A user in my previous post brought up the similarities between the Russo-Ukrainian War and the U.S. Invasion of Iraq in 2003. I agree that both involve the acquisition and spending of political currency by Putler and Bush, respectively. However, I also encountered this notion – not for the first time – that the U.S. public supported invasion similar to the Russian public supporting its own invasion. But was this the case? Did Iraq get invaded at the behest of a warmongering leadership AND a public bent on violence?
I don’t remember it like that.
As an American citizen who visits views outside his own country, I often am struck by how different my country makes itself look to outsiders. Based on published media alone, my country appears to be filled with gun-toting, hyper-Christian, mouth-breathing dumbasses who can’t find the countries they hate on a map. It’s easy to think that because cameras capture so many people saying such terrible things, my country has to be filled with them.
The truth of the matter is that more reasonable Americans tend to drown them out as background noise. Better yet, just don’t actively look for their opinions (something difficult in an age of Internet media). Either way, noisy people might get attention of people selling their antics as content, but they don’t always reflect what everyone else says or thinks.
Back in 2003, I was still in college. As Bush started lying to the public about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, I distinctly remember that nobody I knew really talked about it much. I never heard anyone gloat over how Iraq was going to get what was coming to it. Most people either dismissed the affair as the rich trying to get more oil, or a son trying to avenge the attempted assassination of his father (see § II, note also the Clintonian response of launching a cruise missile).
To be fair, I was in college. Most of my peers were more worried about parties and classes than in geopolitical maneuverings. But even when the subject of Iraq came up, most people just shrugged. What could anyone do about it?
Is public apathy the same as permission?
History loves a good narrative. It’s more memorable to have an American public that actively wanted to invade Iraq. Such a public can be criticized, belittled, and held up as a terrible example.
An apathetic electorate that accepted it couldn’t do anything to stop a war from starting? That’s more troubling. It means that the public didn’t actually support an armed invasion. It means that the public accepted its government would commit acts of violence despite its own wishes. And it also means that, despite polls showing a majority in favor of going to war, the public hadn’t made any of its real wishes known.
Take the poll results recorded on Wikipedia above, for example. Support spiked after a trustworthy person in government (Colin Powell, not George Bush) reported on possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And when support was lower for the war, that slim majority rested on the idea that the U.N. needed to do something first.
Still, the public didn’t do much in the ensuing elections to let its disfavor be known. The Republicans didn’t suffer any major defeats the following year. It wouldn’t be until 2006, with other factors pushing things in its favor, that opposition to war would get a stronger voice in government. And yes, even despite that, the U.S. wouldn’t end its wars for years to come.
So why did Iraq happen?
I think historians are going to have a rough time of this. A bunch of reasons were given at the time, from oil, to revenge, to feeding the military-industrial complex. Nobody knows, except for people who could still be indicted domestically for war crimes. Until they start disclosing what they thought, all anyone has is the fact that a war started on the whims of people entrusted with power.
And maybe that’s an uncomfortable fact. Every day in elected republics, people trust the ability to kill and destroy in the hands of people they’ve never met. That trust can be abused. And it can be abused in such a way that it would upset established social power structures if it ever changed.
In that light, conflict seems to reside on the intangible nature of human perception. There’s no concrete answer of, “If enough people believe it, it is real.” Fighting against such invisible monsters is difficult, to say the least. But they must be fought.
One last aside, though. On a personal level, the question of Iraq is important to me because my little brother had to be stationed there for a tour of duty. His life was put at jeopardy because of what Bush did. In a sense, Bush’s actions to invade Iraq placed his own intangible interests above the life and well-being of my brother. He made it back okay. Lots of other people didn’t. It’s shameful that I and other people don’t have a more concrete accounting for why this happened.
If the world was just and fair, I would know why my brother had to be risked. Was it for cheaper gas? I’d rather pay an extra nickel per gallon and have everyone home and safe. Was it to allow a direct U.S. presence in the area? Well, we’re not there anymore.
The sad thing is, even if it was a completely bullshit reason to invade another country and waste trillions of dollars, nobody will know until it is far too late to stop it from happening again.