Koehler: Iraq, history and the Big Lie
The war is over, sort of, but the Big Lie marches on: that democracy is flowering in Iraq, that America is stronger and more secure than ever, that doing what's right is the prime motivator of all our military action.
And the troops will be home for Christmas. Hurrah! Hurrah!
(The men will cheer, the boys will shout, and we'll all feel gay, except maybe Rick Perry.)
"The war in Iraq will soon belong to history," President Barack Obama told the troops at Fort Bragg last week. "Your service belongs to the ages. Never forget that you are part of an unbroken line of heroes spanning two centuries -- from the colonists who overthrew an empire, to your grandparents and parents who faced down fascism and communism, to you -- men and women who fought for the same principles in Fallujah and Kandahar, and delivered justice to those who attacked us on 9/11."
Maybe, as he fulfilled his campaign promise and shut down the Iraq operation after nearly nine years of occupation, slaughter and nation-wrecking, the president had no choice but to extol the glory of our fake values, to pretend -- to those who fought it -- that this was an honorable war, waged in self-protection and righteous vengeance.
Maybe, even if Barack Obama has a grand plan and does, as so many people believe, intend to change the national direction -- to make compassion and honesty our primary governing values -- he can only do so incrementally. He still has to, you know, humor the fist-pumpers and American exceptionalists. He still has to lie.
I don't know.
I fear that the Big Lie is seductive, because there's so much power attached to it. On the outside looking in, when you're just a state senator from Illinois, or whatever, the invasion of Iraq may look like a dumb war. But on the inside of the operation, with so much power at stake, the pragmatic necessities of empire, a.k.a., our national interests -- control of oil, dominance in the Middle East, the well-being of defense contractors -- morph into patriotic values, and seem, all of a sudden, worth the cost in human lives, environmental devastation and even the well-being of future generations.
If there's no such thing as a president who can tell the truth about a fraudulently launched, devastatingly counterproductive military adventure, or speak critically about militarism in general -- because the truth would, oh, bring down the economy -- we have an inadequate system of government, whose fundamental purpose is to resist change and perpetuate itself no matter what.
This is a problem. There may be no way to change such a system from the inside, which was clearly Barack Obama's mandate, as well as his promise, when voters swept him into office, and the world cheered, in 2008.
The mistake the Obama constituency made was to believe that we can leave the details of change up to a designated leader. It's not democracy that's inadequate, but a system of representative government in which only the enormously wealthy, or those who have indentured themselves to moneyed interests, can cross the threshold into leadership positions. In such a system, those who oppose the interests of war and empire can't possibly be represented. It is these interests that declare the Iraq war a success and, in so declaring, lay the groundwork for the next war and the continuation of the military-industrial economy, even in the face of the increasing pointlessness of war.
"Why is war in decline? For one thing, it no longer pays," declared Steven Pinker and Joshua S. Goldstein in an op-ed in the New York Times last week. "For centuries, wars reallocated huge territories, as empires were agglomerated or dismantled and states wiped off the map. But since shortly after World War II, virtually no borders have changed by force, and no member of the United Nations has disappeared through conquest."
Their premise is that, despite appearances to the contrary, history is in the process of declaring war obsolete. This is an achingly slow process, with lots of backsliding, but trust us, they say, wealth now emanates more from trade than the control of land, and war only hurts trade. As prosperity increases and central governments grow stronger, War, the apocalyptic horseman with the human face, rides off into the sunset.
While I agree with their historical assessment, I take issue with their implicit contentment to sit back, enjoy the prosperity, and let large, impersonal social forces do the job of eliminating war. I also disagree that trade itself has no use for war -- not when we have a military-industrial economy that is committed to fresh wars against whomever or whatever looms next as a convenient enemy.
I think we're caught in a paradoxical moment, when history's long arc has indeed begun to swing away from the logic of brutal domination, but those in power still depend on it and seek to perpetuate it under cover of the Big Lie.
I urge the convening of a truth commission that refuses to sit and wait for history. We must have an honest accounting of this war that may have killed as many as a million Iraqis and helped wreck our economy even as it enriched a few powerful profiteers. A disastrous war may be over, but there's no cause for cheering until we free our government from the interests that waged it.