Epilogue: A Question of Truth
NEW YORK — After a week back, I’ve managed to get some sleep in, say “hey” to a few friends, put up some picture pages (part one and part two) and try to take stock of the aftermath of this war. This is difficult, however, as the urban environment of New York City is so alien to the experiences of the past month that it might as well be a different planet. It doesn’t help that I’m still stepping gingerly around the East Village (residual fear of landmines), looking for sniper positions on the skyscrapers and marveling that people aren’t all carrying AK-47s.
But that’s nothing compared to what the Iraqi people have had to go through, and what they’re facing. To a certain degree, the same goes for the people of America who, it may be, were lied to about the reasons for this war.
According to the Independent in the U.K., the Bush White House based its case for invading Iraq on a “selective use of intelligence, exaggeration, use of sources known to be discredited and outright fabrication.” The weapons of mass destruction that were said to have posed an imminent threat to the United States and the free world have yet to be found, although Bush promises they will be. Again, the Times reported April 27:
In northern Iraq, a military chemical-analysis team said today that a cache of barrels and two mobile laboratories found near the village of Bayji were most likely not used for chemical warfare purposes, countering earlier reports from an Army officer at the site.
For New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, this is no biggie. “We do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war,” he wrote this weekend. “That skull, and the thousands more that will be unearthed, are enough for me.” He was referring to a graphic and affecting photo the Times ran on its front page on Friday. This is the same man who wrote on Feb. 19:
I am also very troubled by the way Bush officials have tried to justify this war on the grounds that Saddam is allied with Osama bin Laden or will be soon. There is simply no proof of that, and every time I hear them repeat it I think of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. You don’t take the country to war on the wings of a lie. (Emphasis added.)
Friedman wasn’t talking so much about WMD in that earlier column, but the point remains the same. In matters of starting wars, you better have the moral high ground, and you don’t get there by climbing a ladder of falsehoods.
For people wholly supportive of the war, however, the tonic of triumphalism is sweet indeed. Many are now saying “I told you so” to those of us who opposed it. A reader — I can’t find the email now — asked some months ago if I would change my mind on the war if it was proven that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. I answered that no, I wouldn’t, since I didn’t — and don’t — believe that the war was about WMD or an evil tyrant but about realpolitik plans for projecting American power into the Middle East. My response to this reader is to flip the question: “Do you still think this war was necessary since it may very well turn out that there are no WMD to be found?”
(Mind you, I’m sure the U.S. will find some cache of chemicals or a few warheads, but President Bush repeatedly invoked a clear and present danger to the survival of the United States as a justification for war. A few dozen litres of mustard gas or even VX does not strike me as justification for shredding the U.N. Charter, demolishing NATO, harming further the United States’ image abroad and increasing the risk of terrorism at home.)
Still, some very real good occurred from the toppling of Saddam. There is no doubt the future of Iraq will be much, much brighter without him. The war was prosecuted fairly well with relatively low civilian casualties, there was no urban warfare and at least some Iraqis in the Arab parts of the country cheered the U.S’s entry into Baghdad. (The Kurds were, naturally, ecstatic, but the warm welcome I received should not be taken as indicative of the mood of the country as a whole. Many, many Arabs are angry over what happened to their country and the Kurds are ready to bolt from Iraq if they get the chance.) But the aftermath of the war could be more damaging to American interests and the Iraqi people. U.S. soldiers today fired into a crowd of civilian protesters at Falluhaj, about 30 miles west of Baghdad. The director of the local hospital said 13 people were killed and 75 injured. This is the third such incident such as this, with the other two occurring in Mosul.
Trigger-happy troops, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s cavalier attitude toward the rape of a nation’s cultural history — with journalists and soldiers taking part — as well as disturbing but totally unconfirmed stories I was told by troops about atrocities committed by U.S. forces against prisoners all point to one thing: the need for a skeptical and close examination of America’s role in a post-war Iraq.
This examination is not going to come from the networks, obviously. CNN’s news head Eason Jordan, already facing criticism for the arguably morally bankrupt policy of not reporting Saddam’s thuggery in exchange for 12 years of access, revealed to Howard Kurtz on “Reliable Sources” last week that the retired military personnel used on air were all approved by the Pentagon! (L.A. Times, registration req.) “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, ‘Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war,'” he said. “And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.” Cozy arrangement, there.
By and large, the television reports were uniformly awful, in my opinion, with a rah-rah patriotism that television excels at. Print reporters were better, however, with critical reports and unfiltered quotes from troops, including New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins quoting a sergeant as saying he shot an Iraqi woman because “the chick got in the way.”
This criticism is not to take away from the courage of the reporters in the field. I was a chicken and mainly stayed away from the rough stuff so I don’t include myself in that previous sentence. Twelve journalists died in this war, out of about 1,500 covering it. None of those 12 people had to be there; they chose to be there. Their motivations, I’m sure, ranged from the noble dedication to the story and the people of Iraq to the base lust for glory and a collection of war stories. Most likely it was a combination of both. I am including myself here and speaking from personal experience.
So what comes next? For Iraq, no one knows. President Bush says the U.S. will install democracy but that doesn’t include a Shi’a-led Islamic state — a wise choice, even if it does leave the United States open to hypocrisy. We’ll see to what degree democracy really does come to the new Iraq. But I know this: The American people, in whose name this war was waged, need to hold this administration’s feet to the fire. It’s obviously too late to stop this war, but we as a democratic nation still have a responsibility to make the aftermath as beneficial to the Iraqi people as possible now that it’s over. That means that corporate cronyism that seems to be the preferred method for awarding lucrative rebuilding contracts needs to be protested — loudly. Any backsliding on democratic actions or a disconnect between administration actions and rhetoric have to be combatted as vigorously possible.
The anti-war crowd would be criminally irresponsible if it just washes its hands of the matter and considers the battle to halt military action in Iraq a failed cause and moves onto the next cause celebre. And if the pro-war people think they now have a right to say, “We told you this war would go well,” they damn well also have a responsibility to hold the people they supported to their word. It’s time for them, the “winners” in the “Should we go to war or shouldn’t we?” debate, to put up or shut up.
I personally don’t plan on sitting back and letting things just happen, on letting Iraq slip from the consciousness of an easily distracted people. I’m working on a book proposal examining the three acts of this drama — build up, the war itself and its aftermath. I’ll be returning to Iraq as soon as possible to research the rebuilding and to explore those disturbing stories I heard. Most important, I’ll be keeping the voices of the Iraqi people front and center, something the mainstream media tend not to do.
Do keep in touch. Things are getting complicated — and interesting.
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