Wednesday, March 19
Five years ago today.
I've made it sort of a tradition at this and the last blog that I did to link back, every year on this day, to the original post I wrote (for a blog that's no longer in existence) the day after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in 2003. That post, along with the blog that carried it, has disappeared, but this being the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, I figure it's as good a time as any to recount that day from scratch.
Incidentally, the weekend before the war started, I got up at midnight and drove 11 hours all Saturday morning up to Washington to participate in an anti-war protest. It was an amazing day -- reports said anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people showed up to march from the Washington Monument around the White House and back -- and at the time I remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, we really might have been able to make a statement and convince somebody in the halls of power to pull back from the brink of war with Iraq.
That was pure naivete, of course, but honestly, it wasn't the stereotypical naivete of the protestor who thinks he's going to change someone's mind just by holding up a certain sign or marching down a certain street. It was the naivete of an American of 25 years who had been taught to believe that our country wouldn't go to war just for the hell of it, that we'd actually need a serious rationale and concrete evidence of an imminent threat to order the wholesale invasion of a sovereign country. Unfortunately, even as I headed back down I-66 toward home the very next day, reports from the emergency summit held by the Allied powers in the Azores indicated that maybe we weren't that kind of country any longer. Two days later, as I walked home from a Wednesday-night church service, those fears were confirmed.
By midday Wednesday, we all pretty much knew what was coming, so in the intercessional of that church service, Father Frank started one prayer with, "For the innocent people in Iraq, who are -- " And I remember very distinctly the catch in his voice that followed, almost as if he himself couldn't believe what he was saying. He ended it with, " -- preparing to be bombed, let us pray . . . " And at that point I realized I was crying, a grown man shedding actual tears in a church, over both the innocent Iraqi civilians who were about to die and the country that would soon have their blood on its hands. I had been dreading for days the start of military operations against Iraq, but for the first time someone had articulated in explicit terms the true shame of what that was going to entail. And I cried.
And as I walked home that evening, the thing that struck me most was just how unaffected everybody seemed -- cars drove down 20th Street with their windows down and music playing; people still ate and drank and laughed outside Dave's Pub and Ruby Tuesday. You would never have known that a war was starting, one in which the United States -- for the first time in its history -- was firing the first shot. That street scene was emblematic of just how casually we as an entire country were approaching this war, not just the citizens but the leaders running the show from the Pentagon and the White House. They thought this would be an easy mop-up of a crippled dictatorship, and the rest of us, perhaps hoping that a quick-'n'-easy invasion would assuage the magnitude of what we'd done, followed their example.
Five years later, of course, we know better -- well, a substantial majority of us do. In the most recent poll concerning Iraq, two out of three people said they opposed the war; barely one-third of respondents said the situation in Iraq back in 2003 was worth going to war over. More than seven in ten saw a connection between massive U.S. spending on the war effort and the flagging economy. It's taken us a while to learn the lesson of just how seriously war has to be taken, but many of us have learned it.
Unfortunately, some have not, and the three remaining presidential candidates represent a fairly wide spectrum of opinion in that regard. You've got Obama, who opposed the war when it started and continues to oppose it now; you've got Clinton, who was for the war in the beginning, now wants to bring it to a swift end, but hasn't been entirely convincing when talking about how she would act if a similar situation presented itself again; and then you've got McCain, who was for the war in the beginning, is still for it, and apparently would do it all over again the exact same way if he had to.
Perhaps knowing that his earlier vote on the war authorization puts him in conflict with a growing majority of the American public, McCain has said that the 2008 election shouldn't be about a vote that happened nearly six years ago. To some extent he's right; we're in Iraq now, we can't go back and change that, the focus now should be on what we do in Iraq (and the entire Middle East) going forward, and basing the entire election on a litmus test of what one did or didn't do in 2002 doesn't aid that.
So contrary to what a lot of people might assume, my vote in this year's election isn't going to be based on the war-authorization vote that took place six years ago. It's going to be based on whether a given candidate, like two-thirds of the American people, have learned anything from the past five years. Obama has; Clinton has, to some extent; McCain, unfortunately, has not.
We're occupying a country where the people don't want us around and where we really never should have been to begin with, and McCain says he's prepared to keep us there another 100 years. We're stretched thin by trying to manage major military operations in two separate countries, and McCain seems fully prepared to launch us into a third -- and he appears to be no less uninformed or flippant about it than so many of us were about Iraq five years ago. It is a sad irony that the only one of the three candidates to have actually experienced war firsthand seems to have learned the least about the magnitude of its dire effects on the nations involved.
And learning from one's mistakes is all I'm asking for. I don't care whether Hillary Clinton or John McCain ever apologize for their original votes on the war authorization; all I ask is for some acknowledgment that they've grown wiser in the six years since, so that we won't be repeating that history anytime soon. And more than anything else, I want to have some kind of confidence that I won't be bringing up my children or grandchildren in the kind of country that looks for reasons to start wars, as opposed to reasons to keep them from happening.
Because war represents a lot of things, but most of all, it represents a failure -- a failure on the part of the world's most powerful people to heed the most basic instruction God ever gave us: To love one another, even the people we hold up as our enemies. Sometimes that's a failure on the part of only one side in a conflict, sometimes it's both. And yes, sometimes a war has to happen. But the only way we're going to be able to move this country forward from the embarrassment and heartbreak of the last five years is to find leaders who can tell the difference between the wars that have to happen and the wars that don't.
A large part of this nation seems to have learned to be able to tell that difference -- maybe even some of the people who were out drinking and laughing in Five Points on March 19, 2003. They deserve nothing less than leaders who can do the same.