Truth and Consequences

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"Nearly half of Americans believe President Bush exaggerated the evidence for going to war with Iraq, according to a new survey for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, but more than two-thirds think he still made the right decision."

In showing that nearly one of every two Americans knows Bush "exaggerated," this poll might be encouraging for those who have watched the Bush Administration foreign policy team pursue war with Iraq since early 1998 as the logical conclusion of Gulf War I’s unfulfilled march into Baghdad. Even though the U.S. invasion, occupation and quasi-martial law in Iraq were as unplanned and unarticulated to the public today as in 1991, unfortunately two-thirds of Americans are OK with the "rightness" of it. An unspoken assumption that taking over Iraq "finishes" something explains the two-thirds of poll-takers who believe Bush lied, exaggerated, fibbed, fantasized — but did the right thing. Ends justifying means is not typically or traditionally American, but the maxim creeps parasitical into the national psyche, for at least two-thirds of us. This Marxist-inclined utilitarianism seems to provide a temporarily soothing alternative to examining the level of truthtelling by government authorities.

As a result of neoconservative visions and the two-thirds of Americans who are "OK with that," people on both sides and on the sidelines are dead and maimed, infrastructures and environments of the average urban Iraqi severely damaged, and all at great and continuing cost in both American dignity and dollars. Lives are and continue to be irrevocably altered for American soldiers and their families, and for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. In places where depleted uranium dust settles on the ground and floats in the air, we have followed a tradition of modern war last seen (not counting Serbia) in Vietnam with Agent Orange — putting at risk our own soldiers as well as unborn generations of the soon-to-be-forgotten conquered. So goes this latest war in Iraq, a war not ended and with a debatable future. Of course — Saddam is gone or close to it, his male heirs lie flat on refrigerated slabs, Halliburton and Bechtel are the billion dollar contractors for the rebuilding and oil pumping, and a Kissinger acolyte is running the show from one of Saddam’s old palaces, with an American cell phone network and some handpicked Iraqi collaborators trying to make the best of it. So it isn’t a complete loss.

Can the logic that undervalues facts be applied elsewhere in our lives? Sure it can! In my family, some of the children have a tendency to be troublemakers. If this minority gets in trouble for something they didn’t do, the others unanimously feel confident that any punishment received is worthwhile — even if for the wrong reason. For all the other crimes not paid for, for causing unjust suspicion on the other innocent family members (or pets), whatever. In fact — some of my kids have suggested routine discipline dished out in advance of crimes to be committed, a kind of pre-emptive punishment.

Now, sometimes — admittedly rarely — the head troublemaker actually does a good deed, and sometimes the other kids do really mean and wrong things. But in the wolf pack that is my family knows how to handle justice. Blame the likely and convenient one, preserve the moral majority’s high ground — even if it requires a bit of "exaggeration."

This works with the adults in families, too. A woman divorces her husband because he "goes out with other women." If later, it turns out he really was just out with the boys a bit too often, her friends and family will likely agree that, even so, it was for the best. Facts don’t matter when a person (or a country) makes you stay up late wondering and worrying. If she has a parent or sibling who advised her before the divorce to get a life, stop thinking the world revolves around her, perhaps get over a self-indulgent insecurity problem, think of some creative pro-marriage solution, or — God forbid — actually seek the real facts of the matter, no doubt this person’s company isn’t going to be fully appreciated by the new divorcée.

In a family, whether doling out punishment to progeny or planning a divorce, the cost of the decision is personal. It is local. Pain, economic costs and destruction ensuing from these kinds of decisions are generally contained within the family. Fortunately, in most cases, human life is not destroyed. We do seem to have a innate and well-exercised tendency to avoid the truth when it hurts, to deny the inconvenient fact, to happily grant a misplaced judgment of guilt (even when we know better), or to exaggerate something so that it lends support to what we already decided we want to do. I see it in my family on a daily basis, and I do it myself (just ask my husband!).

But if we multiply this behavior on a national scale, and add in the powerful influence of that "extra" valued family member — the television set — the results don’t work out so benignly. On this larger scale, punishment changes from grounding a teenager and suffering his or her resentment to isolating and physically destroying another country and creating freedom fighters and terrorists. On this larger scale we go from divorce and family break-up with clearly delineated visitation and counseling for the children to massacres of extended families and the unlucky bystander. On this larger scale, the lies and exaggerations we used to justify something close to home result in guerilla insurgencies using powerful weapons, not of the silent treatment or slammed doors, but of rockets, homemade bombs and nationalists who will die for their country against what they see as unjust and rapacious occupiers.

So, of course, the truth matters. Exaggeration matters. Honesty matters. We teach it to our kids for a reason. If we as parents do a bad job, we produce lying evasive pack animals instead of honorable young adults. So what? Nobody’s perfect, and we can always write them out of the will.

A family is largely defined by our choices and our degree of personal engagement — how we live, whom we marry, how we value the relationships. It is not unlike the nature of citizenship in our great nation. We have chosen — by living in America — a constitutionally defined government that is, by thoughtful design, dependent on "we the people" actually consenting to its operations, inspecting its honesty, ensuring its ethicality. If we as a nation let that responsibility go, if we fail to engage, we transform our national family into something undeserving of pride, out of control when it gets off track, and one that even distant relatives and neighbors cannot abide. And we don’t have the option of writing America out of our will — she is, imperfectly and completely, our estate.

The truth matters, and the truth ultimately heals, whether applied to a family or a nation. And when the right thing is done, whether in a family or in the name of a nation, it rests completely and entirely on the truth and honesty and facts leading up to it.

While human in our desire for truth to bend to our expectations, we live in an odd age of curiosity combined with a matching measure of cynicism. We favor "reality" TV, and are obsessed with popular movies and television shows that seek to expose crimes and conspiracies by revealing facts. The poll mentioned above has a bright side. To reach a tipping point, only about 15% — about one in six — Americans needs to change their mind and decide that frank accuracy is more important than frightening exaggeration, political probity more valuable than bureaucratic utilitarianism, and fact more satisfying than fantasy. Not only is this change not going to be difficult, we may already be there. It’s good news.

Karen Kwiatkowski
[send her mail] is a recently
retired USAF lieutenant colonel, who spent her final four and a half
years in uniform working at the Pentagon. She now lives with her freedom-loving
family in the Shenandoah Valley.

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