Today, we are in the throes of another long national nightmare that shows little sign of ending soon. It is called the Iraq War, an unnecessary enterprise poorly executed. The result may well be that we are creating a Shiite state in Iraq, one that will ally itself with Iran, which is no friend of American interests. (Who knows, perhaps one day a strongman will emerge in Iraq, perhaps a mullah with dreams of building nuclear weapons against the infidels.) At the very least we have created a base camp for terrorists where there was none before.
It is a nightmare because it didn’t have to happen, and it is not over because whatever will eventually play out in Iraq is only in the middle -- or perhaps even still the early -- stages.
I smelled a rat from the beginning. Like Jerry Ford, who asked that Bob Woodward shield his true feelings about Iraq until after his death, I saw no justification for this war. It seemed precipitous, wrong-headed, unnecessary, avoidable. I know enough about war and politics and history to know that sometimes wars must be fought, and I count among these the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and get Bin Laden. Like almost every other American, I was with George W. Bush up to that point.
But I have also read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about how the eminently avoidable World War I came to be, and I lived through Vietnam, and so I know when nations make errors in judgment, when leaders are wrong -- when, unlike the case of Jerry Ford, a people are saddled with a head of state who is not the right man (or woman) for the time. What we have in the White House now is an individual whose talents are better suited to being a county commissioner than leader of the Free World. Sometime in 2002, as Bush began to listen to Dick Cheney and his neoconservative pals, and as he began to believe that God had anointed him for this task, the president -- never a student of history -- quite simply lost it.
And so I stood in the rain in March 2003, along with 150 other people, to protest on the eve of the war at an intersection in this small town of ours. We carried candles, and we shielded them from the moisture and the wind. We had many honks of support from passing cars and also a number of hecklers. I have participated in more vigils against the war since, and as time has gone on passersby have honked more and waved more and a cop even briefly flipped on his siren on for us. Last time I was out, no one gave us the finger or yelled about how we were supporting Saddam Hussein.
And part of this nightmare is the feeling of sickness, of sadness, of dread for our troops, our precious young people who have been killed and maimed and scarred in this enterprise -- let alone the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have suffered similar fates. And for those yet to be sent, yet to die, yet to suffer in this madness. It is one thing to play dress-up soldier, another thing to be one in the line of fire. Tim Russert of NBC interviewed a reporter Saturday who spoke to his sources in the Bush Administration and they said what I think we all know: Many of those around Bush, perhaps even the man himself, doubt that his new escalation of the war has all that much chance of working. Maybe -- had Bush listened to Colin Powell rather than Donald Rumsfeld, had he committed overwhelming force at the start and followed up by keeping Jay Garner in charge and not replacing him with Paul Bremer -- maybe, just maybe, it might have worked. But that ship has sailed on the sea of incompetence and naiveté and arrogance that is the Bush Administration.
And now the “surge,” or as Condi Rice calls it, the “augmentation.” The English language, too, is a casualty of war, along with the truth. We do not know for sure what will happen in the coming months, but George W. Bush will do one thing, of that I am certain: He will hand this mess to his successor so that he doesn’t have to face up to the long national nightmare he has set in motion for all of us. Another imperial figure said it long ago: Apres moi, le deluge.
And what of his successor? I have little respect for those who supported the Iraq war resolution. Politics trumped patriotism for many of them, especially the Democrats. Did John Kerry and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton vote “yes” because they believed “yes,” or because they believed it was politically expedient, the popular choice, the right thing to further their careers? And what of the Republicans -- traditionally the party that supposedly likes to avoid foreign entanglements. Did any stand up? Did any bother to demonstrate independence of thought? One gathers that George Bush the Elder may have had his doubts; one knows that Jerry Ford did. People who knew them say that neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan would have followed the course of Bush the Lesser.
There were a few lonely voices against the war resolution. I remember Robert Byrd, the aging senator from West Virginia, giving long, eloquent talks on the Senate floor, virtually alone in that chamber. He spoke about the meaning of the Constitution, holding a copy of that document in his hand, a prop ignored by those too busy renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries.” Byrd’s voice quavered but his arguments were solid, yet most did not listen.
And I remember Al Gore speaking against the war -- Al Gore, the people's choice in the election of 2000. In The Guns of August and later in The March of Folly, Tuchman demonstrates brilliantly that an accident of history -- be it the assassination of an archduke, or one vote on the US Supreme Court -- is sometimes all it takes to turn the world on its head.
Sometimes I think I will awaken from this nightmare, that the right man will be in the White House, that there is no war in Iraq, that the shared sacrifice President Gore called upon all of us to make after 9-11 is resulting in progress on energy independence (and against global warming), that the wise and skillful use of a nation’s blood and honor has captured Bin Laden, dealt mortal blows to terror, and left us with hope after all. That there is no national nightmare, that it was all a bad dream.
And then I turn on the TV news and I want to cry.