The Iraq War and Modern Memory
Except for those directly involved, the war fades steadily from U.S. attention, mentioned mainly on major anniversaries like this week's. Convenient amnesia increases the damage done in those years.
The most important book by the late scholar Paul Fussell was The Great War and Modern Memory, published in 1975. It was about the “class war” effects of World War I on the British culture of the generations that followed.
Allowing for all the differences—genre, generation, nationality—you could think of it as a non-fiction counterpart to All Quiet on the Western Front. Fussell’s Great War won the National Book Award and many other honors. It set a model for reckoning with the lasting effects of war in all its dimensions—heroism, cowardice, brilliant moves, tragic blunders—on societies, even when they “won.”
Of course there have been other such reckonings, which have been important in helping societies come to terms with what they suffered, what they achieved, and what they should learn from times of war:
—I write about this essay at least once per year, so let’s do it now for 2023: William James’s timeless “The Moral Equivalent of War,” from 1910, was about how the most destructive episode in U.S. history, the Civil War, also brought out the best and bravest in many individuals. Stephen Budiansky’s 2019 biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. also emphasized how Holmes’s service with Union forces in the Civil War, and his grave injuries, shaped the rest of his long life, including his three decades on the Supreme Court.
—The popular culture of the 1970s, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to James Webb’s Fields of Fire to Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, was steeped in the aftereffects of America’s long years in Vietnam.
—Mid-20th century U.S. culture was framed in various ways through the experiences of World War II: From the Tuskegee Airmen to South Pacific, from Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-5 to Hiroshima. I wrote a whole cover story in The Atlantic about how that era’s U.S. pop culture was bathed in the shared experience of world war.
—Except for the brilliant movie and popular TV series both called M*A*S*H, the Korean War era plays a smaller role in America’s “modern memory.” Still, even apart from M*A*S*H, there were powerful and influential novels of combat, like James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri and James Salter’s first novel, The Hunters. (Salter, who came to epitomize elegance in literary fiction, was a West Point graduate who flew 100 combat missions in Korea as a fighter pilot.) The plot of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, made into one of the most famous movies of the early 1960s, turned on the after-effects of combat in Korea.
Then there is Iraq.
From the Iraq era: literature and narrative, yes. Accountability, no.
From participants in the war, we have many eloquent testimonies. Early books like One Bullet Away and Redeployment. Works of dramatization like The Hurt Locker and Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. Nonfiction analysis like Imperial Life in the Emerald City. A movie like Vice.
What we haven’t had is much accountability. Consider the contrasts:
—We knew who stood on which side after the Civil War.
—After World War II, Charles Lindbergh’s reputation never recovered. To say nothing of Neville Chamberlain. Or Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling.
—Because of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson knew that his “Great Society” / “we shall overcome!” record would always be stained. He died not long after he left office, at age 64, knowing that U.S. troops were still in combat in Vietnam. Robert McNamara lived for more than 40 years after he stepped down from the Pentagon. He became president of the World Bank and did many good works. But his reputation will never be separate from Vietnam. (As his son Craig described last year in his powerful book, and as Errol Morris had illustrated 20 years earlier in his movie The Fog of War.) William Westmoreland was always associated with Vietnam. All these decades later, so is Henry Kissinger.
But as for their counterparts from the Iraq war?
George W. Bush has been a gracious and non-intrusive former president: running a presidential library and study center, becoming a portrait painter, doing good works. Recently he suffered the Freudian-slip embarrassment of denouncing an “unjustified and brutal” invasion of another country—and naming that country as “Iraq,” when he meant to say “Ukraine.” Deep down he must feel the weight of his war. But “Iraq” is not a shorthand for his time in office, the way “Vietnam” was for Johnson’s or “the Depression” for Herbert Hoover’s.
Dick Cheney, who had his first heart attack at age 37, has at age 82 never revealed second thoughts nor been held accountable for his central role in promoting the war.1 Twenty years later, the Cheney family name has become more associated with the courage of his daughter Liz in standing up to Donald Trump.
The late Donald Rumsfeld never visibly let his jauntiness be diminished by what he had done.
Paul Wolfowitz became president of the World Bank—as Robert McNamara had before him. Unlike McNamara, he had to resign from that post.
Condoleezza Rice—“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—became Secretary of State and is now a respected figure at Stanford.
George “slam-dunk” Tenet received a multi-million dollar book advance and is a board member and professor.
Paul Bremer, the disastrously incompetent U.S. viceroy in Baghdad, was as of 2018 a ski instructor.
John Bolton you know about.
The military leaders? I can name the people who made fateful decisions that wasted Iraqi and American and other lives. Hardly anyone would recall them.
Why go through this list?2 Because, again, the choices—and mistakes, and deceptions—mattered so much, and are so little discussed now.
And let’s remember people on the other side.
Part of today’s convenient, hazy memory emerges as: Yes, what a rough time that was. Everybody believed the propaganda. Wasn’t that too bad. If only we had known!
That is a destructive way to understand the Iraq years, because not everybody believed the propaganda. Many people tried their best to stop the war.
I’m not even talking about the hundreds of thousands of Americans (and many others around the world) who took to the streets in protests. Nor the leaders of most of the traditional U.S. allies, who formally opposed the decision to invade. With the egregious exception of Tony Blair.
—In the House of Representatives, in the midst of “mushroom cloud” fever, 126 Democrats (including Nancy Pelosi), six Republicans (including Ron Paul), and one Independent (then-Representative Bernie Sanders) voted against authorizing the war. Read their names here.
—In the Senate, 21 Democrats (including Dick Durbin), one Republican (Lincoln Chafee, before he left the party), and one Independent (Jim Jeffords) voted No. Read their names here.
Because so many future Democratic nominees for president—John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden—notoriously voted for the war as senators, it is worth noting the stand that a former senator and vice president, and a winner of the popular vote for president, took six months before the war. In September, 2002 Al Gore made a major speech at the Commonwealth Club in California, warning against the invasion. Of course another future senator, nominee, and president, Barack Obama, spoke against the war in his role as a state senator in Illinois.
And even in the press, more dissent than is remembered now.
The most influential parts of the press 20 years ago were egging on this war. That’s not comfortable or convenient for most of them to remember. But it’s the reality, as anyone in the business back then must know: The New York Times with its discredited “WMD” coverage; the Washington Post on its bellicose editorial page; most leading magazines.
For details I refer you to John Judis, who was one of the few New Republic staff members who opposed the war, with a clear retrospective here. Nicholas Guyatt has a list of major-media war advocates here, and Parker Molloy has another. A few in this group have written reconsiderations, which I respect. Most would prefer not to dwell on the past.
I dwell on this past because it matters, in the “modern memory” of this destructive war, to know that some politicians took a stand, and that media voices were more diverse and cautionary than the standard “we all were fooled” narrative would suggest.
I will talk about the media I know best: The Atlantic, where I had worked for many years.
The magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time, Michael Kelly, was outspokenly pro-war. As he made clear, this was personal and passionate for him. He had covered the 1990 Gulf War and written about the cruelty and evils of Saddam Hussein in his celebrated book Martyr’s Day. Everyone in that era’s media world recalls the shock of learning that Michael had died in Iraq in the first weeks of the invasion, at age 46, while he was embedded with U.S. troops.
Believing in the case for war himself, Michael Kelly published and promoted many pro-war writers and articles, notably including the late Christopher Hitchens, Robert Kaplan, Kenneth Pollack, and others.
But he knew that many on his own staff strongly disagreed. And he gave us leeway to make the opposite case. I display below two Atlantic covers from that era—one before Kelly's death, one after. Both of them mention pieces by me, and they are samples of how in this leading magazine, even under a strongly pro-war editor, voices were diverse.3
In retrospect this article, which received the National Magazine Award, had a big omission. It accepted rather than frontally challenged the “Saddam Hussein has WMD” claims for attacking Iraq. (In fairness to myself, I wrote it before that claim became the center of discussion.)
Instead its argument was: even if you could make this case, an invasion would be the beginning of a long nightmare, which the U.S. would regret as soon as it had “won.” Unfortunately most of what it warned against came true.
After the invasion, I wrote what I consider the most carefully crafted magazine article I have ever done. It was called “Blind Into Baghdad,” and it was a week-by-week chronicle of how a foreseeable disaster became incalculably worse than even pessimists (like me) might have feared. I later did a book with this same title. I think the article stands up depressingly well. See for yourself.
Why do I mention this, twenty years later?
-As a reminder that debate was more intense and varied than most people now imagine. Look even at these two magazine covers: each headlined an “anti-war” article, but each gave prominent billing to stories promoting or rationalizing what happened in Iraq.
-And as a reminder that media and citizens have more independence and agency than we might assume. Everything about democracy, especially the decision to make war, is an ongoing struggle and debate. A lot of the Iraq retrospectives now say, “Oh, we all were victims of bad information.” It’s not that easy. Think again of those 133 Representatives and 23 Senators who were awash with that same information, but voted not to go to war.
Why don’t we have more discussions or debates about how Iraq happened? I fear the main reason is the one I laid out in another article, on “Chickenhawk Nation,” back in 2015: Barely one per cent of the U.S. public served at any point in either Iraq or Afghanistan, during the “long wars” of our era. Most of the rest of the public could say “Thank you for your service,” and pay attention to something else.
We need to think about where we have been, and where it leads.
For instance, in a major speech as Congress was considering a vote to authorize the war: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and will use them] against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”
This week the site Responsible Statecraft had a symposium on who, apart from Bush and Cheney, should be considered most responsible for launching the war and disastrously managing the occupation. The results are worth reading—though they include several votes for Joe Biden, as one of many Democratic senators who voted for the war.
A few of the Atlantic colleagues who shared my view of the war and were crucial in crafting these articles included Cullen Murphy, Corby Kummer, Sue Parilla, Scott Stossel, and others.