The New Greatest Rationalization

The Iraq War, 10 years later


Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. It will be interesting to see, if we note the day at all, what kinds of justifications the war’s apologists come up with now. For a remarkable thing about this adventure is that not even its proponents have been able to agree about its purpose—not before, during, or after.

We were going in because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We were going in because he had links to Al Qaeda. But for many in or near the Bush administration, a grander purpose was afoot: to remake the Middle East in America’s image (and make it safe for Israel). Everybody wants to go to Baghdad, the saying went; real men want to go to Damascus and Tehran.

Others suspected different motives. Maureen Dowd pushed the Oedipal line: Bush was finishing the job his father had started. Geostrategists saw the issue in terms of oil. Forget about democracy, one of them said, we’re going to end up installing another strongman, another Saddam, only this time he’ll be our Saddam. Never mind the cynicism there—Saddam was our Saddam, until he got his own ideas.

Other things were going on, as well, I think, mainly to do (“real men”) with the crisis of national masculinity. Vietnam had left us feeling weak. The antidote became a series of little wars, whenever we were getting the vapors again, against absurdly inferior opponents. Margaret Thatcher showed the way with the Falklands Campaign in 1982. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada, the following year, two days after the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. Bush I, who had a “wimp” image to deal with, gave us Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991. The spectacles were tailored to the new age of media saturation, though it might have given pause that each was bigger than the last. Like an addict, we kept needing to increase the dose.

In any case, even the architects of the Iraq War were unable to agree upon a motive. Once the idea was floated (literally the day after 9/11), it seems to have become a policy upon which everyone was able to project their own agenda. After it became clear that no WMDs would be found, the story changed again. We were there as liberators, come to free the Iraqi people. The world was better off without Saddam; you wouldn’t want to have him back in Baghdad, would you?

Actually, I would. More than 4,000 American service members died in Iraq. Tens of thousands were wounded. Hundreds of thousands suffered psychological damage. The war will end up costing well over $3 trillion by the time the bills are finished being paid, decades in the future. If we could undo all that, I’d throw Saddam a tickertape parade. As for the Iraqis, maybe they are better off and maybe they are not, but since when is it a goal of American policy to rescue foreign nationals from their own governments? Only when it provides an excuse for something we want to do anyway. If we’re really so concerned about other people, why don’t we invade Zimbabwe?

Now that the troops are coming home, we’re onto a new dodge. Not the one about the Arab Spring—I’m not sure even Condoleezza Rice believes that. No, something still more obscene. “The New Greatest Generation,” Time proclaimed from its cover a couple of years ago, a phrase that’s since been echoed by Obama. The original term was bad enough, as a piece of sentimentality. At least that generation really was a generation, in the sense that everybody sacrificed. Now the idea seems to be that for the lucky 1 percent who served, Iraq was actually a killer job training program. The skills! The work ethic! The leadership abilities! See, it really was all for the best. Forget about the PTSD, the substance abuse, the suicide—the broken bodies, lives, and families. The war began as a massive act of self-delusion, and it is petering out in exactly the same way.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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