The liberals who endorsed the War in Iraq now labor to whitewash its legacy.
Image taken by Flickr user Etahos
By Daniel Nima Moattar
I was born in January ’92. Too young to remember the Balkan nineties, I’m part of the Iraq generation: one defined by bearing witness to our 2003 invasion. This was our generation’s introduction to state violence. It was also when I learned who I was.
The feral intensity of the build-up to war is hard to recapture today. I had been in a car wreck the year before and recognized the same grim momentum: violence unspooling frame by frame, with newsreel inevitability. It was a daily ritual in the Bush years, like the morning after drinking: open your eyes, realize where you are, remember what you’d done.
For people who weren’t imprinted by it, the memory is receding. But millions of young Americans still understand their country through the lens of our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pundits call the financial crisis our generational crucible; none mention watching a complacent Beltway carry water for the war machine.
I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were on September 11, 2001. My loose understanding of American identity twisted in a suddenly hostile climate, as my mother’s had at time of the hostage crisis. I was nine years old, my parents Iranian.
My grandfather’s mother left Iraq for Iran a century ago; my mother left Iran in 1978. Documentation of Iraq and Afghanistan was the one place in early life I saw “representation”: the people I was and am lumped with by the coarse brush of post-9/11 ethnic mix-and-matching. Here they were, in the rubble under L. Paul Bremer. Most didn’t merit mention past the CNN chyron.
The war’s supporters have regained their political footing. The public anger and sorrow has dissipated. But the dead are still dead. The death tolls, which quickly hit ludicrous numbers, had unbelievable force for an adolescent glued to the news. It was compounded by the faceless coverage. A natural order was taken for granted where these were the kinds of people subject to acts of mass killing.
It’s hard to fault the American media for its overwhelming focus on the four thousand U.S. soldiers who were dying day by day. But most were a hell of a lot more alien to me. Adrift on the home front, I got to witness a Middle East of casualty counts and cartoon villainy—an imagery of destruction and victimhood. The War on Terror.
Our national conscience was bounded by an image of the Muslim world that the US labored hard to project. The atmosphere of public paranoia and hostility made for some ugly encounters, but most Americans were and are gracious and kind. It was foreigners there, not immigrants here, who lost the protective aura of humanity—and paid the ultimate price en masse.
So many Americans were blitzed into complicity by people whose job it was to know better—and who did—voting for it, endorsing it, giving speeches in support. Most of Congress had the legal background to know the invasion was criminal by international standards—including one hyper-informed foreign policy expert who’s now the odds-on president.
Most knew, too, that they’d never be held accountable in any meaningful way. What better affirmation than electing one of its boosters to our highest office? The American pendulum is swinging back to messianic aggression. This is Memento politics: if we don’t find a way to hold on to the memory, we will do it again. We’ve already started.
Central Casting’s Arab terrorists and ayatollahs are political window dressing. They’ve got miles to go until they wield the power of one Senate vote, one State Department “hawk.”
At the time, opposition to the invasion was derided by liberal archons: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, TNR. Take a ride in the WayBack Machine and read the intellectual press’s gun-drunk boosterism from the year we landed in Baghdad. Read with an eye to how it all would sound if the dead were human to you:
But wait! Taking out Saddam means dropping bombs, and dropping bombs only creates more terrorists!
That’s the lefty argument du jour, and a lot of squish-brains are falling for it, but it’s not an argument that the historical record supports.
To stop Islamo-fascism, we’re going to have to roll back all of the tyrannous and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East.
That’s Dan Savage. Far more seriously, David Remnick at The New Yorker:
There are, of course, some who oppose an invasion of Iraq on the ground that, say, peace is better than war, or that the “real issue” is a conspiracy of oil interests … Far more seriously, there are questions of why now and why Iraq.
There are, of course, some who wonder why Remnick retains a platform. In spite of its erudition, Christopher Hitchens’ memorable broadside—it opened “Part of the charm of the regime-change argument”—never really states its own argument, which is I’m generally in favor of war.
Congress and media had formed a mob with pretensions to moral authority. Read anything from Sullivan, Goldberg, Richard Cohen. The opposition were “Saddam’s Idiots.”
Read the same writers on the war today, and you realize we’ve found a new consensus: the whole expedition was—whoops—a mistake. Better luck next time, empire.
Those op-eds don’t get dredged up too much. Most outlets, most pundits struck a tacit agreement to forget what was said in the grip of the high—or at least to bury the worst examples at the dusty back of the hot-takes drawer. (Save Jonathan Chait, who in 2010 secreted a column called “Over-Learning the Lesson of the Last War.” The war was still going on, there were multiple lessons, and he hadn’t learned any of them.)
It’s not out of any deep sense of regret for nursing the war machine. They rarely attach real moral weight, or attendant shame, to their roles as stenographers to power. It’s that the liberal consensus moved on. The current administration makes its wars look so palatable that the media hardly has to sweep in its tracks anymore.
For everyone at home in 2003 who got a sweet kick out of “nation-building,” there was another American who realized they didn’t have a share in the world to come: soldiers unexpectedly deployed to far deserts; half-assimilated foreigners doused with suspicion; people who just had the wrong constitution to get on board and share in the fun.
The antiwar movement drew them all in. But it was swatted curtly out of the mainstream by “liberals”—Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman, Paul Berman—with the sleepy disdain of someone whose show is almost on and can’t miss it for your jabbering about war crimes.
The effrontery of “mistake” is incredible. The publications and politicians who curried war support write their non-apologies in the language of disaster—the lexicon of insurance adjusters, made for earthquakes and acts of God.
The idea of complicity in one million deaths is outside the Beltway class’s imagination. If you make the accusation, as far as they’re concerned, it mainly speaks to your ignorance re: the Real World.
The Real World is the world of power without accountability, where “experts” laminate politicians against moral judgment by a wave of the technocrat’s wand. It’s the foreign-policy front of Thatcher’s famous “there is no alternative.”
It’s where State Department acts with the right interests at heart, besides occasional and blameless misunderstandings. The place where only America really exists, and then only swathes of Manhattan and Northwest DC. Imagine that famous New Yorker map of the world stamping on a human face — forever.
As the United States’ collective memory shakes off the last ghosts of Iraq, the hawks are free to quit pretending any lessons took hold. The old thirst is back; they break out the kit and look for a vein. We shrug and vote.
The muted public response, a decade on, is really a refusal to demand accountability. We didn’t all cheer when it was time to storm Iraq. Very few of us especially like “centrist” hawkishness, especially when the glib gamesmanship spills through the cracks: “we came, we saw, he died.” Not many ordinary people are enthusiastic about it. But we will let it be explained away.
The most obvious reality, maybe the saddest example, is that the war won’t cost you an election today. Sure, it gets a second onscreen, a background issue in the gamut. Does it make the top ten? Renewable energy—more or less important? What about the bathroom bill? Iraq is a footnote.
The invasion’s been carefully dressed as a mistake by people who think, without an ounce of self-indictment, Shucks, we’ll get it right next time.
So we’re fed the language of “experience.” Contempt for antiwar humanism is woven into “foreign-policy experience,” a technocratic criterion with no moral element. Establishment militants sure picked up their share of foreign-policy experience in Iraq. This is the black comedy of experience as qualification: it accumulates to the conflict-seekers.
This discourse kills. In 2008, the Democratic primary turned hard against Middle East interventionism. In 2016, we brook it comfortably. Every last ounce of political violence the electorate tolerates will be used. It always is.
We take it in exchange for our issues of choice. It makes us a cheap date, by their standards.
The word “mistake” becomes lip service for people happy with a pro forma apology: people who recognize the ethical failure but no longer care enough to vote on it. Or on drone strikes, “police actions,” undeclared ground troops.
And in no longer caring, we endorse, through inertia, that brutal ideology. In another age, Lincoln called it “this declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.” Lincoln demanded, in that accusation, a moral imagination we seldom ask for in public life.
In each vote where war and peace are remotely concerned, we’re asked what the life of a stranger is worth to us. Each time we set another issue ahead of war, we’re answering.
And the truth is that “I’m for unaccountable killing abroad” and “I don’t vote on it” look exactly the same on the balance sheets.
And then, all at once, you tumble into the pit of treating war crimes and identity politics as interchangeable tokens of similar weight.
The post-9/11 climate is the other defense. Everyone was voting for total war!
Everyone on the white side of Macon County was playing Who Wants to Be a Lynching Spectator through the start of World War II, but their indifference to the slaughter is still remembered with horror.
George Wallace, too, was enacting the will of his white constituents. Do we vote to hand him a historical pass? It sure would be consistent.
All to say that public figures don’t choose accountability; they get it thrust upon them. The media spotlight encourages mistakes-were-made evasiveness and outright dishonesty. Those dodges only stop under a relentlessly critical public eye. Iraq supporters who endorse continued intervention don’t have a place at the table. Where we can vote them out, we have an imperative to. Peter Singer argued four decades ago that our narrowly national moral framework fundamentally “cannot be justified.” We’re individually responsible, he said, for extending it. It’s even easier to argue the corollary: we can’t justify weighing foreign militarism on a plane with domestic quality of life. That understanding flows in the American conscience from Emerson to King, Debs to Malcolm X, Huey Newton to Stokely Carmichael.
There are obvious objections: Don’t we inevitably relate only to our home society? Shouldn’t national borders carry weight in our ethical math? Can we be expected to cast our moral imagination across an ocean, to vote based on the suffering of strangers?
Can we justify caring so much less about these children of a foreign God? Of course. The arguments can be made, and are, with all the erudite vacuity of Ivy League education. They can be made, and shouldn’t be—and wouldn’t be, if nations like Iran and Syria were thought to be separated by thinner margins of culture. But we’ve rejected the harsh land borders of empathy before. America’s midcentury black radicalism had a deep internationalist vein; conscientious war resistance is older than the nation.
And if we can acknowledge our own responsibility, we can equally hold politicians—presidential candidates included—accountable for everything from misjudgment to knowing injustice and deadly abuse of power a decade after the fact.
For so-called progressives, the alternative is to live a shade removed from the xenophobia we disown. The unwillingness to vote on deaths in foreign wars–our wars—belies the same beady-eyed tribalism that liberals call their Kryptonite, sanded into respectability by a friendly media elite.
The political alternative is always and relentlessly asking—in the same breath with Were you always for equal marriage? or When will you cut our debt?—the questions Who will you kill to “defend our interests”? To what ends will you wield state violence? How deadly is your America?
It’s a notion that our sense of justice has to extend as far as our military reach; that it’s not permissible, benefitting so deeply from borderless power, to build our politics mainly at home; that we have a continued obligation to keep the memory of war in the foreground; that we can’t rehabilitate its supporters for free.
For movement politics, it’s a question of what we protest and demand. For the voters, an electoral question: is the lone consequence of endorsing the war that you get sidetracked on the way to the top? For everyone who was alive to remember, it’s a personal reckoning. Like all social politics, it’s ultimately a moral question: one of solidarity, empathy, and love.
Daniel Nima Moattar is a San Francisco-based journalist. He has written and reported for The Nation, The Baffler, and BuzzFeed.