A Known and Unknown WarRoundup
tags: Iraq War, militarism
Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.
No war is inevitable, but I remember thinking the Iraq War would be the first.
In 2002, the George W. Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq. They searched for specious evidence and dubious actors to (falsely) prove that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they pushed hawkish views and fear-mongered about a “mushroom cloud” onto the American public to get public opinion behind the war, they relied on a sympathetic media and sheepish Democrats who capitulated to Bush for concern of being labeled “soft on terror,” they moved headlong into war plans that failed to account for how democracy in Iraq would spring forth from a protracted occupation. The largest anti-war demonstrations in history, numbering between six and ten million during protests in early 2003, failed to stop a fait accompli; dissenting voices went unheeded; the sizable public opposition (almost 43 percent of Americans at one point) to the invasion failed to alter the course of the war—it was never given a chance to succeed.1
I was 22 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, when I watched the war move from an abstract possibility to a slow-moving, predetermined reality. I was young, and did not yet know what the war would do to me. For those who don’t remember the war, or didn’t live through it—including many of my students—it is hard to convey the bizarre, immobilizing, disorienting time after 9/11. The feeling of overwhelming helplessness, a feeling that made me question the rationality of my world, was all very new to me. Everything seemed so sudden and fatal.
I tried to do something about it. I meandered toward a political identity after the September 11th attacks. I simply did not buy Bush’s line in his September 20th, 2001 speech to Congress that terrorists attacked us because “they hate our freedoms.”2 That line from Bush’s speech is forever seared into my memory. Islamophobia invigorated our foreign and domestic policies, and I was disturbed that the Bush administration could curtail democracy at home in the name of “freedom” abroad with impunity. I tried to make sense of my times. I started reading the New York Times daily—I soon added the Wall Street Journal, Guardian, and Financial Times for balance. I purchased a subscription to The Nation, a magazine that openly opposed the war. I started reading books on U.S. politics and the history of American foreign policy. The more I read, the more informed I was, the angrier I became that the Iraq War was going to, had to happen.
After the invasion, I remember how my anger motivated a lukewarm enthusiasm for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential candidacy. Maybe Kerry could stop Bush and reverse course in Iraq. Maybe I donated money to Kerry’s campaign, I don’t recall. I donated more than enough attention to it that I do know. Kerry’s loss only deepened my hopelessness about the war. Before his electoral defeat, the U.S. had learned of the torture at Abu Ghraib and witnessed the largest battles since the Vietnam War as armed forces fought to retake Fallujah. Shortly into Bush’s second term, the poor planning beyond faith in democratic capitalism spurred massive sectarian violence. By 2007, the year of the “surge,” I was in graduate school getting a PhD in History—I planned to write a dissertation about the United States’ exorbitant military power since the Cold War and why American democracy failed to resist it. If I couldn’t change my circumstances, I could find out where they came from.3
Now, twenty years later, I am living through the making of the Iraq War as history. I’m seeing how historical memory is codified, how the creation of public memory works against the preservation of my own. My formative political experience is subjected to retrospective analysis, to unwitting, external complication.