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Confessions of a former war supporter

Published: March 21, 2008
Section: Opinions


More eloquent, better informed writers than I have written about the failures and lessons of the war. I do not presume that I can outdo them on insightful analysis. I do, however, have something that no one else has. For five years, I alone have borne the story of my own experience with the Iraq war. For nearly the entirety of my teenage life, the Iraq war has loomed, omnipresent but simultaneously far-off, in my civic and political consciousness. It has had, I suppose, a similarly large effect on all of us who came of age in these modern times. Perhaps my story is a typical example of my generation. Perhaps my story is as unique as every one of us.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I’d like to share some of that story with you, as honestly as I can. Perhaps you might like to share, as well.

I supported the Iraq war from the start. From before the start. I have vague memories of myself, a newly bespectacled fourth grader, cheering as then-President Clinton started bombing Iraq, hoping that I was seeing the prelude to the full invasion of Iraq. I dimly remember my mother, wrapped in the cobwebs of an even earlier time, telling me stories of Saddam’s cruelty.

“If this man is so bad,” I asked, “why don’t we just kill him?”

“He can’t be killed with a missile, honey. He’s surrounded by human shields.”

“What are those, mom?”

Enter a conversation about human shields, hostages, assassination, chemical weapons, the constraints of world opinion, and brainwashing. My childhood fear was of being brainwashed “by the enemy.” I was hating on Saddam before it was cool. I knew about Saddam before most of my friends had heard of “the Middle East.” Perhaps that’s normal for an Israeli child living in an American city.

I was thirteen years of age when the United States of America invaded the Republic of Iraq and pretended to be attacking Saddam instead. Other progressives, older than I, can tell tales of being led astray by the Democratic Establishment. Yet I was not old enough to care how Hillary Clinton voted or what painfully wannabe-macho blather Thomas Friedman was peddling. Other progressives, not I, can tell tales of the failure of the press-turned-mass-media, of the fearful nationalistic fervor that gripped the landlords of the public square. Yet I was watching PBSKids and reading Dune. Their story is not my story.

My initial enthusiasm aside, I paid little attention to the Iraq war or any sort of public/civic/democratic/political discussion for some time. I heard of the electoral bloodbath of 2002, of Howard Dean’s 2003 convention speech, of his rise and fall, of Paul Bremer, of Ahmad Chalabi, of John Kerry’s remarkably rapid ascent to the Democratic nomination, of Mosh, after the fact, in offhand remarks made in 2005 and 2006. I may have been reading news at the time, but I was disinterested in ideology and felt that it was all rather above my head.

The year 2004 had me disgusted at a corrupt Bush Administration, but open to the idea of voting for them (if I were able to). I had not shed all my old biases, fears, and natural boyish militarism. Yet 5 minutes’ persuasion would swing me to the John Kerry camp, only to return after another 5-minute conversation with a Bush supporter.

Not only could my allegiances change at the drop of a hat, but I was rather estranged from my political friends at school. When all the self-styled serious intellectuals were taking sides on political grounds, I mocked my friend Anna for having backed Howard Dean, since I knew she had expressed interest in the man and had a vague feeling that he had been discredited somehow.

Yet it’s hard to be willfully non-partisan when a voracious appetite for information and news drives you to read further and further into the blogosphere.

I can definitely sympathize with war supporters. It is not easy to make the choice of trying to extract the United States from its horrible situation, to declare error, to renounce years of believing that all is well, to surrender the myth of American omnipotency. It is even harder to embrace the cold truth of failure in Iraq when there are very many people (in my case, in the blogosphere. In others’ cases, the mass media or National Review) who will tell you a very heartening tale of American achievements in Iraq, of cities pacified and soldiers trusted, of close cooperation with Iraqis and of micro success. It is very seductive to believe in these anecdotes. Yet the plural of anecdote is not data.

I believed Fred Kaplan. I believed Michael Totten, Joe Katzman, and IraqTheModel. I believed in American might. My family has no institutional memory of Vietnam, of Korea. I subscribed to the Green Lantern Theory of warfare: we could achieve our goals in Iraq if only we willed ourselves to do so (by staying).

I have never been a conservative. Hopefully I never will be. An admirer of Christopher Hitchens, I identified with the aggressive atheist / hawkish-liberal mindset, rather than the Christian Messianic mindset. All my life, I have had some basic beliefs – most conspicuously, in justice, dignity, and fairness – that clashed with the worldview of the conservatives who told me such delightful stories about winning Iraq.

Katrina, then, was a last straw. I suspect it was for many. No longer could I look the other way to such incompetence, such indifference to the lives of citizens. NSA wiretapping was another. You could say that the Constitution saved me. How dare anyone cheapen my patriotism by sullying the country I held so dear? Torture? Spying on citizens? Fear mongering? Mugged by reality, my patriotism could no longer be expressed as pride in my country as it is. Rather, my patriotism has been transferred to an affection towards my country as it should be.

I oppose the war in Iraq. I oppose its cronyism, rampant corruption, and the rise of the mercenary. I oppose the breakdown in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I oppose the lawlessness, the utter stupidity of its execution. There are so many things wrong with the war. Yet the most important thing to remember to oppose is the condition that got us there in the first place.

Why are we in Iraq? How did we get here? How did we get there? It is hard to grasp the idea of so many of us working in the desert under an unfamiliar sky for 5 years now. War is a huge enterprise.

Enterprise. Are we in Iraq due to the Military/Industrial complex? I readily concede there is truth to that argument.

Barack Obama has taken to denouncing the mindset that got us into war. I wish him well on his quest to replace that mindset, yet I feel the problem is larger.

I know well-connected people who straight up assure me that we occupied Iraq for oil. That’s definitely an answer.

Yet the answer, I feel, can be expressed through a question.

How the hell was Iraq possible?

Why did we invade and occupy Iraq? Because we could.

How could we invade Iraq?

There are solid, hard-hitting, progressive points to make regarding marginalization of non-hawkish voices in the media, of the cowardice and complicity of the Democratic party, of a lack of democracy, of corruption, of framing and of an unelected foreign policy establishment. Other people can make those points for me.

Why did so many average people succumb to the urge to attack Iraq?

Succumb, I say. Why did so many heed the siren lure of an insane war?

There’s a difference between what’s right, and what’s easy. Destruction is easy. Belief in the American myth of invincibility is easy. And there’s a cottage industry of neo-conservatives and propagandists eager to help you in that quest. Dissent is hard. Thinking is hard. Believing in the sword is easier than toiling for the paper, the unsatisfying compromise.

Yet belief in a paper, belief in the Constitution has been and should be the defining characteristic of the American. We’ve replaced bonds of blood with bonds of law. The most horrifying story of the Iraq war and its attendant abuses of power has been the systematic undermining of the Constitution, of these bonds of law that hold us together. Why do Bush Republicans want to break America? Why did I let them get away with it for so long?