On March 9th, 2003, I’d turned 21 years old, and my parents surprised me in my Czech hotel room with a bottle of champagne and a Happy Birthday note. Rather than spend the big 2-1 as Americans are supposed to - getting shikkored at an American bar (there’d be plenty of opportunities for that later...), I spent my birthday jetlagged from a flight to Prague. I went on a Spring Break trip sponsored by the American University Honors Program, a program to which I’d been accepted by the skin of my teeth. Just six months before I'd been in the Learning Disabled program, and the Honors Program had already rejected me once before.
That week in Prague was one of the most bizarre weeks of my life. It began with the Honors Program director insisting on buying me six Czech beers on my birthday when I was already too jetlagged to walk. It ended with my refusal to go with the rest of the program to the Terezinstadt concentration camp - to this day, I’ve never been to a Nazi camp. Nevertheless,I spent that week in what might be the most beautiful city I’ve ever encountered (Jerusalem, Odessa, Florence, Nice, Sienna, Avignon, Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, Boston, London, and yes... DC, are other candidates). For all that week's bizarreness, I heard performances of Mozart’s Requiem, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte in a single week, I encountered the joys of Becherovka (and the agonies of Slivovitz), I tasted the deliciousness of goulash and dumplings, drank what’s still the best beer I’ve ever had, and had my first awakening that Europe was a living, breathing place and not the entombed monument of my dreams. There were lots of frustrations on that trip, but in my memory, it will always be the first taste of my adult life at feeling successful.
One day after our return, the US went into Iraq. It was a red-letter day in American history for everybody, but I didn't just experience this at just any place. This was a day to be experienced at AU.
American University. The most political school in America, perhaps in the entire world. Not a school where ultra privileged children went to grandstand before they ran for office, but a university for students who were obsessively passionate about politics. The university, the best of the university anyway, comprised itself of men and women who lived and breathed the subject as others do sports or music.
And on that day ten years ago, a knife could slice the tension into a million, zillion parts. I remember walking on the quad in the early afternoon. Hardly a single person could be seen from its center. Everybody was glued to the television, everybody was uneasy, everybody was anticipating the explosion of demonstrations guaranteed to occur from both sides. The campus was rife with the tension that everybody knew would shortly arrive. But our anxieties were far more global. We also knew that for better or worse, we were entering an entirely new chapter in American History.
Never had the ordeal of change felt so palpably like what it is. Was America about show the world it was truly invincible - able to win a war and a peace with minimal forces and minimal backing from allies? Or did America just let slip the dogs of World War III?
The answer, of course, was neither. Yes, the Iraq War was a disaster, but it was a minor disaster compared to the apocalypse we’d been warned about from both sides. There were no nuclear weapons and only minimal chemical weapons. Far less chemical weapons were found than were used in either the Iran-Iraq War or against the Kurds.
But nor was Iraq the violent deluge of progressive imaginings. Billions of lives were not lost, and the United States is still a country. It wasn’t even half as bad a disaster as Vietnam. The Vietnam War created a refugee crisis roughly 3 million strong, and it cost approximately 2 million lives - or nearly 4 million if you count the war’s ramifications in neighboring countries. I can’t find reliable totals for the wounded among the North Vietnamese, but 1.5 million South Vietnamese were wounded. Around 58,000 Americans were killed, 2,000 went missing, 300,000 Americans were wounded, and at least 610 Vietnamese were killed in what can only be termed American massacres.
The only way the Iraq War compares to Vietnam is in the number of refugees, for which the UN estimates there are 2.2 million. Reliable estimates put the deaths of the Iraq War at the still horrific total of somewhere between 110-160,000, and I can find no record of the total Iraqi wounded. Roughly 4,500 of those deaths were American, and at least 32,000 American soldiers were wounded. Iraq is not as bad as Vietnam, but it was most certainly a disaster; and unlike Vietnam, a disaster which we caused.
There is no way of knowing how many Iraqis would have died had Saddam Hussein maintained power. Had the Arab Spring spread to a Saddam-controlled Iraq, perhaps he’d have gone the way of Bashar al-Assad and begun massacring whole towns indiscriminately - though knowing Saddam, it would be whole provinces. Or perhaps he might have been another Qaddafi, with comparatively few state sponsored massacres (how weird it feels to write that), and a gargantuan intelligence apparatus ready at the first sign to turn on him. By now, it’s even possible that Iraq without American forces might have become a democracy - perhaps even a relatively functional one considering how much less organized political Islam is in Iraq than in a country like Egypt. It’s also possible that Saddam would have killed another 3 million Iraqis. Or maybe Saddam would have died a natural death, and with his death might come a wholesale collapse of his regime. Perhaps the entire Iraqi military would divide up into factions which cause a civil war that killed half the country.
The Iraq War was grounded in such counterfactuals. It was based upon a the fevered musings of a country grown fat with over-privilege and too little experience of the world’s cruelties. War was not a present reality for us, it was (and is) an abstract. For nearly 140 years, no war occurred on American soil. However bloody America is for certain people, America itself has been the safest place to live in the whole world since the end of the Civil War.
And yes, I was a war supporter, most Americans were. And I was a rather fervent supporter. Self-described liberals who supported the war were extremely common among older Americans, but on a college campus - especially this college campus - they were rare as diamonds. I was interviewed on AU Radio along with a friend of mine as the only self-described liberal students who supported the Iraq War. For the interview, I did my usual spiel, which by then I’d narrowed down to a party trick. The Ba’ath Party was founded in 1943 as a Hitler solidarity movement. The Iraqi population was roughly 25,000,000, of whom Saddam had killed more than 1.2 million. That would be the equivalent of Hitler killing 25,000,000 Europeans in World War II before anyone took action to depose him. Yes, other mass-murderering dictators need to be deposed too, but if the world will be free of democide, we have to start somewhere, and Iraq is the best place. Saddam’s Ba’ath party is a Sunni minority within a Sunni minority which might have collapsed any day, bringing chaos on a level even this invasion has not yet seen. And had Iraq collapsed without an American presence, Turkey, Iran, and Syria may all invade Iraq and go to war with one another in an effort to claim Iraqi territory as their own.
This was my pennance. My beliefs, such as I had, grew ever more radical through high school. On September 12th, I didn’t rejoice, but I was certainly one of the people who repeated the “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” cliche. I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan, and the very idea of the American ethos being morally superior to even Osama bin-Laden filled me with rage. But as I immersed myself ever more in the world of Washington, the contradictions of my beliefs contorted my mind. For smarter or dumber, I was creature enough of my upbringing to believe in spite of my other beliefs that Israel was a true democracy which repeatedly showed good faith in peace talks; while the Arafat government never let go of their goal - vanquishing the Jewish State. And somehow, I kept this belief even in the face of many other radicals shouting at me that I was a racist for believing so. There was a time in my life when I heard about the Holocaust with glazed eyes, as though invoking Hitler was a mere smokescreen to excuse ignorance for genocides of the present. But by college, those glazed eyes would infuriate me. Try as I might, and I tried very hard, I could not let go of the Jew in me. And that little Jew inside me would pull me further to the right than I ever needed to go. I was never a neoconservative, but I was very much a liberal hawk. And like all liberal hawks, I believed that liberalism was betrayed by liberals.
And even if I was wrong, I had a damned good point. Woodrow Wilson displayed democracy as a legitimate third way against dictatorship and monarchy. Franklin Roosevelt beat The Great Depression and the Nazis. The policies of Harry Truman won the Cold War. Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty and Civil Rights. In the years between Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, liberal causes were a vast wasteland of failure. How did liberalism fail so decisively at the very moment when its greatest goals seemed within reach?
Perhaps the backlash was inevitable. Civil Rights legislation delivered generations of Southerners to Republican hands. Meanwhile, Conservative Christians, a mostly dormant force in American politics since William Jennings Bryan, were alarmed by liberal gains on abortion and the triumph of science over religion.
But liberals didn’t make it easy on themselves. The real story of the 1960’s was not the protests, which were very small, or even the race riots, which accelerated the urban decay that would have happened anyway. The true story of The Sixties is how the Republican party exploited these otherwise marginal events in American History to scare voters into changing their loyalties. And while conservatives stole America, liberals fell asleep.