Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Consequences Day: A Modest Proposal for the 19th of March

The U.S. has a number of important civic holidays: Veterans Day (equivalent to the British Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Labor Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and of course, Independence Day. In the past twelve years, a new de facto patriotic holiday has also emerged -- September 11 Day.

Some of these holidays tend to emphasize straightforward patriotism, while holidays like Labor Day and MLK Day tend to provoke internal reflection regarding the injustices in American history.

I think we need a new holiday (or perhaps an anti-holiday) in the spirit of MLK Day and Labor Day: a day to memorialize the tremendous folly, waste, and injustice of the second Iraq War, which began on March 19 2003 -- ten years ago to the day. For readers who have forgotten about this long burning corner of horror, Juan Cole has a helpful set of reminders, with a post called "What We Lost: the 10 Ways the Iraq War Harmed the U.S." I highly recommend it.

I would call my proposed day of remembrance (it is not quite right to call it a holiday) Consequences Day. Here is what I have in mind for Consequences Day:

1. We need a Consequences Day first and foremost because the United States started a war on spurious grounds, and against the advice of friends and allies, and now has to pay for it. We are still dealing with and paying for the Consequences. (And we are still seeing those Consequences in the headlines of the news -- if we choose to notice them. Fifty people were killed in bombings in Baghdad today.)

President George W. Bush and his team have never publicly addressed the consequences of their actions. Bush is now retired and apparently spends his time painting dogs. I do not think there is any mechanism for any of these people to ever come forward and acknowledge their failures and their mistakes; I wish there were. At the very least, I hope their retirement is troubled from time to time by reminders of what they did -- the questioning of the occasional disabled veteran, for example.

2. We need a Consequences Day because the U.S. invaded a country without any sort of plan for following up after the initial invasion component was completed. As Cole points out, and many others have stated, the U.S. did not have very deep knowledge of the country it took charge of in 2003, and indeed had actively excluded some of its most knowledgeable people from participating in the rebuilding of Iraq. Waste and mismanagement ensued, followed by a protracted and bloody insurgency (or Civil War) that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead and hundreds of thousands permanently displaced.

Americans have been paying financially for the Consequences of this war, and will continue to pay for it for generations -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. The Iraqis, for their part, have had to pay for it by having a broken country (see more about that at another Juan Cole post: "What We Did to Iraq").

3. We need a Consequences Day because many political figures (especially in the U.S. Senate) and social institutions (the New York Times, along with a huge swath of the journalistic establishment outside the Times) who might have questioned the build-up to the war, including the very vague and questionable evidence that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, failed to ask the right questions or say "no" when they had the chance.

For the people who failed to say no, Consequences Day needs to be a time to think about how we handle decision-making and how we approach dissent. A number of Democrats in the Senate, for example, clearly made the calculation that voting against the war would be a political loser. The consequence ought to be that they are forced to see the error of their ways. Similarly, many important writers and journalists (two who stand out in my mind are Fareed Zakaria and Salman Rushdie) signed off on Bush's war; I want them to address the consequences of that support.

Surely, many people who supported the war did so because they were "freaked" by the seeming political paradigm-shift represented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For them Consequences Day should be a reminder that tragedies can multiply themselves if we don't respond to them appropriately and dispassionately. Instead of remaining focused on solving security issues raised by 9/11, we created an entirely new tragedy which has cost more in American lives (4000 soldiers have been killed, and tens of thousands more have been rendered disabled) than were killed on 9/11.

Every American is crystal-clear on what happened on 9/11, but many, if not most, are pretty fuzzy about the fallout from the Iraq War. We need a Consequences Day to rectify that.

One writer who clearly has accepted the Consequences of supporting the Iraq War is Andrew Sullivan, for whom the war was such an epochal catastrophe that it has effectively reversed his political orientation. I am not clear why this hasn't also happened for others. Admittedly, some (one thinks of Tom Friedman) are just too callow and complacent to really even be aware of how their support for the Iraq War has damaged their credibility. (Clearly, between Andrew Sullivan and Juan Cole, bloggers come off much better than institutionally supported journalists when it comes to accountability and the ability to see the truth in front of our noses.)

4. We need a Consequences Day to reflect on the many abuses of human rights conducted by American soldiers and intelligence agencies during this war, and the War on Terror more broadly. American soldiers treated prisoners unspeakably at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA widely used torture at facilities like Guantanamo (but not just Guantanamo). The rest of the world knows that now, so that too has consequences: any American efforts to compel other countries to check the use of torture against detainees will in effect be stillborn until there is some sort of accountability for this.

Consequences Day in, short, is intended as a day of reflection and self-criticism -- borrowing something from the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (the day of "Atonement"). It would be a day for Americans to stop and take stock of and collectively grapple with the results of this large national failure. While some of it can be pinned on a few terrible public officials who engineered the catastrophe (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld), or to a larger number who assented and were complicit (Rice and Powell, but also John Kerry and Hillary Clinton), in truth the failures of the Iraq War also point to broader structural and social failures that apply in some ways to all of us. How can we do better as a society -- to try and ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?

Not the cheeriest of commemorations, to be sure. But unlike some other civic holidays, a day to focus on the Consequences of our mistakes might actually help us avoid repeating them.

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