For those of us skeptical of all war, there was nothing really new in the latest Iraq fiasco. The government was lying (of course), the true motives were hidden (of course), it has created a disaster (of course), it ended up spreading death and misery (of course), and it was and is enormously costly (of course). All of this could be known in advance by anyone following the history of US wars. It’s the same pattern, repeated again and again.
War isn’t nation building; it’s nation destroying. It vanquishes both the defeated and the defeating power because it chokes off the liberty that is the source of civilization. The lie is the father of war: the lie that because the state smashes and kills, the killers and smashers are mystically protected against the demands of justice; the lie that the war is moral and right because their state is diabolical and ours is angelic; the lie that the opposing government is an imminent threat that must be smashed, whereas, as Justin Raimondo points out, “in retrospect, the events that have impelled us to war have turned out, in every case, to be elaborate hoaxes.”
The major task of any war historian, then, is to cut through the lies and tell what’s true. The historians who do this are called war revisionists because they do not accept the dominant line of those who prosecuted the war. Taking the revisionist line usually lands you among marginal voices and assures that you will be dismissed as a crank from the fever swamps.
There are exceptions to the rule. After World War I, war revisionism had a huge run. The war was supported by the public after the US entered it, and the familiar sight of war hysteria was everywhere in evidence as people cheered the jailing of dissenters, renamed consumer products, and held hate sessions against the foe.
After, however, the nation found itself shocked at the sheer destruction and expense, and especially the failure of the Wilson administration to provide a clear-headed rationale for why the US went to war in the first place. Slogans like “Make the World Safe for Democracy" or "the War To End All Wars" turned out to be elaborate hoaxes, and the search was on to find out who profited from the war and how.
There were investigations, books, recriminations, and political fallout that doomed Wilson’s League of Nations. This national attitude was called “War Guilt” back then, as if it were propelled by a psychological state instead of an examination of the facts. In the 1970s, the sense that the recent war was a grave error was called “the Vietnam Syndrome,” as if doubting the merit of the war were a sickness that you catch.
To those of us who opposed the latest war, it was obvious that this time was no different. The official rationale — that Saddam was hiding WMDs and we had to dislodge him in order to prevent him from using them in the region and against Americans — was nonsense. We knew this was merely an excuse at best because of the utter hypocrisy of the charge: no government in the world owns as many WMDs as the US.
We all knew there were other reasons including Bush’s personal hatred of his father’s nemesis, the ambitions of US oil producers and their officials, the demands of allies in the region including Saudi Arabia and Israel, and much more. However, as with Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, the first Gulf War, as well as Vietnam and Korea, we were all ready to live the rest of our lives with the knowledge that this war was unnecessary and essentially a racket, but also to recognize the likelihood that our critique would never go mainstream. The power of the received line is so strong that it can easily outpace the truth in matters of war.
And yet, what is unfolding before our eyes? A war revisionism unlike anything seen in 80 years. Every day the nation’s newspapers and magazines are covered with articles reassessing why the US went to war, what the Bush administration knew and when it knew it, and what to do about it now. Today includes the following from Paul Krugman in the NYT:
The Bush administration’s determination to see what it wanted to see led not just to a gross exaggeration of the threat Iraq posed, but to a severe underestimation of the problems of postwar occupation. When Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, warned that occupying Iraq might require hundreds of thousands of soldiers for an extended period, Paul Wolfowitz said he was “wildly off the mark” — and the secretary of the Army may have been fired for backing up the general. Now a force of 150,000 is stretched thin, facing increasingly frequent guerrilla attacks, and a senior officer told The Washington Post that it might be two years before an Iraqi government takes over. The Independent reports that British military chiefs are resisting calls to send more forces, fearing being “sucked into a quagmire.” I’ll tell you what’s outrageous. It’s not the fact that people are criticizing the administration; it’s the fact that nobody is being held accountable for misleading the nation into war.
This is astonishingly strong language about something that was supposed to be the greatest military campaign/liberation of our epoch. Yet it is only the beginning. The US cannot put together a government when any Iraqi who collaborates with the occupiers is risking his life. Basic services are still not running. Opinion against the US in Iraq and the entire region is all but unanimous. So weak is the US grip on the state that is has begun to print Saddam dinars just to pay people in a currency they will accept. With the entire project degenerating into a historic fiasco of a military dictatorship, it is natural that people would start to ask questions — much like they did after WWI.
I naturally assume that everything the Bush administration has ever said was untrue, so I’m more interested in why it’s being discussed publicly, why it appears that war revisionism is coming to replace official declarations as the mainstream opinion. It is hard to believe, but it appears that if present trends continue, the war will end up not only disgracing the intellectuals and activists who gave us this war (many of whom, including even William Kristol, are already trying to distance themselves from it), but also permanently stain the Bush administration in the history books.
There’s no short answer as to why this war is generating such astonishing recriminations, but I’ll attempt one. A huge politico-cultural divide separates the current reality in the global economy and Bush administration practice. The Bush administration is a cultural throwback, staffed by a generation that was schooled in the Cold War model in which the US central state was imbued with a sanctified sense of itself. Its struggles with the Soviet Union were presented as the equivalent of God versus the Devil, a Manichaean struggle in which the US represented the forces of light and communism the forces of darkness.
There was a certain plausibility that this model had, but it came to an end in 1990. The following ten years were a time when the ideological props of the omnipotent state were eaten away. Clinton presided over a period when the nation state began to wither as a cultural, political entity, even as the world nexus of free enterprise and technological advance began to soar. The fall of the Soviet Union made all large states vulnerable in an ideological and politico-cultural sense, because it demonstrated the lack of permanence associated with seemingly impenetrable regimes. Suddenly, the US presence in the world seemed less defensive and more like a traditional empire.
Public sentiment against the US world empire was so strong by 2000 that Bush was elected on the promise that he would pursue a “humble foreign policy” and cut taxes — essentially a watered-down version of the libertarian idea. Meanwhile, domestically, the state lost its grip on the public mind. The old TV networks were crushed, the public schools faced new competition, and government services lost their prestige. A carefully scripted campaign by Bush tapped into this sense that we wanted a government stripped of arrogance and fanaticism.
Once in office, however, matters were different. The Bush people tried to pretend it was 1980, not 2000. The foreign-policy team had not adjusted to the new world realities (they tended to dismiss all developments in the 1990s as a parenthesis of history), but public sentiment remained solidly in favor of bringing troops home and otherwise minding our own business. The Bush administration brought in a team that was not humble but rather belligerent in ways we had not seen in 20 years.
With 9-11, when public sentiment became bloodthirsty again, this team believed that it was their moment. But the public demand after 9-11 was not for global empire; it was to punish those involved in the attacks. The Bush administration, still operating on the old model, missed this entirely. It believed that a couple of good wars could put the nation state back together again, just like the Cold War. It hasn’t worked. Instead, these people have let their pride overtake their sense of reality. They began to believe their own propaganda about the miracles that can be accomplished by the military on a mission. Of course the whole project has failed spectacularly.
Why haven’t they been able to cover up the failure? There is no great state out there to serve as the foil for the US empire — just an unruly bunch of Muslims resentful at actions by the US that are not justified in any case. It also became plain to everyone capable of a modicum of sophisticated thought that the US government was attempting to exploit a tragedy to its own ends. Now, the results of US wars must be evaluated on their own terms. Add to this the ubiquity of the web, a medium that hides no information and makes any blogger anywhere in the world as potentially prominent as the New York Times — and it amounts to a situation very much like that following the first World War.
In the midst of this war, many friends of liberty despaired, believing that the state was once again on the march and that public opinion would never again shift against the powers that be. And yet here we are only months later, and all of world opinion is lined up against those who gave us this war. Blair in Britain is most certainly toast, and the Bush administration is spending all of its time denying that it lied about Iraq, even as the public intellectuals who once backed Bush are fleeing. Let the investigations begin! May they last from now to election day! May the merchants of death be held to account!
What we feared was the first war in a forthcoming century of American imperial wars may, in fact, turn out to be the last pathetic groan of the Cold War state that history is leaving behind.