A reminder to Thomas Friedman that history won't be a very kind judge of the Iraq War

I’m going to make a prediction: historians are not going to look kindly on the U.S. war in Iraq.

First, a brief digression.

Most major foreign policy writers in the U.S. decided to support the Iraq war. Most came to regret that decision, spending the next few years in print hemming and hawing and self-reflecting and criticizing the Bush administration’s incompetence. (As if Bush’s lack of brilliance should have come as a surprise–they must have missed the first nine episodes of  “That’s My Bush!”)

Very few media big wigs admitted the obvious: they supported the Iraq war because they got caught up in a phenomenon called ‘war fever,’ seen in most conflicts throughout history, and as members of the media, obligingly went along with the state’s desire to invade Iraq. In other words, everyone was doing it.

But, in general, these media types are pretty vain people, and they think they’re pretty smart. Some of them are pretty smart, brilliant even. It would be an affront to their intellectual vanity to admit that they just got caught up in a particularly virulent mob mentality. That they’d been willing dupes.  On the whole their reaction–rather than to take responsibility and admit the idea was obviously silly, undemocratic, and unjustified–has been to place the blame elsewhere. Paul Bremmer, George Bush, Ahmed Chalabi, Tommy Franks, George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld etc.

After the primary reason for the war turned out to be a hoax (WMD), and with it the debunking of the corollary reason for the war (fight the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them at home), they were stuck with that last powerful justification, bringing freedom to the Iraqi people.

It’s always a persuasive and powerful argument: making the world safe for democracy and civilization has historically been a component of most cases for war that the U.S. has made. The argument also resurfaces each election that Iraq has had. The pictures of the purple fingers, and the euphoria that many Iraqis feel on voting day–at least they’re getting something out of the shit show they’ve had to live through–are hard to argue against. They appeal to an emotional, gut response, confirming to the American public that see, we’re the good guys after all. The election on Sunday was no exception.

Now that Americans are no longer dying in Iraq–only Iraqis are dying in Iraq–those thinkers who supported the war then turned against the war are now slowly reclaiming their earlier positions. This admittedly weasel-like behavior is to be expected of columnists, I suppose, but I have to say that I have a lot more respect for the readable assholes like Christopher Hitchens and even a Richard Perle, who at least have had the courage to stand by their misguided ideas through the worst of it.

Anyway.

Rarely do foreign policy writers acknowledge their support of the war, or their complicity in promoting it. Nowadays, they don’t even have the guts to say they were right. What they do say–and I’ve seen it a bunch–is that history will be the judge, or some version of that line.  Very vocal Iraq War supporter Thomas Friedman gives us an example of this in his column today, writing:

Some argue that nothing that happens in Iraq will ever justify the costs. Historians will sort that out.

Yes, some do argue that, and I am one of them. Let the historians sort that out, as they have sorted out other imperial and colonial wars, like the French in Algeria and Indochina, the British in Baghdad, the Belgians in the Congo, the Russians in Kabul, the Japanese in Nanking and, of course, the Americans in Vietnam, to name just a few.

But humor me for a second as I quote myself. Here’s what I wrote last week before the election.

Expect, too, a rash of commentary and columns from once-upon-a time war supporters who are now quietly taking the first tentative steps to reclaim their original positions. (Subtext: The war was um,er,uh, horrible and everything, but we were right after all…)

Let’s go back to Friedman’s column. He writes:

Former President George W. Bush’s gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right. It should have and could have been pursued with much better planning and execution. This war has been extraordinarily painful and costly. But democracy was never going to have a virgin birth in a place like Iraq, which has never known any such thing.

Clearly, I’m like the Minority Report of bad Iraq columns. I could poke a few holes in his argument–might there not have been a peaceful and less costly ways to bring democracy to the Middle East, perhaps, say, by putting pressure on our autocratic allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States before using the “long bomb” option on Iraq?–but I guess I’d just like to quote him one more time.

Personally, at this stage, I only care about one thing: that the outcome in Iraq be positive enough and forward-looking enough that those who have actually paid the price — in lost loved ones or injured bodies, in broken homes or broken lives, be they Iraqis or Americans or Brits — see Iraq evolve into something that will enable them to say that whatever the cost, it has given freedom and decent government to people who had none.

Like Friedman, I too hope that one day Iraq will be a positive and a  peaceful place. But I am now going to take on the mantle of someone who has had friends and family and loved ones pay that price. I don’t do this very often. It’s an emotional case I’m about to make, not one based on a rational argument.

‘Whatever the cost.’I know the cost. It’s never going to be worth it.  No need to wait for the historians to figure that one out.

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About michaelhastings

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4 Responses to A reminder to Thomas Friedman that history won't be a very kind judge of the Iraq War

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    My guess is that history will not judge the Iraq War at all, if it can help it. By history I mean books, movies, and the popular imagination / memory. Consider the Civil War. Historians cannot write enough books and journal articles about these two wars. An number of scholars wrote their theses or dissertations on some aspect of this war. Schools offer not just classes, but series of classes on the Civil War. In fact, the most biographied man in history, after Jesus of Nazareth, is Abraham Lincoln. Ken Burns truly amazing series of TV species on the Civil War was quite unprecedented in its popularity. People, men mainly, make pilgrimages to the sites of battles where they often find cemeteries, memorials, and other outward signs of remembrance. Of course references to these two conflicts are popular subjects for movies, tv shows, and other forms of popular entertainment. Some people, mostly men, even feel compelled to dress up in the clothing of the time and “re-enact” various battles. History has “judged” both of these wars in innumerable ways, innumerable times and new and different ways are yet come.

    Contrast that with Spanish-American War. This war is very similar to the Iraq War. It was “based on a false story” (I am waiting for a movie about the Iraq War with that tag line), the Spanish military had attacked and destroyed The Maine, a US battleship at anchor in Havana’s Harbor resulting in the deaths of 266 sailors. The popular press, lead by W.R. Hearst, jumped on the band wagon, and lead the charge to war (“Remember the Maine!”). The decrepit Spanish colonial military of course crumbled before the might of the US forces. “Freedom and Democracy” were brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. A man became a future president through his military exploits leading the charge up San Juan Hill. A great victory was proclaimed and rejoicing was heard across the land. It was the source of much popular entertainment for a few decade afterward (in the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” was a Spanish-American War hero).

    Of course it turned out that the whole thing was colonial land grab. Freedom and democracy were not delivered to Cuba or the Philippines. In fact a long a bloody guerrilla war erupted in the Philippines resulting in hundreds of dead US soldiers and hundreds of thousands dead Filipinos. Cuba remained a backwards, undemocratic, and political unstable client state of the US for decades after.

    Today, hardly anyone remembers that there even was a war between the US and Spain, that some foreign lands had been obtained as US colonies as a result, or that untold thousands of people died. Few books are written on topic and fewer still doctorates awarded for study in the field. Colleges offer few, if any, classes on the topic. There are certainly no movies, TV shows, or even popular references to this war. Bob Dylan includes it in his song “With God on Our Side” but uses as a image of war of unclear meaning or importance. This war is not so much judged poorly, which if anyone bothers to judge it they do, and as not judged at all.

    I suspect that 100 years from now, American historians and history teachers will likewise want to hurry past the Iraq War, focus their careers on more promising and popular topics. People, mostly men, will feel little desire to visit the battle sites or re-enact the “Battle of Ramadi”. There will not be much in the popular culture to draw on a common memory of the Iraq. Maybe, like WW I, it might have a role as a cautionary tale, of the dangers and tragedy of war. Judging history is a business and it seems to me there is little profit in judging a war no one wants to remember. Things might be different for Iraqi historians.

    On the other hand, I am willing to be the cottage industry of writing about Abraham Lincoln will have grown even larger.

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  3. vickielyna says:

    Michael

    Mr. Friedman already concedes the point that there won’t be enough positve to make it worth the war. By his own statement “that the outcome in Iraq be positive enough and forward-looking enough ” he express mere desire. Not actuality or reality. Just a desire that all will be worth it enough in the end.

    Which begs the questions: What is enough? Who decides what is “positive enough” or “forward-looking enough “? And how do you retroactively go back to all who have lost so much and say it is positive and/or forward-looking enough? (what ever forward-looking enough means)

    Enough with the enough Mr. Friedman! Does one have enough when one is still hungry but isn’t totally starving? Hunger, be it from the soul, and or loss of love ones, self, idenity, culture, limbs. Can’t be made better or positive or foward-looking enough. Because it has no purpose, it either is better or it isn’t. Enough can’t sustain you (it barely exists) or help you heal (there is no substance).

    One is left with the realty, the only choice left is to keep marching on. Living with the ever present aftermath of a life once lived to survive another day. No Not Enough!

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