“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war, neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. . . the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—otherwise known as “Operation Iraqi Freedom”— I thought I’d revisit what was and is perhaps the greatest diplomatic and military blunder in American history.
Iraq could be a case study in how not to make policy decisions. The first consideration, perhaps, is that policy makers knew little or nothing about the country they were planning to invade. Decision makers apparently were unfamiliar with Iraq’s history, especially the unfortunate experience of Great Britain almost a century before. And, the same decision makers apparently paid little attention to the ethnic differences among the Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds that could and did complicate the occupation that would inevitably follow and for which American forces were largely unprepared. Ample reporting supports that conclusion.
The second consideration is the perversion of the intelligence underpinning the decision-making process, as it was presented to the American public. Did the Bush administration consciously lie to the American public, which would be bad enough, or did it honestly believe all its rhetoric about “mushroom shaped clouds”?
Third, when weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, the rationale changed to making Iraq a democratic example for the Mideast. Unfortunately, Iraq lacked the foundation, culture and temperament to be a democracy. Democracy isn’t a suit of clothes that can be put on at a moment’s notice.
Finally, if invading Iraq was so important to American security, why were the costs of the war, in blood and treasure, shielded from the American public? Taxes were never raised. In fact, an unnecessary tax cut was enacted in the months before 9/11. Young men weren’t drafted to serve. In fact, a tiny fraction of Americans bore the trauma and burden of the Iraqi invasion and occupation. Nor were the media allowed to cover the sad homecoming of coffins from Iraq.
Then there was the shameful treatment of the wounded who came home, and the callous attitude of the command entrusted with their care.
None of this, it should be noted, was unprecedented. We had been through it all a little more than a generation before. Those of us old enough could remember it; some of us who were old enough experienced it: The same historic ignorance; the same perverted intelligence.
The same lies.
We have so many lessons to learn.
Vietnam was the end of shared burdens in America. Taxes were raised to support it; young men were drafted to fight. When the draft reached into America’s suburbs, however, opposition became enormous. A lottery was instituted first, and then the draft was abolished.
From the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War in 1940 until the end of 1972, the armed forces of the United States were the great melting pot of society. In World War II rich and poor, black and white, college graduates and high school dropouts served side by side. Some, of course, pulled strings to avoid serving, but the majority, out of conviction or fear, served. Sacrifice was shared; Americans got to know each other. The shared effort was a bonding experience. To the extent that it was universal, it was also a democratic experience.
In 1973 the United States proceeded to form an army of volunteers, mercenaries who had their individual reasons for serving. The end of the draft opened the door to adventurism. The invasion of Iraq would not have been possible with an army that included conscripts. Under those conditions, no administration would have risked invading Iraq based on such flimsy evidence. But we no longer had an army of conscripts.
After 9/11 our all-volunteer enlistees spent multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, suffering severe wounds and injuries as well as fatalities. While they were engaged in combat, life went on as usual in America.
Over the course of a generation we have allowed ourselves to become two countries, or perhaps more. As our economy has come to be dominated by large corporations, corporate executives have arranged to pay themselves many multiples of what their employees earn. As our schools have deteriorated, more affluent parents have sent their children to private schools. Cable television has allowed us to choose the version of “news” and views that conform to our beliefs. We’ve lost our sense of community.
I come back to the ending of the draft. Implicit in that decision was the idea that we don’t all have to share our country’s burdens. We can get someone else to do it. Outsourcing our risky tasks demonstrates a cold-hearted arrogance. We are a superpower. The world can be a dangerous place, but we don’t have to participate and endanger ourselves to ensure our safety. We can hire people to do it, and if bad things happen to them, well, they knew what they had signed up for.
The question ultimately is one of fairness. “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said, and the matter stands there. A democratic society can’t survive without a substantial majority seeing it as fundamentally fair.
But if America was ever fair, it clearly isn’t any longer. We can’t trace all of our troubles to Iraq, but if you’re looking for causes, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.