As the US kicked off the Iraq War on the evening of March 19, 2003, with the infamous “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad, I huddled into a small high school classroom for an antiwar gathering organized by several faculty members. Little did I know at the time that, ten years later, the Iraq War would prove a defining moment in the development of my worldview.
I spoke about my experience on Take Action News with David Shuster last Saturday. Subscribe to YouTube.com/takeactionnewstv for free clips in your inbox.
I was a sophomore at The Ramaz School in Manhattan. Lo and behold, enough students were either against the war or sufficiently curious that the classroom where the teach-in had been scheduled was way too small for the turnout. It was packed to the point where people could barely get in the door. Kids were sitting on desks, standing, sliding in wherever they could. A large white sheet with a crudely painted black peace sign was draped over the blackboard. Faculty members made varying arguments against the war and answered students’ questions.
My history teacher, Dr. Jon Jucovy, made the strongest case against Iraq that I’d heard so far. He identified each of the claims being made about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction–nuclear weapons; chemical and biological weapons; and ties to Al Qaeda–and shot them down. One claim that stood out because of how quickly it had been debunked, but continued to be used by the Bush Administration, was that Iraq had purchased large amounts of “yellow cake” Uranium from Niger with which to make nuclear weapons. It had been clear since March 2002 that those purchases hadn’t taken place, Jucovy explained. In fact, the State Department and the International Atomic Energy Agency had flagged the document that was purported to record the sale as a forgery in early January 2003.
It didn’t take long to find out that Jucovy–like so many other skeptics–was right. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
Given the tragic consequences of the Iraq War, ten years later, however, there is no satisfaction in the knowledge that we were right before some other people. As Jucovy told us on the eve of the war, “I hope I’m wrong. I really hope they find weapons of mass destruction there.”
My personal experience and that of many of my peers, though, may offer lessons for avoiding other destructive policies that enjoy similarly unquestioned reverence among the political and media elite.
The Iraq War marked the end of our political innocence. It was our generation’s Watergate scandal. It instilled in us distrust in all institutions, but especially the government and the media. It taught us to question conventional wisdom even when it means enduring ridicule; to appreciate the overriding tendency of powerful people to abuse their power; and to accept that our institutions often reward failure and malice, while punishing excellence and goodness.
Questioning consensus. Conventional wisdom develops very easily, especially when people are afraid that questioning it will make them seem unpatriotic. Despite my doubts, I initially felt very uncomfortable opposing the war because everybody seemed to think it was such a good idea. My parents, many friends, and several liberals who I admired at the time, like Tom Friedman and Tony Blair, supported it.
Being marginalized taught us how to build our own communities. Experiences of solidarity with fellow dissenters like the teach-in I attended provided me and other opponents of the war with a very powerful countervailing force. So did alternative sources of information and a handful of personal mentors. Many of the tools we used to unite against the Iraq War–blogs, social media–and groups we became active in, such as MoveOn.org, continue to be important vehicles for political awareness and activism on a broad array of progressive issues where our positions may contradict conventional wisdom.
There is no greater validator though than the passing of time. If we felt nervous and alone in our opposition to the war in 2003, by the following year, we had learned the value of sticking to our guns. Not every issue pans out so quickly or clearly. And of course we are not always right. But the collective experience of liberals on the eve of the Iraq War should at least give us the confidence we need not to discard our ideas merely because they are unpopular in a given moment.
Appreciating the full potential for abuse of power. For some time, I had trouble believing there wasn’t at least some significant national security justification for–or benefit from–the war. I couldn’t believe they would send people to their deaths based on complete fabrications.
Discovering how absurd the WMD claims shattered those doubts. If Bush and his surrogates could baldly lie about something like the much-vaunted “yellow cake,” and out a CIA agent whose husband discredited their claims, then, I thought, perhaps our leaders really were capable of the worst. (We later found out that the outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, was involved in tracking the “proliferation of nuclear weapons materials into Iran,” which meant that when her cover was blown, it hindered our ability to keep track of Iran’s nuclear plans.) I began to accept the possibility that the entire case for war could be not only dubious, but a deliberately perpetrated sham.
Getting over the initial shock of the Iraq War lies empowered us to acknowledge equally outrageous violations of public trust that we might otherwise not have seen, as well as more mundane deceptions that allow politicians to escape accountability.
Accepting that bad guys and good guys often don’t get what they deserve. The aftermath of the Iraq War has undermined our confidence in our system’s ability to reward excellence and punish failure. Many of the war’s most right-wing proponents continue to enjoy power and credibility–eg, Bill Kristol, Lindsay Graham and John McCain.
John Kerry, who is now Secretary of State, did not apologize for voting for the war when he was the Democratic nominee for President in 2004. Instead, Kerry offered the disingenuous excuse that his vote was based on assurances from President Bush that Bush was going to exhaust diplomatic channels before invading, but then Bush “went back on his word” to Kerry. That Kerry’s binding vote to authorize force was based on a verbal assurance from President Bush was apparently supposed to bolster Kerry’s credibility.
Worse still, we fall for new idiotic dogmas peddled by the same discredited warmongers. When liberal war cheerleaders like Tom Friedman insist that cutting Social Security and Medicare is as urgent as they once thought invading Iraq was, Beltway elites still take them seriously.
Even the adjectives Friedman uses in describing the indispensability of the Grand Bargain tracks directly with his language advocating the Iraq War. Friedman in the New York Times, September 2011 (emphasis mine):
I’ve been arguing that the only antidote to this debilitating situation is a Grand Bargain between the two parties — one that cuts long-term entitlement spending and raises additional tax revenues…
Friedman on Charlie Rose, May 2003 (emphasis mine):
And there was only one way to do it…What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand…Well, suck on this.’
The common denominator in both situations is that Friedman’s preferred idea is the only effective option.
And all of this has happened while the memory of the Iraq War is still fresh. Our memories will get worse as time passes, and then perhaps our pre-war naïveté will creep back in. After all, three decades after our parents’ generation lived through the Vietnam War, they fell for the lies that sent us to war with Iraq.