Memorial Day, a time for mea culpas
Those complicit in creating the mess ought to be capable of some gesture on this Memorial Day that would help to heal the bitter divisions and allow the U.S. to face the future undistracted by debates about the past. The question is, what gesture is most needed?
From every perspective, the best way for the complicit to honor those who died in Iraq and to help the nation to recover, is to fess up to what they’ve been complicit in. What we need as much as anything now are mea culpas from politicians who devised and facilitated this fiasco, and journalists who justified and excused it. It will be essential if we're ever to face up to the crises besetting us.
I don’t mean vostra culpas, nostra culpas, or even sua culpas, of the sort that the Richard Cohens and Tom Friedmans have tried to fob off on the world, nor the minime culpas coming out every so often from some conservatives.
I don’t mean blaming others, or blaming everybody, or blaming the neocons, or blaming liberals, or blaming George Bush, or blaming Dick Cheney, or blaming the CIA, or blaming the Pentagon, or blaming that popinjay, or blaming known unknowns. I don’t mean evasions, lies, and half-truths.
I mean a frank admission of fault from everybody who bears some of the blame, offered with the humility owed by those who have harmed their country. Those who asserted whatever they chose to believe and ignored what the evidence actually told them, should promise to talk in the future about fact rather than fancy. Those who suppressed or ignored what was inconvenient, should rethink their commitment to public life. Those who assented to governmental wrongdoing in the name of a greater cause, should acknowledge the error of placing ends above means. Those who put trust in people who had proven themselves untrustworthy, should admit that their judgment is questionable.
And those who deceived the nation about the alleged danger presented by Iraq, should finally, at long last, take full responsibility for their actions.
I say these things not in a spirit of triumphalism. I sized up George Bush’s lies in 2002 and have been adamant ever since that he had no adequate evidence for the accusations he was making and no legal basis for invading Iraq. It was obvious at the time, and I don’t need the war’s proponents now to confirm that view. Their public stance reflects upon themselves, not upon me.
No, the reason it’s essential for the war proponents to fess up is that the nation will remain divided and distracted by internecine and pointless bickering until such time as those who abused their positions of power and influence set the record straight. The longer they fail to come clean about their own responsibility in creating the mess, the more harm they do to the country they claim to honor, and the greater dishonor they show to those who paid with their lives for these disastrous policies.
We show no honor to the war dead by refusing to learn from our mistakes.
The U.S. has a long history of refusing to face up to such mistakes. Many of us remember how divisive, ill-informed, and caustic the debate over the Vietnam War was. And it still is, for many participants prefer to hold onto their fictions rather than admit to well-documented facts. Political leaders of the day rarely took real responsibility (Robert McNamara waited a quarter century before penning his mea culpa).
So although journalists did their job in that war, the nation has remained at war with itself these three decades. Those who were deceived most egregiously by the government have continued to nurse fantastic grudges against imaginary traitors in their midst. The same sorts of politicians who misled the U.S. into the war have been quick to manipulate lingering grudges by wrapping themselves in the flag.
But that was not the first time the nation had been led on false pretenses into an unnecessary war. The experience during WWI was all too similar. The Wilson government trumped up excuses to enter the war in 1917, and then found it had neither the troops nor the equipment needed to fight. Rather than face up to charges of deception, incompetence, and war profiteering, Wilson promoted policies that demonized war critics and divided the country against itself. He waged a war at home against civil liberties. Losses on the battlefield were horrific, and the more Wilson feared the erosion of public support the more he came to rely upon propaganda, fear-mongering, and manipulation of the public generally.
It is no surprise, then, that after the war Wilson’s government never acknowledged any wrongdoing or deception, and continued to try to paint U.S. involvement in the war as a great victory. Wilson also continued to hound his war critics, while his Attorney General quickly trumped up another fear-mongering campaign (the Red Scare).
The nation eventually came to grips with its true record in WWI, but only very slowly and painfully. Many veterans were traumatized for life by their experiences; many became embittered with the government (witness the Bonus March in 1932). And the nation as a whole turned its back on international commitments and, during the 1930s, became deeply suspicious of the motives of those who warned that action was needed to stem the rise of fascism.
So here are two occasions when those who’d dragged the country into disastrous wars for obscure reasons refused to come clean about their failings. In both cases, the country suffered badly as a result. For decades, participants could not let go of the bitter feelings these idiotic wars created. Government per se came into disrepute, such that it was nearly impossible to formulate a coherent foreign policy to address the real needs of the nation. Instead, we continued to fight our own demons, never exorcised.
Why should we hope for any better outcome this time? I don’t for a moment suppose that the foolish will now act wisely, the arrogant will learn some humility. As in the past, it will be tempting to remain in denial, to make excuses, or to point fingers—especially toward those who turned out to be right about the rush to war in Iraq. Congressional ‘leaders’ will see political disadvantage in admitting to error, especially if they dream of running for the presidency. George Bush and his “people” certainly will not fess up to anything more than the occasional semantic mistake, in between rounds of back-slapping and self-congratulation. And some journalists have forgotten that they were cheerleaders for the war they’ve long since renounced.
Yet I also think it’s worth making a public call for mea culpas. There must be many former war supporters and Bush facilitators who have managed to keep their consciences intact, who though they’ve quietly changed their position on the Iraq War, retain a sense that they owe the country more than a mere change of mind. If these people would make a show of publicly apologizing for whatever harm they’ve done the nation by supporting this fiasco, it would go a long way toward isolating those who continue to reside in that peculiar fantasy world created by the Bush administration’s propaganda.
The sooner that bubble is burst, the sooner we’ll be able to address the vital issues that the fantasists would like to pretend don’t matter. I do not believe we can implement a coherent strategy for withdrawing from Iraq until as a nation we’re prepared to acknowledge how we got into the mess.
That is how we can best honor the fallen, by honoring the truth.