A lot of people were wrong about America’s experiment in Iraq. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find an independent observer who would say the war is going well, and it’s no easier to figure out how anything’s going to get better.
When U.S. forces reached Baghdad and helped a few excited Iraqis knock over a statue of Saddam Hussein, I wrote an optimistic piece in the Daily. I quoted Paul Berman, who hinted in The New Republic that Abraham Lincoln would support the war because Lincoln was willing to go to war in order to spread American ideals.
I remember sitting in my dorm room in South Quad freshman year watching the U.S. invasion with my roommate. We were so confident.
On TV, we saw American weaponry illuminate the sky in beautiful hues of red, white and orange. It was like watching fireworks; you couldn’t see the Iraqis dying below. Watching the explosions on CNN was like watching a Fourth of July special on PBS, complete with John Williams conducting the “1812 Overture.” Lincoln, John Williams, fireworks, loud explosions and ordinary Iraqis cheering because America had freed them – is there a better way to motivate a young, liberal college student who has no chance of ever actually fighting in a war?
Almost three years later, it may be time to revisit my selective interpretation of Lincoln. Lincoln supported war when necessary. Berman was right about that. But the Civil War was not a war that Lincoln could choose to avoid; the nation’s survival was at stake. Maybe Lincoln would have supported the war for the sole purpose of eliminating slavery, but I’m not so sure he would have attacked Canada if the Canadians decided to start buying and selling slaves.
There is death in every war – and death is terrible in every one of those wars. Death, however, does not mean that we should never go to war. The Civil War and World War II were terrible, but they were also necessary. Our nation’s survival was at risk and, in both cases, the United States was fighting against evil ideologies.
Almost everyone will agree that national security is a legitimate justification for war, but most of the people on the Left who have always opposed the war in Iraq will probably accept a broader justification for war than national security. Many of the people who have opposed the current war think that the United States sinned by not preventing the genocide in Rwanda. We failed in Somalia, and we’re failing the people of Sudan now. Why would it be OK to use the U.S. military to save people in Sudan but not OK to use the U.S. military to save people in Iraq? And why isn’t anybody talking about using the military to eliminate an evil autocrat in Zimbabwe?
If the war in Iraq were going well, if it weren’t reminding people of Vietnam, the discussion surrounding the war would be very different. If there had been adequate planning, if we had sent enough troops, if we had stopped the looting, if we had gotten the basic utilities up weeks earlier, if we had made it clear we weren’t invading the country to set up a military presence in Iraq and to protect Israel, the experiment would seem more just. If the U.S. death toll were much lower, if the Iraqis were well on their way to setting up a viable democracy free from suicide and car bombs, support for the war would be high.
But support for the war is not high, and that is because the war is not going well. The war in Iraq is starting to resemble the Vietnam War on the ground because the two wars resembled each other from the start. The president launched both wars on false premises and without planning for and thinking through the likely consequences.
The president claimed we were going to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction and connections with terrorism – claims I didn’t buy at the time and claims some people in the administration apparently didn’t buy because they had to hype the shaky information they did have. He probably chose this strategy because WMD and terrorism were the only ways to convince the American people to support the war.
I supported the war for very different reasons than the president. It may not have been possible to garner public and congressional approval for a war based on my arguments about democratic ideals, and maybe the president would have lost that vote. But the embarrassment of losing a vote in Congress pales in comparison to the nightmare of losing more than 2,000 American soldiers and many more Iraqis in an unsuccessful war.
I don’t know how you decide when a war is just and when it’s not just, when losing thousands of Americans is worthwhile and when it’s not worthwhile. Even hindsight is not always 20/20. But when you don’t even lay out the facts, when you don’t even have a debate based on the truth, you don’t have a very good chance of distinguishing the noble wars from the misadventures.
Pesick can be reached at email@example.com.