George Orwell, something of a literary hero of mine, wrote in his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’:
I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.
This ‘power of facing’ was arguably his greatest asset as a writer. It must have come in handy whilst he fought his battles against his three great foes. Imperialism; which his rejection of cut any ties he might have had to his family’s old cash cow. Communism; against which he fought his longest and most bitter struggle, remember, nothing is as hate-filled as a Comrade scorned; and Fascism – a disgusting ideology against which he saw fit to grab a rifle and hurl himself against.Central to this ‘power of facing’ is to admit when you have got things wrong. It is difficult, it is humiliating, and it is harder to do the longer you ignore it; But like an elephant in the room, it bears down on you, demanding attention and acting as a dam to your intellect, preventing you from addressing any other issue until the omnipresent pachyderm is dealt with.
We got it wrong. We all got it terribly wrong. All the columnists, pseudo-intellectuals and ‘experts’ who backed the war in
Iraq (I almost said Bushes war, but it was Our war as well) should feel cowed and intimidated by the magnitude of their mistake. It was never going to work, and the true experts said so. All the hubris and self-righteous squawking about the ‘flowering of democracy’ ignored history, ignored evidence and ignored reason.
I am talking here not of the upper echelons of the Bush administration. Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. are old school nationalist Conservatives who never gave a damn about the Iraqi people and had no interest in seeing Iraq become a country for and of its people rather than a state lording it over them. Rumsfeld just wanted to go in and bomb the crap out of a few Arabs. Blow some shit up. Show ‘em who is boss. American Iron, American Steel, American hegemony. Might makes right. Never having been a fan of Bush and Rumsfeld and the rest of the junta and not believing for a minute their bullshit about Weapons of Mass Destruction, I looked elsewhere for justification. My search led me to the writings of Christopher Hitchens, the famous journalist and polemicist. Well spoken, incredibly intelligent and possessed with an acid wit and sharp turn of phrase, Hitchens seemed the ideal advocate for this noble enterprise I was supporting. It helped that the most vocal opponents of the war were the repulsive neo-fascists of RESPECT and their demagogue-in-chief, the slobbering and spitting and drooling George ‘Slug’ Galloway. I had no wish to associate myself with such people. No, instead I would read the work of this gentleman man-of-letters and take my position alongside him accordingly. (Incidentally, for those who think Hitchens is as boorish and rude as Galloway, remember this phrase: ‘a gentleman is never rude except on purpose’.) Hitchens’ polemics in favour of regime change were convincing and his essays about the plight of the Kurds and the brutality of Saddam had me enthusiastically signing up for his removal. So on it went for several years afterwards. As things rapidly deteriorated in Iraq I read more and more pro-war literature in a desperate effort to shore up my rapidly declining confidence in the whole adventure. Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Nick Cohen. Even Tony Blair, a man who I respect and admire as Prime Minister, had a lot of stirring rhetoric to deliver about Freedom and democracy and all the rest of it. The blogsphere also made its contribution – Harry’s Place, Normblog and Oliver Kamm were all articulate and effective proponents of the war. Andrew Sullivan in America also had much to say about Iraq that I found inspiring and persuasive.But they were all wrong. As was I. It was never going to work. The thinkers who supported the war should have realized several things.
1. Saying ‘You go to war with the President you have’ represents a gross refusal to face reality. The fact was, Bush was President and Rumsfeld was Defence Secretary and the war was designed and carried out by them. Wanting to see the end of Saddam was the only moral position to take, but to then ignore all other factors when someone proposes to remove him represents a sacrifice of reason and a profound lapse in judgment. Bush was not the President to do it. The time was not right. What was the right time? Not then, not now, not with the Junta in charge.
2. For a while I thought that sending more troops was the answer. Supporters of the war (once again, I include myself amongst them) dodged their own culpability by throwing out the charge of incompetence at the Administration. Of course, this charge is completely true, but it came too late. We should have been saying it before the war started. We should have realised that the Junta had no interest in doing the right thing. We should have doubted. Many of us did, but we thought we would give it a shot anyway. We dealt in possibilities, in what might happen and wishful thinking overtook us. We looked at the successful society that surrounds us and expected others to rush to build it straight away. They would understand that we were there to help them. Ours was the language of hopes, dreams and vagueness. Orwell spoke of the danger of such thinking in his Politics and the English Language:
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia
Undoubtedly many were sincere in their wish to see the Iraqis succeed, but as things spiraled into the abyss we started muttering increasingly meaningless phrases such as ‘staying the course’ and ‘no cutting and running’ with no thought as to what they meant. Our euphemisms were resulting in people being killed. Our idealism had already cost the lives of thousands upon thousands.
There is seldom something as dangerous as a zealous idealist infected with a sense of ‘destiny’. History is littered with examples of tragedies being wrought by those who had ostensibly noble aims. The French and Russian Revolutions are perhaps the two best examples of this. Hitchens is perhaps the worst offender here. So convinced is he that his cause is right and his fight just, that he sweeps under the carpet the death and destruction the war in Iraq has sparked. His ideological fervour is something that I do not share, having never been a revolutionary Marxist. His belief that America under Bush has become a Jeffersonian-Thomas Paine-esque ‘Empire for democracy’ which spreads freedom with power is flawed. I admire America very much, but it is still a nation-state; and nation states have interests and, no matter how much Hitchens wishes it were so, those interests are not based on any good sense of morality. Kissinger may be an odious man, but he is closer to reality than Hitchens. Being able to change your mind is a very precious thing. I was wrong. I turned into an idealist, perhaps even an ideologue. A better appreciation of the limits of my own judgement and of the ability of government to effect change in such a drastic way in a part of the world we little understood would have resulted in a more reality-based position.
-posted by Adam