"Reality is the new fiction they say. Truth is truer these days, truth is man-made."
I'm getting pretty tired of the revisioning and retelling of how the Iraq War was sold and turned out.
This week’s soundtrack: Sleater-Kinney - “Entertain”
While I know that the march of time is relentless, it’s still a little jarring to come upon anniversaries. Twenty years ago today, the ground invasion of Iraq by coalition forces – led by the United States – began. The Iraq War anniversary is upon us.
In American politics, the Iraq War is deeply consequential; Barack Obama partially made his name as a contrast to the hawkish Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary because he had a clean record of opposing the deeply unpopular war. It – along with Sept. 11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan – shaped the politics of this century as much as anything, including the deep cynicism that my generation has about the power of American intervention.
The hack notion that the Iraq War is millennials’ Vietnam is not without value, mostly because of this shaping. The hindsight being put forward about the invasion is laughable, of course; to have David Frum even remotely defend the invasion is patently absurd. One line of thought that’s often rebutted by the defenders of the war is that hindsight now – all these years later – is hubris and that people then didn’t know the war would turn out so poorly. This, of course, is absurd. While public opinion did favor war in Iraq in early 2003, plenty of people were quite sure that the war was foolish. Even Colin Powell regretted the runup to the war and many people were not convinced; protests were ubiquitous in the U.S. in early 2003. The Onion knew.
Similarly, the post-Sept. 11 cable news environment was perfect for the runup to the war. It was, for the first time, a cable television environment dripping with patriotism and American flags. In fact, the flag lapel pin became ubiquitous in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; only in recent years have they subsided on your television screens. Cable TV – and the Pentagon – learned a lot from the first Gulf War and from the early part of the war in Afghanistan about how to present a war on the other side of the world, thus making it seem all the more a TV show than an actual war. Like TV, the antagonists – if the Iraqi people can even be called that, within this context – are abstract and disengaged from the protagonists and an air war makes the protagonists' casualties that much more minimized (for context, I’d suggest Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place as a foundational reading for this discussion). This was the pitch for the Iraq War: The U.S. would be “greeted as liberators” – as Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC in 2003 – and the war would be simple, quick and clean. In short, this was a comparatively easy sales job to a nation that was still raw from the Sept. 11 attacks.
You know what happened in the 20 years since: An unclear number of civilian deaths that numbers in, at least, six figures. The absurd new notion of “preemptive self-defense” as a reasoning for the war and, thus, the understandable questions about legitimacy of the war (see below and the side note about the ICC). Stories of war crimes. More stories of war crimes. Evidence of war crimes. ISIS. The questionable legitimacy of the execution of Saddam Hussein. The children of American soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq growing up. The failed pursuit of democracy in Iraq. And on and on and on.
The unfortunate reality, however, of the legacy of the Iraq War is that it really wasn’t that much of an outlier in American foreign policy. Vietnam comes to mind, as mentioned above, but the U.S. intervention in Libya during the Obama presidency was not markedly different in reasoning nor outcome. At the risk of sounding like a peacenik, I’ll paraphrase Amos Oz to say that war is not a basketball game. You don’t measure it by bodies you lost v. bodies the other side lost. You measure it by goals achieved. If the goal was achieved – removing Saddam Hussein was one and that was certainly achieved – can the rest be justified? It didn’t take a lot of foresight to argue against the invasion (it really only took a minor knowledge of history and the first Gulf War), but it turned out even worse than expected. While we can definitely ask – and answer – these questions now, lots of people were also asking that question in 2003 and the answers weren’t much more positive.
(A side note: I cannot recommend Kelsey Atherton’s piece today that reviews Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. It’s got lots of context of the “War on Terror,” of which the Iraq War was a huge part. )
(One final side note: The International Criminal Court put forward an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin last week, to which Russian officials quickly pushed aside with some version of “this court is not legitimate.” There was some chatter online about Putin’s hubris or whatever, but for Americans to say that is, well, quite rich. I’m no fan of Putin and I think the allegations of war crimes are valid, but the U.S. also doesn’t recognize the ICC. “How is this a side note to the Iraq War?” you may be asking. Well, the reason the U.S. is not a state party to the Rome Statute – along with human rights luminaries like China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen – is supposedly because it conflicts with the American criminal justice system. That’s the stated reason. But, the unstated reason, I suspect, can be easily connected to conflicts like the Iraq War and the actions therein. No one in the U.S. really wants the ICC poking around what happened during the Iraq War – and after, re: drone strikes – because that would raise serious questions of American officials.)
GovExec’s Courtney Bublé toured FCI Cumberland recently and she came on our show to talk about what she saw against what the union and BOP said to her. She got good access and I think she brings forward a nice conversation about prisons, myths and realities.
I’m also pretty proud of the conversation I had with Temilola Afolabi on data equity last week. She’s been on the show a few times and she’s one of the most impressive people we’ve had on the show.
There is construction across the street from my place and Lulu likes to bark at the noise while we’re on our walks. I’m too busy pulling her inside to get photo or video of this, but I’ll try to do that later.
A Recommendation: Get Yourself Some Flowers
Most weeks, I buy myself a dozen or so flowers from the local grocery story and put them on my short bookcase thing in my living room/room with the TV. It immediately spruces up my life a little and smells very nice. If I’m watching TV, I can look over and see the dozen magenta roses in a vase – that’s what’s in there now – and it makes me feel a little better.