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The Dogs Of War Are Back

Iran, Iraq, and America's determination to learn nothing from its foolishness

“As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”  — Proverbs 26:11

Peter Beinart writes in detail about how he, a supporter of the Iraq War, fell for the arguments for war last time, and how we are now going through a repeat of the same thing with Iran. Excerpt:

How is this possible? How is it possible that Trump—who during the presidential campaign boasted about his supposed opposition to the Iraq War—has now embraced an outlook so similar to the one that guided Bush in 2002 and 2003? How can Bolton and Netanyahu remain unrepentant about their role in promoting war with Iraq and yet be taken seriously when they make similar arguments about the supposed nuclear threat from Iran? Why can’t America learn from its recent past?

There’s no single answer. Part of the explanation is partisanship. Politics is today such a team sport that people often downplay or overlook even the grossest offenses by their own side. More than 60 percent of Republicans, according to a March Pew Research Poll, think the United States was right to invade Iraq. George W. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans, according to a January CNN poll, is 76 percent. I suspect that those numbers reflect tribal loyalty more than any considered judgment about the war’s impact. But they make it easy for Republican officials to claim, as Bolton does, that the real mistake wasn’t Bush’s decision to send troops to Iraq but Obama’s decision to withdraw them. Since many Republicans won’t even admit the Iraq war was wrong, it’s hard to apply its lessons to the current debate over Iran. It’s particularly hard since doing so would mean admitting not only that Bush was wrong in waging war with Iraq but that Obama was right in striking a deal with Iran. When was the last time you heard Trump admit that Obama was right about anything?

If you missed Army officer John Q. Bolton’s essay in TAC last week, in which he describes America through his own eyes, having gone through several deployments, you really need to read it. Excerpts:

Though only 1 percent of the nation is in uniform, the more alarming trend is that military service is increasingly a family affair. Coupled with the localized recruitment and basing in the West and Southeast, we are quickly evolving into a praetorian military culture. The tenor of discussion while I was home reflected this reality.

I found people expecting me to confirm things they already believed about our military in order to affirm their confidence in America. The trouble is I don’t share that confidence. My 40 months deployed since 2006 have left me with a hard edge. To be sure, I am proud of my country and certainly feel a strong desire to continue service past my thankfully short time left in uniform. But I temper that loyal desire with hard-earned realism about the capacity of the military to deliver on the blind faith the public reposes.

Perhaps condescendingly, I felt most people back home were naïve or at least perpetually misinformed. Consideration or debate beyond the platitudes didn’t occur. No matter their education or worldliness, most Americans retain their supremely American-esque limited interest in politics and foreign and military policy. Much-needed realism, if not satire, is absent from our sacred military, because the public either regards it as sacrosanct or detestable. Worst of all, the public is apathetic about their military.

From otherwise considerate and intelligent friends and family I heard comments like “Hope your killing lots of those f–kers” and “Kick some ass over there,” despite the lack of any serious, let alone existential, threat to the American homeland posed by extremists in Afghanistan. Even well-meaning people, it seems, don’t want to understand what our policies hath wrought, at home and abroad.

Many consider it patriotism, but this feeling is specious, insipid, and self-destructive. Calls to “do something” ignore the two-fold genesis of terrorist threats against us: domestic instability in Islamic countries and American actions. The truth is that America is exhausting itself in internecine wars of choice across the greater Middle East—actions that exacerbate instability. War has bankrupted our nation during a time of effective peace, without any discernible threat comparable to the costs, though the media certainly doesn’t help the public see the threat clearly. The wars have also contributed to our fractured politics, as we ignore guns versus butter by using debt and conduct specious freedom versus security arguments.

I know a guy who went to Iraq. Rush Limbaugh conservative kind of guy. Came home decorated. Describes the war as “a waste.” Won’t talk about it further. I found out recently from a relative that when he was in Iraq a decade ago, he had to pick up the pieces of one of his friends, blown to bits by an IED. He’s only now able to mention it in words. For a decade, he has carried that darkness inside.

A friend of mine’s husband also went to Iraq. He came home changed. Won’t tell his wife what he saw or did, but will not go into a church. Says God can’t forgive him.

In the last years of my father’s life (he died in 2015), I would take him to the VA clinic for some of his treatments. There I would see men younger than I, in various stages of physical brokenness. Maimed — and not just physically. These were men who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of them had their little children along with them. This was their life now.

And for what?

So. When I see things like this, written by those who had been strong advocates of the Iraq War, alarm bells go off:

Weigel is talking in that piece about Russia’s war on Ukraine. Weigel has been writing about this strongly for some time, though mostly in a church context (he defends the Ukrainian Catholic Church against Russian Orthodox aggressors). I don’t blame Weigel, a Catholic, for being upset over what’s going on in Ukraine, and I find it hard to defend Russia’s actions there (even as I recognize that the situation is a lot more historically complicated than the simplified “Russian imperialism” narrative some prefer).

What concerns me is that “freedom is never free” was one of the slogans tossed around in the march up to the Iraq War — as if American freedom depended on invading and subjugating Iraq, and turning it into a liberal democracy. Similarly, with Trump now arming Ukraine, I fear that writers like Weigel will prepare Americans to enter into another foreign war that is not our business. In this piece, he speaks of the bravery of Ukrainian Catholics in resisting Russian paramilitaries active in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which Russian forces invaded. Weigel writes, “The war in the Donbass is real, however, and the West needs to take it far more seriously.”

Meaning what, exactly? Arms for Ukraine? What is the end goal here? My own personal sympathies are more aligned with Ukrainian political independence, but above all, I see no reason at all why the United States should involve itself militarily with a war that’s not only on Russia’s border, but is in a country that historically is seen as the cultural heart of Russia (Orthodoxy began in Kiev).

The main theater of war at the moment is not the Russian geographical orbit, but, as usual, the Middle East. It appears that Israel and Saudi Arabia are preparing for war with Iran — a war that the US will surely be dragged into, given how close we are to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and how masterfully both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman have groomed Donald Trump. This conflict has been building for many years, but now it looks like it’s on the verge of breaking out beyond proxy conflicts.

Beinart’s piece talks about how the forgetfulness of the US public leaves us vulnerable to manipulation into embracing yet another Middle Eastern war. It’s worth going back to January 2003 and reading Catholic neoconservative Weigel’s magisterial First Things essay contending that America’s moral duty was to invade Iraq. Excerpts:

As a tradition of statecraft, the just war argument recognizes that there are circumstances in which the first and most urgent obligation in the face of evil is to stop it. Which means that there are times when waging war is morally necessary to defend the innocent and to promote the minimum conditions of international order. This, I suggest, is one of those times. Grasping that does not require us to be “pagans.” It only requires us to be morally serious and politically responsible. Moral seriousness and political responsibility require us to make the effort to “connect the dots” between means and ends.


International terrorism of the sort we have seen since the late 1960s, and of which we had a direct national experience on September 11, 2001, is a deliberate assault, through the murder of innocents, on the very possibility of order in world affairs. That is why the terror networks must be dismantled or destroyed. The peace of order is also under grave threat when vicious, aggressive regimes acquire weapons of mass destruction—weapons that we must assume, on the basis of their treatment of their own citizens, these regimes will not hesitate to use against others. That is why there is a moral obligation to ensure that this lethal combination of irrational and aggressive regimes, weapons of mass destruction, and credible delivery systems does not go unchallenged. That is why there is a moral obligation to rid the world of this threat to the peace and security of all. Peace, rightly understood, demands it.

This concept of peace-as-order can also enrich our understanding of that much-bruited term, the “national interest.” The irreducible core of the “national interest” is composed of those basic security concerns to which any responsible democratic statesman must attend. But those security concerns are related to a larger sense of national purpose and international responsibility: we defend America because America is worth defending, on its own terms and because of what it means for the world. Thus the security concerns that make up the core of the “national interest” should be understood as the necessary inner dynamic of the exercise of America’s international responsibilities. And those responsibilities include the obligation to contribute, as best we can, to the long, hard, never-to-be-finally-accomplished “domestication” of international public life: to the quest for ordered liberty in an evolving structure of international public life capable of advancing the classic goals of politics—justice, freedom, order, the general welfare, and peace. Empirically and morally, the United States cannot adequately defend its “national interest” without concurrently seeking to advance those goals in the world. Empirically and morally, those goals will not be advanced if they are pursued in ways that gravely threaten the basic security of the United States.

In eradicating global terrorism and denying aggressive regimes weapons of mass destruction, the United States and those who walk this road with us are addressing the most threatening problems of global disorder that must be resolved if the peace of order, the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, is to be secured in as wide a part of the world as possible in the twenty-first century. Here, national interest and international responsibility coincide.

Remember all that? And this:

This “regime factor” is crucial in the moral analysis, for weapons of mass destruction are clearly not aggressions waiting to happen when they are possessed by stable, law-abiding states. No Frenchman goes to bed nervous about Great Britain’s nuclear weapons, and no sane Mexican or Canadian worries about a preemptive nuclear attack from the United States. Every sane Israeli, Turk, or Bahraini, on the other hand, is deeply concerned about the possibility of an Iraq or Iran with nuclear weapons and medium-range ballistic missiles. If the “regime factor” is crucial in the moral analysis, then preemptive military action to deny the rogue state that kind of destructive capacity would not, in my judgment, contravene the “defense against aggression” concept of just cause. Indeed, it would do precisely the opposite, by giving the concept of “defense against aggression” real traction in the world we must live in, and transform.

Some will argue that this violates the principle of sovereignty and risks a global descent into chaos. [Emphasis mine — RD] To that, I would reply that the post-Westphalian notions of state equality and sovereign immunity assume at least a minimum of acquiescence to minimal international norms of order. Today’s rogue states cannot, on the basis of their behavior, be granted that assumption. Therefore, they have forfeited that immunity. The “regime factor” is determinative, in these extreme instances.

And this kicker, near the essay’s end, taking a shot at bishops of his own church — including the Bishop of Rome — who warned against the US going to war in Iraq:

There is a charism of political discernment that is unique to the vocation of public service. That charism is not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies. Moral clarity in a time of war demands moral seriousness from public officials. It also demands a measure of political modesty from religious leaders and public intellectuals, in the give-and-take of democratic deliberation.

Two months after this essay appeared, the United States invaded Iraq. The war was unstoppable by that point, obviously, but this essay provided an intelligent (if wrong) moral and religious rationale for that war.

Where are we in 2018, as the result of America’s actions in that war?

Large portions of the Middle East have been laid waste because of sectarian and tribal hatreds unleashed by America’s overturning of the order there. Ancient Christian communities have been decimated. Iran has gained de facto control of much of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people — mostly Iraqis, but some US troops — were left dead or wounded. 

In February 2003, roughly contemporary with Weigel’s article, this Patrick Buchanan column appeared, warning against the war. Excerpt:

No one knows for certain how it will play out. Europeans, Arabs, and many Americans fear a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq will lead to a Middle East upheaval in which Islamists, hell-bent on a war of civilizations with the West, could come to power.

Neoconservatives, wild for war, predict a “cakewalk” that liberates the people of Iraq from a bloody tyrant and begins the democratization of the Islamic world.

Militarily, Iraq does not appear formidable. An Iraqi air defense, unable to shoot down a single U.S. plane in 40,000 sorties in ten years, cannot long withstand U.S. air power that can deliver 1,000 smart bombs and cruise missiles on target each day. And Iraqi ground forces cannot long resist Abrams tanks that can guarantee the kill of an Iraqi armored vehicle with every shell fired. Thus the great question: What comes next?

The War Party sees the occupation of Iraq, like the occupation of Germany and Japan, as an opportunity to convert hostile Arab nations into peace-loving, pro-Western societies. Faced with U.S. military supremacy, the Arabs, they believe, will, at last, accept our benevolent hegemony and the permanent presence of Sharonist Israel in the heart of the Middle East.

The antiwar camp fears that the result of a U.S. invasion of Iraq could be a Middle East that more resembles the Europe of the 1930s than the Europe of the 1950s. Impose democracy on the Arab world, and what is to prevent the new regimes from reflecting the resentment and hatred of U.S. power and Israel now pandemic among these peoples.

Buchanan was right. Weigel was wrong. Europe was right. America was wrong. And yet, here were are in 2018, marching down the same damn road to a war that is not in America’s interest.

On the conservative Christian side, First Things — the leading intellectual journal of religious conservatism — went all in for the Iraq War, and suffered a massive loss of its authority because of it. The Republican Party used to be considered the party of foreign-policy and national security expertise. You’d have to be a fool to think that after Iraq, given that, as Beinart said, the GOP establishment learned not a damn thing from its grave errors. What the Republican Party and other neoconservative institutions lost in Iraq was credibility, which is to say, authority. Who can trust their judgment on such grave matters, when it proved so catastrophically wrong? If there was a “charism of political discernment,” that charisma bled out in the desert of Iraq.

Today, almost every major institution of American life — public and private — suffers from a crisis of authority and confidence. See the Gallup polls. The only one that can boast of a majority of Americans’ confidence is the US military. Whether that is merited or not is a good question, but the main thing to keep in mind is that the military does not determine its own policies. It is sent into war by the elected civilian leadership — most importantly the Commander in Chief. According to that Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans have “a great deal” (19%) or “quite a lot” (13%) of confidence in the president. Forty-seven percent have “very little” or “none”! The numbers are comparable for Congress.

And yet this president, in whom half the country has no confidence, is poised to lead us into another Middle East war. And where is Congress?

What kind of loyalty should the American people have to a government that repeatedly sends its soldiers into wars that we can’t win? A National Guard veteran of Iraq told me a few years ago that he and his fellow vets can’t stand it when people see them in uniform, and approach them to thank them for their service. This man told me they know that people mean well, but they see soldiers as symbols that allow them to feel good about themselves, and the country. These civilians, he said, don’t want to hear about the killing, the screams, the pain, the struggles their families back home have endured during repeated deployments. They don’t want to see the broken bodies and shattered minds of vets. To be honest, the vet I’m thinking about didn’t put it so eloquently. He spoke bluntly and profanely: “They don’t f–king want to know what we’ve really been through.”

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from a conversation I had over TAC’s 15th Anniversary Gala Event a couple of weeks ago. A TAC reader asked me if I had read Kelly Vlahos’s story in this magazine about Iraq and Afghanistan “burn pits.” I had not. Here’s that story. Excerpts:

One look at Brian Alvarado and you wonder how he can still be alive. Especially when you get a glimpse at his pre-deployment photograph—a Marine in his service uniform, full-faced and ready for whatever war would dish out—and think, “is this really the same person?”

Unfortunately, yes, Alvarado served two tours 10 years ago, and for a time he patrolled “hell,” which is what the guys called the open air burn pits on major U.S. military installations like Air Base Balad in Iraq. When he got home, according to his wife, he was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma (throat cancer) and began chemo and radiation in 2008. Today he can hardly speak and eats and drinks through a G-tube. His features are skeletal, his neck the size of man’s wrist. He is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 70 pounds.

For Alvarado and his wife Rocio, coming to terms with the cancer was one thing, but how he may have gotten it—from the burn pit itself— is another. He is one of thousands of U.S. military servicemembers and contractors who say their proximity to the pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, which burned—unregulated, in the open air—hundreds of tons of solid waste a day, have left them with progressive health conditions, including respiratory failure, debilitating nerve damage, and rare forms of cancer.

“There was no protection, no mask,” Alvadrado said through his wife, who interprets his indiscernible speech, or reads from the mini-white board he carries with him to communicate. “They gave us a gas mask, but it wasn’t for that. It was more for nuclear, biological chemicals. It was never mandatory for us to wear that.”


“When we got to the work area we had an initial briefing with our superiors and we were told to keep an eye on our people, that you were going to get the ‘Iraqi crud,’ and that everyone gets sick when they come down here,” recalled Jessey Baca, who served in Iraq as an Air Force Sergeant, also interviewed in Delay, Deny, Hope You Die [a documentary about the burn pits — RD]. “And no doubt, within a week, people were falling out, getting sick.”

But it was civilian doctors, not the VA who began putting together the symptoms of veterans they treated and followed the path to not only their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the burn pits. Both Drs. Anthony Szema, formerly of Stony Brook School of Medicine, and Robert Miller of Vanderbilt, studied sick veterans, finding in lung biopsies irrevocable damage caused by heavy metals and carcinogens in small particulates that could only come from breathing in toxic air.

“Humans are supposed to breathe clean air,” said Szema in the film. “Any particle in the air can trigger asthma. And when you burn particles in an open air setting at a low setting, at low temperature, low heat, it generates thousands more times the particles than when you use an incinerator. And when you burn particles, when you are burning carcinogens, it exposes a person when they eat it, inhale it, sniff it, get it on their skin…which can cause cancer.”

But it turns out the military had an inkling of what was happening as early as 2006. In 2008, Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy unearthed what is now referred to as the “Curtis Memo,” an Air Force study of the Balad pit by Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, who said one of his research mates called it “the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited.” It listed a number of possible contaminants at the site based on the trash, including arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, cancer-causing sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and various metals.

While burning trash in war is hardly new, the size, scope, and length of the burning in these wars was, and as Curtis wrote in 2006, “today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds.”

“In my professional opinion there is an acute health hazard for individuals … also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke,” Curtis concluded. “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years, without significant engineering controls being put into place.”

The reader recounted the burn pits story at length, and pointed out that they had been constructed and operated by Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR had been awarded a $7 billion no-bid contract by the Bush administration to cover its work in Iraq. My interlocutor — a conservative, I hasten to add — talked at length about Dick Cheney, Halliburton, and the war.

“After all that, do you really expect me to be upset because President Trump paid off a porn star?” he said.

His point was that having swallowed Iraqi camels, we are now straining at gnats with Trump regarding his personal corruption.

A fair point. But now, Trump is beating the drums of war — a war of choice — with Iran. Do you trust Trump to avoid being drawn by our allies Saudi Arabia and Israel into military conflict with Iran? Do you trust the United States to do the right thing in the Middle East, regarding war? Do you really think that this time, it will be different?

Do you really think that the Iraq War strengthened America, and American institutions? Do you really think we can afford another one? Can you in good conscience urge your sons (or your daughters) to serve a government that is so reckless with the lives of its soldiers, and such foolish stewards of its own authority?

Read John Q. Bolton’s essay, right now!



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