Ten years ago this morning, I was in the car with my mother and sister on the way to high school. There was no television in our house, and as a rule the radio was seldom tuned to a news station, so it was through the morning radio news in the car that I learned of the U.S. attack on Iraq—of the campaign to “shock and awe”. This was the same way that I learned of the 9/11 attacks on New York, but the medium through which I and others learned of these two events was the closest thing we ever got to the “smoking gun” connecting Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. In spite of the Vice-President’s grim assertions and Colin Powell’s pathetic contortions, what most of us believed to be true then was borne out by subsequent events.
Normally, my mother dropped us of at a bus stop and we began the hour-long ride into town, through the woods, down into the flats across the ranches, wide pasturage rimmed on either side by tree-capped hills, and out across the Millville Plains, flat for as far as the eye could see. That morning, however, our English class had a field trip to Ashland, to see a stage production of Romeo and Juliet, and so I had to be dropped off at Foothill High early in the morning, and was thus deprived of the sage commentary of my fellow bus-passengers (one foreign policy luminary, on the morning of 9/11, had opined that we needed to turn some country in the Middle East into a “parking lot”, little knowing that he was echoing the debates which were unfolding simultaneously in Washington, D.C.).
I spent the bus ride to Oregon reading the newspaper (which had “scooped” the war, which officially began the night before), and the day with my mind on things other than star-crossed Verona lovers. It was an anticlimactic way to experience the country’s official entry into a war that we had debated almost daily in our seventh period U.S. History class. On one level, it is easy to see how a credible public was suckered into believing that an aggressive war against Iraq was necessary. Our class was a microcosm of that debate. We began each day in the historical trenches subjected to a barrage of propaganda from FOX news (Brit Hume was the preferred conduit of disinformation, with Greta VanSusteren or some other witless hack occasionally standing in).
This would be followed by more direct engagement, as efforts to discuss the Civil War or Gilded Age or Manifest Destiny as laid out in our jingoistic textbook (I don’t know whether The American Pageant was disseminated in Texas schools, but it would require very little re-writing to meet the debased standards of that state’s history curriculum) broke down over the question of whichever fresh lie Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, or the President himself had unveiled that morning.
Before there was Rachel Maddow (this documentary about how the “case” for war was made is chilling), there were the 7th period AP U.S. History dissenters—or so we rather grandly believed as we poked holes in the neocon’s argument, so passionately extolled by our teacher. While we were undoubtedly slightly over-impressed with our own efforts, I have no doubt that we subjected the case for war to more critical scrutiny that it ever received in the pages of any of the newspapers now so eager to unpack the “legacy” of the war they, wittingly or otherwise, helped to sell.
It was not until the U.S., with European allies, launched its drone war on Libya that I was able to see a war unfold “live” on the screen in front of me. Little did I realise to what extent I was missing out on what had become a central, disgusting element of the American Experience in the 21st century: “our boys” rolling across the desert in tanks; launching missiles; flying jets; riding in convoys. But I still feel a lurch in my gut and a tremor in my heart when I remember seeing the pictures of Baghdad aflame, missiles raining down on the city as the world’s sole superpower brought all of its armed might to bear on obliterating a city, with precious little regard for the sanctity of human life which supposedly drove what the neoconservatives attempted—with a straight face that incredibly managed to hoodwink most of the public—to portray as a humanitarian intervention.
We do not know how many Iraqis we killed when we waged a war of aggression (the same crime for which Nazis were convicted at Nuremberg) against their country. For those who care, the estimates range from 130,000 to 800,000 (to put it another way, between twice the U.S. war dead in Vietnam to the number killed during the genocide in Rwanda). But the likes of Rumsfeld, Cheney, or Bush were not very bothered about what the military would increasingly call “collateral damage”. Their assurances that the conflict was both righteous and necessary did not wane when our invading armies were not greeted as liberators, or when we set about obliterating the country’s infrastructure so that it could be rebuilt by war profiteers, or when we gutted the country’s institutions to assure a descent into disorder, or when unwittingly or not we engineered and exacerbated sectarian violence, or even when none of the promised WMDs materialised.
The war of aggression waged by the U.S. against Iraq was an unspeakable act of violence carried out by a vengeful, manipulative government composed of liars and crooks and profiteers, who deliberately misrepresented and fabricated intelligence to incite a war which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, 4,487 U.S. soldiers, actually recruited people to the “terrorist” cause, saw the United States embrace the methods of terror which those same leaders publicly denounced, and which might end up costing the United States as much as six trillion dollars.
If someone commits robbery, assault, and murder, do we say, “Oh, that’s water under the bridge...there’s no sense crying over spilt milk”? Would we say of a mass killer—say someone who mowed down children at an elementary school—“Look, they did what they did, what’s the point in looking back? We need to focus on the future”?
When leaders of other countries carefully plot wars years in advance, work behind the scenes to whip up tension and hatred, twist evidence and lie to persuade people to kill en masse, conspire to engineer murder and robbery on a massive scale using the resources of the state to advance their dark means, we call them war criminals. We call them evil-doers, thugs, and terrorists. Countries which respect international law seek to bring such people to trial. Rogue states turn to other methods.
But when our own leaders do these same things, they are feted as war heroes, great leaders and, at worst, receive a C-grade for poor execution of their diabolical plan. On the anniversary of this war, our country should bow its head in shame at what we did, and at the fact that those who incited, engineered, and waged this war have gone unpunished for their crimes.