Lying and Deception in the Iraq War – and Today

pic-arendt2
Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand (Arendt Center, Bard College)

W.J. Astore

(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers.  For part 1, click here.)

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war.  Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004.  The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable.  In Rove’s words:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003).  Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development.  These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion.  That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to  “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004.  In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.

Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces.  Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate.  Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier.  Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.

Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed.  Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded.  Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.

Lying and Self-Deception Today

How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today?  Consider the war in Afghanistan.  Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground.  The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable.  Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.

Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops.  Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread.  Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003.  More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.

Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war.  Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.

Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation.  Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism).  It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons.  So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory.  Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.

One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths.  Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.

More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics.  But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.

Do We Learn Anything from History?

Worthless?
Worthless?

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.