David Hoppe

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:: Home from Iraq

Our denial continues

By David Hoppe


The Iraq war, we are told, is over. American troops are coming home.

It's been almost ten years since President George W. Bush informed the nation that our military might was on its way to take down Saddam Hussein, free the Iraqi people and make the world safe from attack by Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction."

The country, still recovering from the shock of terrorist attacks in September 2001, lurched into step behind the president's drumbeat.

Not everyone got in line. Indianapolis Congresswoman Julia Carson bucked the warmaking tide by voting against the resolution to make war on Iraq. Thousands of people took to the streets in anti-war protests. But the press, overheated with war fever, paid little attention.

Soon the Iraq war became like a kind of national wallpaper. It was there, in the background of our lives, but rarely the focus.

There have been reasons for this.

For one thing, the war has dragged on for almost a decade, making it one of the longest wars the United States has ever fought.

And the nature of the conflict made it hard to follow. Apart from the Surge, there were no battles, or "theaters" of operations; nothing, really, for the folks at home to follow on maps.

Most of the time, it wasn't even clear who the enemy was. American troops found themselves caught in a web of rival religious sects and competing tribes, trying to impose order on what appeared to be a civil war.

It didn't help that it was soon discovered that the weapons of mass destruction, or WMD as they came to be known, didn't really exist.

This didn't surprise anyone who was paying attention. Whistleblowers like Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector, had been insisting that Iraq no longer had WMD. And in an op-ed piece called "What I Didn't Find in Africa," Ambassador Joseph Wilson rebutted President Bush's claim that the Iraqis were acquiring bomb material from Niger.

But the media discounted this kind of information. Ritter was considered a crank and Wilson a grandstander. Papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post gobbled what the Bush Administration fed them.

No one wanted to handle the idea that a president of the United States would use a bald-faced lie as pretext for doing something as serious as sending men and women to war.

But that's what happened.

By the time national elections rolled around in 2004, it was obvious that American troops were in Iraq under false pretenses. You'd think this would have been enough to lose President Bush the election - that, surely, if there was one thing Americans of all political persuasions could agree on, it was to demand basic honesty from their leaders.

Americans chose denial instead. The lie proved to be too big for people to face it down. Bush won, the war went on.

Indeed, when, in 2005, the Downing Street Papers documented the fact that the Bush Administration had lied about its reasons for going to war in Iraq, the news was greeted by a collective shrug.

It wasn't that Americans forgave the lie at the heart of the war in Iraq. It was actually worse than that. We simply gave in to it. Was this because we felt powerless, cut off from our own government and its politics?

At the very least, we were disconnected from one of the foundation stones upon which our government stands: the military.

The war in Iraq demonstrated the dark side of our reliance on a volunteer fighting force. During the Vietnam War - the last time we had a draft - anyone over the age of 18 could find himself with a letter from Selective Service, demanding he show up for a physical in advance of being pressed into uniform. The existence of the draft did not prevent the war in Vietnam and, as its name suggested, it was far too selective. With the right connections, it was easy to get a deferment.

But the draft created a multi-generational backlash against the Vietnam War that contributed to mounting pressure to bring troops home.

Iraq has made it clear that ending the draft let government policymakers off the hook. The volunteer service has made it easier to use war as an instrument of foreign policy because it has made war something that's waged by other people, our professional military.

As long as we had a draft, we had "citizen soldiers." War was a shared sacrifice affecting you, your friends and neighbors. Although 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq, their experience there has been compartmentalized by their voluntary service. How else can one explain Americans' passivity, a kind of denial, regarding a war that dragged on for years, required repeated tours of duty by exhausted service members and, instead of victory, ended in withdrawal?

It's tempting to ignore that now. The troops are coming home, and that's enough. But unless we can shake the collective kinds of denial that sent them to war in the first place, then kept them there, it's a matter of time before they're sent away again.