United States of Amnesia

Person running with a US flag and a bike with a flag on it.

Image by frank mckenna.

Just a little more than 20 years ago, on August 19th, 2003, a cement mixing truck containing a large bomb rolled into the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The subsequent explosion killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the body’s special representative to the country and many others. This event, which led to the UN withdrawing all non-essential personnel from Iraq, occurred just two months after former President George W. Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier to announce an end to major combat operations in the country.

A banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” fluttered behind him.

The attack signaled a new phase of a war that the leader of the world’s most powerful country had assured his fellow citizens was over, another dubious early victory in the War on Terror. Approximately 300,000 Iraqis have died in that bloody disaster, two-thirds of whom were civilians, plus 4,492 American troops. Epidemiologists have reported far higher numbersbecause they note, in peer-reviewed studies, that the numbers of war dead include people who starve, get sick from exposure to toxic materials, and other “excess deaths.”

Despite overwhelming proof of the lies told to justify invading Iraq, there are still more members of the punditocracy in the United States and UK who insist that the savagery inflicted on hard working men and women and innocent children in Iraq was merely a ‘mistake’ rather than the crime it was.

It was telling that when the so-called Islamic State later rose in Iraq and its brutality spilled into neighboring Syria, the main reaction of media and politicians in the U.S. and among many of its allies was surprise.

Sadly, beginning almost exactly a decade later, the next Republican president, Donald Trump, would see more than a million deaths during his time in office, this time at home.

Trump, who showed at best a lack of seriousness during the crisis provoked by the novel coronavirus, like Bush before him, seems to have escaped accountability for his catastrophic decisions. His Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, who often seemed horrified while watching her boss, has said that after the first 100,000 deaths, most of those that came after could have been “mitigated.”

Those who tuned into the then-President’s daily press briefings in search of information or some compassion and reassurance were met instead with bragging about his own brilliance, the idea that the virus would soon miraculously disappear, and claims about untested cures that still reverberate among paranoid conspiracy theorists today. The Trump administration’s greatest success, the quick rollout of vaccines, is one he barely lays claim to now, as those who haven’t ‘moved on’ from Covid 19 are those who believe that the shots rather than the disease are what led to so many deaths.

This almost pathological ability to ignore tragic events from even the recent past is far from an exclusively American phenomenon. Like Bush, Tony Blair in the UK has been mostly rehabilitated for the role he played in selling and prosecuting the war in Iraq, going on to an incredibly lucrative career as an elder statesmen.

Despite being admonished for breaking his own government’s protocols during the medical crisis, Boris Johnson has also dodged accountability for more than 100,000 deaths from the disease under his watch.

When we create a society based on forgetting, especially our collective traumas, the result seems like a kind of mass sociopathy. After terrorizing much of the world with little thought, should we be surprised that a charlatan like Donald Trump (or Boris Johnson) can avoid consequences for their incompetence when most citizens just want to forget the anxiety and terror of the last few years?

Derek Royden is a writer based in Montreal, Canada.