I hate to blow my cover, but I fear the Iraq war may have been my fault.
I was in high school in early 2002 when military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan began winding down (or so we thought at the time). Assigned to write a current events report for my civics class, I decided to research five seemingly terrorism-plagued nations and consider which one was ripest for American intervention. The conclusion I came to, inflamed little post-9/11 thing that I was, was that it had to be Iraq, fiefdom of America’s iconic foe Saddam Hussein, who, after all, probably had weapons of mass destruction and would crumple easily before our vastly superior military and his own people’s thirst for liberty. My teacher agreed and gave me an A+. He never told me that he passed off my report to the Bush administration, but you know how these closet Straussians are about their noble lies.
I was 14 when I handed in that assignment; I am now 30 and American troops are still in Iraq, despite the Bush administration’s promise of a short war. And while, of course, my homework assignment did not have all the geopolitical significance of the Zimmerman Telegram, I still find it revealing that the rationales dashed off by a freshman as the clock ticked down to third period were nearly identical to the ones posited by the most powerful men on earth in support of the heaviest mobilization of military power in a decade. Plenty of wars haven’t been premised on such woolly-headed swagger, but Iraq was. Remember the unicorns that passed as post-war planning? Donald Rumsfeld’s lighter, nimbler military would have the place licked in a matter of months. The country’s vast oil wealth would cover the expenses. The Sunnis and Shias would be too busy frolicking through their newfound emerald libertyscape to start a sectarian war. Some fellow named Ahmed Chalabi who had left Iraq 45 years ago would be lowered via crane into Baghdad and established as the country’s new president. The state would be cleansed of Baathists without serious consequence. All of Iraq would be fortified into a liberal outpost from which our values could be spread to its neighbors.
The American Revolution and Civil War began out of necessity and developed more idealistic casus belli as they proceeded; Iraq from its start was the most ideological war we’ve ever fought. This was to be a struggle against not just the Saddam regime but the metaphysical order itself, a boot that would see the door to hell at last kicked down. “Our responsibility to history is already clear,” declared George W. Bush after 9/11, “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” He was echoed by neoconservatives Richard Perle and David Frum who dutifully blueprinted the crusade ahead in their book An End to Evil. (“An end to evil!” my old professor Dr. Claes Ryn once exclaimed, his eyes twinkling. “Have you ever heard anything so absurd?”) A rash of looting after the invasion was dismissed as a mere spasm before the material caught up with the form: “freedom’s messy,” as Rumsfeld so blithely put it. The ethos of the moment was best described by Hegel (and later parroted portentously by Francis Fukuyama): “We stand at the gates of an important epoch, a time of ferment, when spirit moves forward in a leap, transcends its previous shape and takes on a new one.”
It was an age when the universal was to overcome the particular, when an American president could try to ramrod Turkey into the European Union against that institution’s wishes because, after all, all nations were compatible with liberal democracy, were they not? We were like an addict who had finally kicked his habit and was now so euphoric over being clean that he thought nothing was beyond his capacity. This idealism was genuinely felt and believed, yet it came attached to a string: while we were busy painting the world in black and white, our leaders had also concluded that in order for the white to prevail a little of the black needed to be allowed to encroach. Dick Cheney called this “the dark side.” It meant a prison in Cuban no-man’s-land not subjected to legal oversight. It also meant disappearing prisoners of war and subjecting them to interrogation techniques that might not comport with a strict reading of the Eighth Amendment.
It was the cleavage between our ideals and this dark side that drove the last nail into the Iraq project’s coffin. When photos emerged from the American-refashioned Abu Ghraib prison of our soldiers mugging next to pyramids of naked detainees and dragging Iraqis around on leashes, the response from the Muslim world, already on edge over the realization of Shiite political power in Baghdad, was predictably furious and bloody. The face of the occupation was suddenly Lynndie England, the soldier most visibly involved in the abuse. She was dishonorably discharged and imprisoned herself, but in a way she became a synecdoche for the entire war, an enlistee who had gone abroad as part of a reformist army only to find that it was she who had been changed. A slow trickle of news culminating in a 2014 Senate investigation revealed that Abu Ghraib wasn’t an anomaly, that detainees in American custody had been extensively waterboarded, subjected to forced rectal feeding, made to stand for hours on broken legs, chained up, hooded and dragged down corridors, and shipped off to prisons in other countries to be tortured. Determined to export the Enlightenment, we’d ended up rationalizing the same medieval techniques used by the despotisms we claimed to despise.
There’s a scene in Camus’ novel The Plague where the journalist Rambert is weighing whether to flee the pestilence-ravaged town of Oran, while his friend Rieux insists on staying behind. Rieux’s cold self-abnegation aggravates Rambert, who exclaims, “You’re using the language of reason, not the heart.” Rieux then glances up at a statue of the French Republic, a symbol of both the reason and the warmth of home between which Rambert must decide. An American gazing upon a statue of George Washington wouldn’t experience any such dilemma over Iraq. The philosophies and traditions that undergirded our country’s founding are incompatible with forever war, as our founders repeatedly warned; and our national heart returned home long ago, exasperated with the failures of democratic evangelism and in need of a little housekeeping of its own. It isn’t reason that keeps us in Iraq (and Syria and Afghanistan and Somalia and Libya and…); it’s the discredited and jejune ideology of humanitarian empire that first took root 15 years ago and that we still cling to with cracked knuckles.
Such magical thinking wrecked the Middle East, precipitated a refugee crisis, helped spike the national debt to $21 trillion and counting—yet skip over to Commentary or the Weekly Standard or any other hawkish publication of record and you’re unlikely to find a single retrospective on Iraq’s big 15th. Instead they rail against Trump for using crude pejoratives akin to the ones they once hurled against war dissenters, and puzzle over the anger of the deplorables whom they sent to Mesopotamia by the thousands. And then it’s on to the next battle, as the Trump administration reportedly considers for a top position a mustachioed hothead who wants military strikes against both North Korea and Iran. Iraq changed us forever: along with the recession it was one of two blows to our national psyche that precipitated our fraught present times. It changed us forever and yet, at least from my view 15 years later, not of the chalkboard now but the Washington skyline, it changed us so very little.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.