Today is Veterans Day, on this day let us not forget the Iraq War.
Recently Ezra Klein, one of the better journalists covering the world of politics and Washington D.C., conducted a major interview with Peter Baker, a journalist with The New York Times and author of the recent book about the Presidency of George W. Bush “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.”
The title of Klein’s piece is “Why did we go to war in Iraq? An interview with Peter Baker.” And is it supposedly about the headline question of why in fact the Bush Administration decided to launch a disastrous war of choice in the Middle East. Unfortunately the interview never really actually answers this question. Klein tries several time to get Baker to try and sum it all up, but what we get is stuff like this:
“And overlaying all that is what it felt like in that moment. They were operating in an atmosphere of fear and anger and uncertainty. They were seeing these threat reports every day — including episodes we didn’t even know about, like the botulism scare. When they come into office, they had thought, at the time, that Iraq was a top threat. Then once 9/11 happens it sort of removes all constraints that they might have had prior to that in their interest and inclination to use force.”
Which is a long winded way to say “everyone was scared after 9/11” which is of course true about American society during the second week of September in 2001, but gets us nowhere closer to answering the question of why, in fact, the decision was made to invade Iraq.
Baker gives us a few other examples of stuff like Dick Cheney’s apocalyptic world view: “Cheney has this history in continuity-of-government issues. He has for years contemplated the notion of an apocalyptic attack on the United States — 9/11 convinces him his fears are real.” And other takes on the nature of those personalities of the Bush Administration.
I must confess that I’m not without my own baggage when writing about this topic. I was a college freshman in the early spring of 2003. I followed the march to war with a grim intensity, those were the days before newspapers had paywalls on their websites, and so I could read all night. I wrote pointless emails to my liberal father about why the decision to invade Iraq was terrible (he agreed) and made my points to people I knew on AIM.
It made no difference, the war came.
Since then, I’ve had my travels and yes, there have been some stories. I haven’t gone to everywhere in this broad land of ours, and I haven’t talked to all the untold hundreds of thousands of Veterans of the Iraq War. But I’d like to think I’ve talked to my share, and I’ve learned their stories. I’ve learned the stories from Iraq Veterans that really did go to that place we all saw on TV, and did those things and lived to tell the tale.
I’ve learned the tale of the senior NCO from a National Guard unit who basically volunteered to saddle up for one last ride, because if his men were going to go to that place, well then his place would be to help lead them through that fiery trial. I learned the tale of the woman from small town Arkansas who went to that place to fight that war. Her main job was manning a fifty caliber machine gun to blast away at people trying to ambush her and her convoy. I learned the tale of the guy who devised elaborate stratagems to duct tape pieces of shrapnel to his legs so he could smuggle these souvenirs back to the US for some reason. No, I have no idea why this was so important to him, but it’s something he talked about at length while he was sort of drunk in Indiana.
I’m sure there are Iraq Veterans who would disagree with my negative take on the overall policy of invading and occupying Iraq. But everyone I’ve talked to who fought in that war expressed to me their belief that our nation going to war in Iraq was wrong, foolish even. I have no way of knowing if this is representative of the experience of Iraq Veterans. I can only say this is the reality of my own experiences.
We have foolish answers everywhere when it comes to the Iraq War, but nothing solid when it comes to explaining it to history.
One of the most amazing facts about the Iraq War is how difficult it is to explain. I’ve read lots of books about it, and reviewed lots of theories. Silly theories like George W. Bush had “daddy issues” and serious theories like the war was the unfortunate consequence of the policies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But all the books and blog posts and news articles I’ve read don’t help me answer this simple question: why did our nation go to war in Iraq?
We have understandable answers for our nation’s other wars; America entered the Second World War to complete, “victory over international barbarism” according to the late, great Senator Ed Muskie from Maine. Our Civil War was fought as a measure of the idea of democratic government, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
We don’t have explanations like this to give to those men and women of our society who went to war in Iraq. We have at best goofy personality criticisms and long winded dancing-around-the-issue Peter Baker style paragraphs. I think we owe the Veterans of the Iraq War something more than this.
We owe it to them and their sons and daughters, to promise to never again launch them or their children (or anyone else’s children) into another a war of choice for reasons we cannot explain to history.
We owe it to them to give them greater reasons than befuddled confusions for why they should give what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” We owe them so much more than that.
Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP