Dying for a Mistake

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world..

Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

With the 2004 Presidential election just now a few weeks away America stands at the crossroads. Though it seems that about half of likely voters are still completely oblivious to it, one road ominously leads in a very dark direction. This is the road the nation has been traveling the last four years. A vacationing President, apparently more concerned with perfecting his golf swing and cuttin’ brush down on the ranch rather than protecting the nation, didn’t seem to find a security briefing of August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” to be a matter of any particular urgency. Having then allowed, through sheer incompetence or devious design as many have come to suspect, the worst tragedy to ever strike the nation on September 11, 2001, this President then used the fear and anger which followed that tragedy to push through a radical and reckless agenda that now has the nation facing a very grim future. We now have record deficits and an economy primed for catastrophic meltdown. We’ve moved backwards on addressing the problems of global warming, environmental degradation and finding a safe, renewable source of energy. We have “Patriot Acts” that have seriously undermined our freedom at home. On top of all that we are mired in a war in Iraq which has to rank up there as one of the greatest mistakes ever committed by a President of the United States. It is a war that has already cost the nation the lives of over a thousand of our troops, thousands more grievously wounded and already cost something close to 200 billion dollars. It is a war that seems only to get worse by the day, a war which even many top-level military and intelligence analysts consider to be a no-win situation. It is a war that was launched despite unprecedented worldwide protests, and now that its primary justifications have been completely exposed as either outright falsifications or incredible misjudgments, can only bring the nation shame and dishonor. It is a war that promises to only further fan the flames of terrorism though it is supposedly fought as part of a larger “war on terrorism.” It is a war that sets this nation on the warpath for many years to come and seems more and more like a black hole from which no light will ever come.

So America stands at a critical crossroads with this election. But what road is it that John Kerry would lead us upon? Those of us who can see where the President is leading us have no doubt that it could not but be a better road, but what will Kerry do about the war? As was abundantly clear in the first Presidential debate, Kerry’s position is conflicted. He could not have more clearly stated that the war was a mistake when, in the best line of the night, he quoted Richard Clark in saying that attacking Iraq in response to 9/11 was like FDR attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. How much more clearly can one say that it was a mistake? And yet it seems he cannot bring himself to fully face the implications of this mistake. He was certainly right in charging the Bush Administration with not leveling with the American people about Iraq, but did Kerry really level with the people in responding to this question from moderator Jim Lehrer:

LEHRER: Speaking of Vietnam, you spoke to Congress in 1971, after you came back from Vietnam, and you said, quote, How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

LEHRER: Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

KERRY: No, and they don’t have to, providing we have the leadership that we put — that I’m offering.

I believe that we have to win this. The president and I have always agreed on that.

The contradiction in Kerry’s position is obvious: the war is a mistake but our troops are not dying for a mistake. What if Kerry had really leveled with the American people and responded to Lehrer’s question in this way:

KERRY: Jim, sadly I must say to you and the American people that our soldiers are now indeed tragically dying for a mistake. I have already said that the President made an error in judgment in launching a war that was not a last resort. The fact is that this war was not a last resort and thus not at all necessary. We now know that we were successful in disarming Saddam Hussein. As bad as Saddam Hussein was he was not such an imminent threat that necessitated a very costly war. The very worst thing a President can do is to send our brave troops to die in a war that was not really necessary. This is the greatest difference between the President and myself. I will never ask our troops to die for a mistake.

Of course we know very well why Kerry could not really level with the American people in responding to Lehrer’s question. If Kerry had really leveled with the people it would very likely have caused him to lose the election. The simple reason for this is that too many of the American people, and most crucially those remaining undecided voters, have still not yet realized that the war was indeed a mistake. Even though every rationale for the war has been thoroughly contradicted by the facts on the ground in Iraq, too many of the American people just cannot face the truth about the war in Iraq. Its easy to understand why there is this reluctance to face the truth, especially for those whose loved ones have their lives on the line and are suffering and dying in Iraq-the truth is just simply to terrible to face.

Failing to Grok
This inability to face the terrible truth about Iraq is well illustrated, for example, in a right-wing blog called Trying to Grok in which the author reacts to a piece I wrote, “The Terrible Truth About Iraq,” which appeared on CounterPunch in September of 2003. Its easy to understand why a piece which undertook such a thorough critical examination for the case for the war would provoke such a rabid and venomous response-the author is a woman who’s husband is one of those who has bravely put his life on the line in Iraq. I suppose it may very well be impossible for Sarah to really grok that the war is a mistake, and I certainly have no expectation that she, and those in her position, will ever be able to grok it. Nevertheless, I have to say to her, and those like her that haven’t quite yet realized the mistake, that it is on behalf of the soldiers like her husband (as well as for the innocent people in Iraq) that I undertook a critical examination of the case for the war. I honor and respect those that have risked their lives in the service of their country. To die for one’s country is undoubtedly the greatest sacrifice. But no one should be asked to make that sacrifice for a mistake. That is precisely why the question of the justice of war is surely the most important question the people of this republic can debate.

In response to my assertions regarding our failure as a nation to adequately carry on this debate before the war, Sarah retorts:

Please point out to me how we “never adequately examined the case for war.” I was under the impression that I had to watch a billion speeches in front of the UN last winter.

Ok, let me try to help her in pointing out the obvious difference between passively accepting cleverly orchestrated propaganda and actually engaging in a critical examination of the case for war. If we had adequately examined the case for war we would have questioned the justifications for the war given by the Administration to see if there really was any substance to their claims. Just watching Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN (the billion speeches?) or the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address does not count as an adequate examination of the case for the war. There were numerous experts within the intelligence community as well as academia who said all along that there was no real evidence that Saddam Hussein was ever an imminent threat. They said all along that there was very little likelihood that he possessed any weapons of mass destruction, and even less likelihood that he would have used them if indeed he had them for anything other than self-defense. Those who dared to examine the Administration’s assertions knew long before the war was launched that there really was no evidence to back up the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Those who did examine the case for war knew before the war that Iraq had nothing at all to do with the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Now we know that those who raised these doubts about the Administration’s assertions were right all along. The evidence has demonstrated that Bush’s speech before the nation and Powell’s speech before the UN were based on distortions and outright lies. It was all propaganda, but most Americans were apparently like the soldier’s wife who watched on in silent, blinking acquiescence and thought that this amounted to an adequate examination of the case for war.

In “The Terrible Truth About Iraq” I tried to examine the case for war by reviewing whether or not the arguments for war met the conditions for a “just war” that are the result of a long philosophical tradition, and which were enshrined in international law at the end of the second World War. I asked then “what is it that would justify war, if indeed anything ever justifies it.” the soldier’s wife responded in this way:

Ah, there we go. That’s what he’s really saying. The “terrible truth” is that nothing ever justifies war.

I guess Sarah really needs to work on her critical reading skills. For although I have more respect for the pacifist position than she does, I did not question this war from a pacifist position. I never said anything like “The ‘terrible truth’ is that nothing ever justifies war.” The reason I never said anything of the sort is that one certainly did not need to take a pacifist position to find this war unjustified.

To summarize my argument from that earlier essay, the only justification for war is self-defense. Both the Charter of the United Nations and the Charter of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, documents that were ratified by Congress and which the United States is thus bound to uphold, are quite explicit in holding to this principle and condemning a “war of aggression” as a war crime. A war is obviously considered a case of self-defense in responding to an act of aggression. A preemptive strike can even be considered self-defense in response to an imminent threat of aggression. It can be considered an act of defense and not a “war of aggression” in responding to an actual attack or imminent threat of attack on a neighbor state or ally. It has now been conclusively demonstrated that Iraq was not an imminent threat. The recently released Duelfer report is conclusive evidence that Iraq not only had no weapons of mass destruction, but that they hadn’t had any weapons of mass destruction for over ten years and did not have any capacity to develop such weapons in the near future. We now have solid evidence that Hans Blix, the former UN disarmament chief in Iraq, was right in his assertion that Iraq had complied with the UN resolutions and had destroyed their remaining stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Despite the hard evidence to the contrary, Bush continues to repeat this charge about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his noncompliance with the UN resolution. But the soldier’s wife, like so many Americans today it seems, would rather dismiss the evidence than begin to question Bush’s fables.

With the absence of any evidence of any real threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the Bush Administration has tried to justify the war on the grounds of some humanitarian intervention. We launched a war on the Iraqi’s, killing tens of thousands, leaving many thousands more terribly wounded, and generally made a hellish nightmare of their lives, all supposedly to “liberate” them from Saddam Hussein, and even more preposterously, to bring them “democracy”? A war might indeed be considered to be not an “act of aggression” and thus justified on the grounds of some humanitarian intervention. The Kosovo war was a debatable case. At least in that case there was an ongoing program of “ethnic cleansing.” But Iraq was not like Kosovo. Whatever atrocities Saddam Hussein had committed in the past, there was no evidence that his people were facing any threat that justified this terribly destructive war. A just war is one in which all peaceful means of responding to a problem have been exhausted and is thus truly a last resort. The evidence shows that the problem of Saddam Hussein was contained, he was less of a threat to us, his neighbors, or his own people than he had been ten years ago. Where was the necessity to launch a destructive war to “liberate” the Iraqi people? There is a currently ongoing genocide in Africa and yet we do nothing about it. How then can anyone really believe that the war on Iraq is justified on the grounds of a humanitarian intervention?

Finally, in the absence of any real threat posed by Saddam Hussein, as well as any real case for humanitarian intervention, the Administration would like the American people to believe that our troops are dying in Iraq just in order to bring the Iraqi’s “democracy.” As I pointed out in the previous essay, it is really hard to imagine President Bush using this as the only justification for war in his 2003 State of the Union Address. If he had never made any mention of weapons of mass destruction, never brought up any threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and instead argued that we need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and send our troops into battle to die in Iraq just in order to bring “democracy” to the Iraqi people, I doubt very seriously there would have been such an unquestioning clamoring for war in the mainstream press and among the people. No, I will repeat my previous assertion that he would probably have been hauled off to the insane asylum right then and there. But after all the hard evidence has come in, this is what we are left with as a justification for a costly war. To make this claim that a war is justified just to bring “democracy” to a people is really to claim that a “war of aggression” is justified in the name of “democracy.” Lets’s put this another way to see if it is more clear-to say that this war was justified just to bring these people “democracy” is to justify a war crime in the name of “democracy.”

This notion is simply absurd. If this is our justification for the brutality we have inflicted upon the Iraqi people then we have degraded and disgraced the very idea of democracy. It’s doubtful that history will regard this war as a shining moment for democracy. The Iraqi people certainly don’t seem very grateful for our sacrifice in “liberating” them and bringing them “democracy.”

I doubt this idea that we are bringing “democracy” to the Iraqis has really anything to do with what we can do for them. This idea of bringing “democracy” to Iraq is really just a facade to cover over the fear here at home that is the only reason for the war in Iraq. The soldier’s wife puts it really well:

I personally don’t care one flip about WMDs or yellowcake or imminent anything because I saw the big picture long ago. The Arab world is a freaking mess, and some of that mess has now started interfering with our lives i.e. the WTC. The big picture is that we most certainly do need to bring democracy to the Middle East to protect us all down the line.

There it is, the real reason for the war, and everyone has known it all along-September 11, 2001. This supposed connection between what happened on that day and Iraq continues to be Bush’s last remaining defense of the war in Iraq. Though the connection between Iraq and 9/11 has been thoroughly discredited, Bush continues to fall back on it in the recent debates.

Sarah thinks she sees the big picture, but apparently like so many Americans, she hasn’t even yet opened her eyes-not to the reasons why the Arab world is a “freaking mess,” and thus not to the underlying reasons for the problem of terrorism, and certainly not to the terrible truth about the war in Iraq. Like too many Americans what she has failed to grok is that there never was a connection between Iraq and what happened on September 11, 2001. The evidence has already come in that the whole case for war was based on an utter fabrication.

None of the hijackers responsible for 9/11 were Iraqi. No connection has ever been established between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. They were enemies not allies. Iraq stood to gain nothing by giving support to Al Qaeda. Clark was not exaggerating in saying that attacking Iraq in response to 9/11 was like FDR attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor. It sounds completely absurd, of course to those that think like Sarah, but it is an apt analogy.

One could even say that attacking Iraq in response to 9/11 was worse than FDR attacking Mexico for Pearl Harbor. For now we have stirred up a real hornet’s nest of hatred in the whole Islamic world which has created a much greater problem than FDR could have created with a similar mistake. The war on Iraq can only make the problem of terrorism much worse.

Americans have confused the problem of Saddam Hussein with the problem of terrorism. They were two separate problems. We already had the problem of Saddam Hussein quite adequately contained. He was nothing but a two-bit dictator who had already been rendered powerless. He was not a threat to us and not connected with the problem of terrorism. That problem is rooted in a “freaking mess” that is at least partly our own doing. Until Americans can begin to address the underlying reasons why Islamic fundamentalists would choose to become suicidal terrorists the problem of terrorism will never be met.

As has become abundantly clear in numerous revelations over the past summer, the Bush Administration never really was focused on the problem of terrorism. We know that Bush and neo-cons had plans to attack Iraq long before 9/11, and apparently they were too preoccupied with these war plans for Iraq to pay adequate attention to intelligence warnings of terrorist threats. They then used the ensuing terrorist attack to push through their plans for war on Iraq.

The real reasons for the war could never have been made public-they simply wanted American control of a region that was strategically crucial both for its location and resources. Oil may not have been the only reason, but control of the vast oil resources of Iraq was a major reason for the war on Iraq. Yet they never would have been able to have their war without 9/11. The neo-cons conned America, and in pulling off this con they not only turned their attention away from the real perpetrators of 9/11, they have succeeded brilliantly in exponentially increasing the antagonism and hatred in the Arab world for the United States. In raining death and destruction down on the Iraqi people Bush and the neo-cons haven’t done the Iraqis any favors, and certainly haven’t protected us.

The world is not better off, certainly not the United States, nor even Iraq, now that we have removed Saddam Hussein from power in this way. We already had a weapons inspections program in place that had achieved its primary objectives. Saddam Hussein may have been a brutal dictator but it wasn’t necessary to launch a destructive war to remove him from power. One day America will finally realize he wasn’t worth the trouble. Now, tragically, Iraq really is a “freaking mess” and it is we that have made it so.

Sending troops into battle to die in a war that was not necessary has to be the very worst thing a President can do. That is why a great leader should never rush to war. A decision to go to war should be made only after considering all the counter-arguments, weighing all the best intelligence, and going forward only when it is absolutely necessary and thus truly a last resort. The Bush Administration simply ignored all the counter-arguments. They fabricated evidence which was then used to coerce Congress into giving the President the authority for war. Instead of doing their best to avoid war and find a peaceful solution, they did their utmost to avoid peace and find a reason for war. They committed our troops to battle when it was not really necessary and thus our troops are indeed dying for a mistake.

No one who risks their life in service to their country should be asked to die for a mistake. I certainly do pray that Sarah’s husband, and all our troops come home safely. But this war is likely to continue for many years to come unless this nation realizes and admits to a mistake. That’s something our current President is obviously not very good at. Will Kerry be able to bring the nation to realize, admit and then correct this mistake? That really depends upon the character of the people that make up this nation. It will be dificult, very difficult for many Americans to realize the terrible truth about the war in Iraq, but that’s the only way out of Iraq and the only way America might perhaps one day again be a light to all nations.

TIMOTHY J. FREEMAN is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. The University of Hawaii-Hilo. He can be reached at freeman@hawaii.edu.