By Jeff Rosenzweig
The history students of the future will someday turn their attention to the Iraq War. Squinting at transcripts, perusing thousands of op-eds, reviewing ancient video footage and listening to countless hours of audio, our future historians will learn that the America of the early 21st century was a confused and confusing country. What conclusions will they draw? Will future historians see the Iraq War as a watershed moment of American heroism in a fight against ineffable evil? Will the heroes of the conflict be recognizable in the thickets of historical data?
Though the honor roll of Iraq War heroes is ultimately for history to name, we can already posit some of the probable inclusions.
Consider, first, Senator Robert Byrd (D – West Virginia). Speaking on the floor of the Senate on March 19, 2003, he stated, "The case this Administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice."
On May 21, in the same august forum, he said, "When it comes to shedding American blood - when it comes to wreaking havoc on civilians, on innocent men, women, and children, callous dissembling is not acceptable. Nothing is worth that kind of lie - not oil, not revenge, not reelection, not somebody's grand pipedream of a democratic domino theory".
And on June 5, the Senator noted, "Saddam Hussein is missing. Osama bin Laden is missing. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are missing. And the President's mild claims that we are 'on the look' do not comfort me. There ought to be an army of UN inspectors combing the countryside in Iraq or searching for evidence of disbursement of these weapons right now. Why are we waiting? Is there fear of the unknown? Or fear of the truth?"
On April 2, 2003, presidential candidate Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D – Ohio) demanded on the House floor, "Stop this war now. It is wrong. It is illegal. It is unjust and it will come to no good for this country. Stop this war now. Show our wisdom and our humanity, to be able to stop it, to bring back the United Nations into the process. Rescue this moment. Rescue this nation from a war that is wrong, that is unjust, that is immoral. Stop this war now."
Quoted by Associated Press reporter Christopher Graff on April 13, 2003, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean told a Manhattan gathering, "I didn't support the president in Iraq and I am not ashamed… We are not obligated to support the president's policy because this is not Iraq. This is the United States of America and dissent is patriotic."
Our future historians will discover that some of the heroes of the Iraq War took the occasion to address broader issues, issues at the heart of Americans' sense of self.
Speaking to Elizabeth DiNovella of The Progressive on May 2, 2003, the activist, actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo said, "I've always been alarmed by some of the things that the mainstream media does and by what the government does, no matter who's in office, but the broken heart is new." Asked whether her antiwar stance was brave, Ms. Garofalo asked rhetorically, "What's brave about it? There's nothing brave in saying, 'Hey, I don't think this is right.' There's nothing brave about saying, 'I feel we are not functioning under a true democracy, I feel like we are being manipulated.' That's not brave, that's common sense."
Critic and writer Roger Ebert commented to Progressive Radio's Matthew Rothschild on March 30, 2003, "I begin to feel like I was in the last generation of Americans who took a civics class. I begin to feel like most Americans don't understand the First Amendment, don't understand the idea of freedom of speech, and don't understand that it's the responsibility of the citizen to speak out."
Addressing the National Press Club in Washington on April 15, 2003, actor/director Tim Robbins summed up America this way: "…we have seen our democracy compromised by fear and hatred. Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home have been quickly compromised in a climate of fear. A unified American public has grown bitterly divided, and a world population that had profound sympathy and support for us has grown contemptuous and distrustful, viewing us as we once viewed the Soviet Union, as a rogue state".
Teacher and writer Jill Nelson wrote on MSNBC.com on May 3, 2003 that she feared the United States government more than she feared terrorists. Her sorrow and anger palpable, she wrote, "Today, I live in an America that makes my stomach hurt and fills me with terror. A nation run by greedy, frightened, violent bullies. It is time to take our country back before it is too late."
These heroic words, and many others, will stand in marked contrast to the shameful words and deeds of the evil-doers who betrayed their nation and substituted self-interested cant for selfless patriotism. Just as every war has its heroes, every war has its villains.
Combing through the archives of the National Review Online, our future history buffs will discover Ann Coulter, whose contribution to the national debate in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 consisted of the following prescription for the entire Arab world: "… invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity".
They will discover Richard Perle, member and former chair of the Defense Policy Board, who rhapsodized, "This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq... this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war... our children will sing great songs about us years from now." Our history students of tomorrow won't find any record of children singing songs about Richard Perle, but thorough researchers will discover Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft and Paul Wolfowitz and Tom Ridge and Mr. Bush's own little Rainbow Coalition, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell.
They'll pore over a document produced by a right-wing cabal called the Project for a New American Century, which advocated – a year prior to September 11, 2001 – that the United States bulk up its military and start to throw its muscle around, an undertaking that "… is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor".
Finally, tomorrow's historians will come to George Walker Bush, the failed oilman and appointed president. Parsing Mr. Bush's record of Iraq War prevarication will be the easiest task our future historians will face. After all, the extant historical record already testifies to his breezy approach to facts and his limitless ability to contradict himself. Two days after the worst attack on American civilians in the nation's history, he said, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him." By March 13, 2002, Mr. Bush's thinking had "evolved" to this point: "I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority."
There will be many such Bush contradictions to reconcile. Our future historians will learn that the man who once called himself "a uniter, not a divider" dismissed the largest anti-war protest in human history as a "focus group". On March 18, 2003, Mr. Bush claimed, "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." On May 6, after the draft-dodging Commander-in-Chief had overseen the deaths of 150 Americans and as many as 10,000 Iraqis, he commented, "I'm not surprised if we begin to uncover the weapons program of Saddam Hussein - because he had a weapons program."
Months later, our future historians will learn, Mr. Bush's dutiful minions had discovered two trailers equipped to fill weather balloons, a few barrels of pesticide, part of a centrifuge buried for twelve years under a Baghdad rose garden, and some documents no-one seemed to be in a hurry to decipher.
To really understand the causes of the war, they'll have to read up on Halliburton, a many-tentacled monster of American capitalism-run-amuck formerly run by Mr. Bush's second-in-command Dick Cheney, given an open-ended multi-billion dollar contract to rebuild the country Mr. Bush had just dismantled.
They'll discover that power, water and humanitarian aid were slow in coming, and that the newly-liberated Iraqis expressed their gratitude by killing an average of one American soldier a day for months. Our future scholars will wonder about the accuracy of date references in the historical record when they come to the footage of Mr. Bush trussed up in a flightsuit, waddling across the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare "Mission Accomplished", while body bags filled with dead young Americans were quietly shipped home daily. They'll learn that families of the US dead were reassured by the Pentagon's characterization of the casualties as "militarily insignificant".Here, for now, the historical record ends. There may be other war heroes to examine, heroes who demanded answers, who "spoke truth to power", who determined that the viability of American democracy necessitated the national pain of investigations, inquiries, commissions, even impeachment proceedings. The historians of tomorrow will know with certainty things that we can only anticipate. We must hope they recognize that this tawdry war, like all wars, was a stage on which acts of human courage were played.