Sunday Shows got you a Nearly Complete Absence of Any Sense of Responsibility or Indication That Any Lessons Were Learned."

Instead, Pareene recounts, a queue of "experts" looked backward with sighs and shrugs of weary regret, and then quickly moved on to new, more trendy enemies: "They all agreed that we should be pretty worried about North Korea and Iran and Syria, and the administration should Do Something about all of those places. ... On each show, the invasion was treated as some sort of inevitable thing that just happened, in the passive voice. No one remembered how integral these shows themselves were in making support for the invasion the default position of everyone Serious. The people who got it terribly wrong were still respected guests. People who were integral in the decision to wage that war sat there and opined on what the United States should do about Iran and China and North Korea and no one laughed them out of the room. It was disgusting."

Mad Men

As Schell reminds us, the overriding reason for not forgetting the dismal history of the last 10 years is the threat of repetition, especially since the Bush Doctrine of "preemptive war" – once officially dismissed as both illegal and foolish – has become reflexive U.S. policy. "With Iran," writes Schell, "that has placed Obama somewhere on a ladder of escalating coercion and force that leads, if push comes to shove, to war. He can ease up or he can increase the pain (Iran is 'in a world of hurt,' he said a year ago), but he cannot easily get off the ladder."

Schell suspects there's a division between the president's public posturing and his private understanding of the horrendous consequences of yet another Mideast war. "Certainly Obama knows," he writes, "that the only military step that guarantees lasting disarmament [of Iran] (namely ground invasion followed by regime change and lasting occupation) is as unworkable as it would be intolerable to Ameri­can and world opinion – in a word, deranged."

Perhaps Schell is right, but it's grasping at a straw. For the rest of us, it has become increasingly difficult to tell what U.S. leaders might finally consider "deranged" in the realm of foreign policy and military adventure. One thinks of Richard Nixon and his "madman theory" – concluding that if the North Vietnamese thought him truly crazy and capable of anything, they would more quickly concede to U.S. war demands. Forty years later – or 10 – we can only hope that all our futures might rest on a more solid foundation.

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