Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

How Did This Happen? A Reflection Upon War And Civic Education

As I write, Iraq is falling. Most of the north of that country has fallen into the hands of insurgents. Whether Baghdad will fall, how the United States will react, these and many other questions are being decided as I write. That the United States has, once again, wasted lives, time and treasure, this is not a question.

How did this happen? Perhaps this is the most important question we are not asking.

Of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11, fifteen were Saudi Arabians, two were from the Emirates, one was Lebanese, and one was from Egypt. Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed , two of the masterminds of 9/11, were from Kuwait. And, of course, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian. So the United States invaded Iraq, right?

How did this happen?

Oh, yea, and we needed to invade Iraq because Iraq had all those weapons of mass destruction, right? Because Iraq had ties to al-Qaeda, right?

A committee in the House of Representatives in 2004 identified “237 misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq that were made by President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell, and National Security Advisor Rice.” That’s 125 appearances consisting of 40 speeches, 26 press conferences and briefings, 53 interviews, four written statements, and two congressional testimonies, all this within months of 9/11. According to that committee, at least 61 separate statements “misrepresented Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda.” In general, these statements were qualitatively similar to this assertion, made before Congress on 18 September 2002, by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons. [Saddam Hussein’s] regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons — including VX, sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas. … His regime has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of biological weapons—including anthrax and botulism toxin, and possibly smallpox.” On 7 October 2002, President Bush said, “The Iraqi regime . . . possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. We know that the regime has produced thousands of tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas.”

On 6 July 2003, Joseph Wilson published, in The New York Times, an op-ed entitled “What I Did Not Find In Africa”. That article, combined with the scandal that followed, Plamegate, which involved the firing of his wife, Valerie Plame, from the C. I. A., made clear to the nation, to put it simply, that Iraq posed no threat to the United States and its allies.

The lesson here is worth repeating. Following the publication of Joseph Wilson’s article, from that date on, 6 July 2003, it was clear to the nation that Iraq posed no security threat to the U. S. or our allies. Yet men and women died in Iraq. How did this happen?

It is, at present, very easy for the left to blame the right, for the right to blame the left. The problem with this blaming, the problem with this shaming, is that we learn little to nothing from shaming and blaming. So where do we start.
Where we need to start is with mourning the dead. Then we need to mourn our collective inability to reflect.

Not long ago, while I was watching “The Newshour” on P. B. S., I once again paused for that moment when, in silence, they show names and pictures of those who recently died in Iraq. I have grown accustomed to those often stern poses of young folks in uniforms. But sometimes, when the military photo is not available, there is a picture of this kid at a ball game or at a party or some such. But nothing quite prepared me for one photo. A Private First Class in her wedding dress.
Thus the greatest lie of any war – that because “the enemy” has a different language, a different religion, different race, that they are nothing like us. That “the enemy” is never just a kid. That “the enemy”” never wears a wedding dress.

How did this happen?

First, we objectify that person, “the enemy”.

Second, we fail to listen. As just one example, considerable doubts, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, were evident from the beginning.

How did this happen? In many ways, this is an educational problem. And I don’t mean that we need to teach more civics in high school. I mean that, as citizens, we need to take our high school civics lessons, and continue. Our democratic dialogue presumes an informed electorate. It is disturbing, for example, that more folks learn civics from “The Colbert Report” than, say, The New York Times. A recently published study, “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson”, is based on a survey of 1,232 folks. Watching “The Colbert Report” significantly increased the respondent’s actual knowledge of politics. This it did at a greater rate than other news sources. And to think that, in the 1980’s, a friend used to deride what he called someone’s “Time magazine understanding of the world.”

How did this happen? It happened because we let it happen. It happen because we allowed ourselves to see 19 year old Iraqi soldiers as godless terrorists. It happened because the nation linked 9/11 to Iraq, despite the fact that no Iraqis were involved. It happened because we wanted to believe, published evidence notwithstanding, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. It happened because, in a nation based upon an informed electorate, we refuse to reflect, to ask, quite simply, how did this happen?

— by John Samuel Tieman

This essay was written for Vox Populi.

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