Iraq and the reinvention of reality

The Iraq war is notable not only for journalistic weakness, but for journalistic futility: the futility of fact itself.

Iraq Transitions As U.S. Forces Withdraw After 8-Year Presence
"Ten years after the Iraq war, we continue to live in an era of hysterical panic about invented catastrophes and false reassurances about real catastrophes," writes author [Getty Images]

The worst thing about the Iraq war was not that people got away with lying. It was that they did not – and it did not matter.

The 10th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq was a week of media culpa. Every day a new journalist or pundit came forward to atone for supporting a war predicated on disinformation. “I was excitable and over-reacted,” wrote blogger Andrew Sullivan, explaining why he once argued that no “serious person” doubts Saddam Hussein’s intent to use WMDs with his co-conspirator al-Qaeda. “I owe readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense,” wrote journalist David Ignatius, noting that, in retrospect, it did not.

The media’s failure to question the fallacies of the Bush administration has long been derided – as The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell noted, they have been apologising for years. But while it is right to criticise the media, it is wrong to hold them completely accountable. Plenty of people got Iraq wrong, but plenty of people – experts and ordinary citizens – got it right. The problem was that it made no difference.

“Without evidence, confidence cannot arise,” Hans Blix declared to the United Nations in the run up to the war. He was wrong: confidence, like evidence, could be created. The warnings of Blix, Anthony Zinni, Mohamed ElBaradei, the liberal columnists called out as fifth columnists and the hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world changed nothing. When revelation hit, it was with a sense of helplessness that defined the decade to come. Confidence, like evidence, could be destroyed.

The Iraq war is notable not only for journalistic weakness, but for journalistic futility: the futility of fact itself. Fact could not match the fabrications of power. Eventually, our reality shifted to become what they conceived. “I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me,” wrote Bush speechwriter David Frum.

That was the message of the Iraq war: There is no point in speaking truth to power when power is the only truth.

The flavour of our time

In 2002, Ron Suskind, a reporter for the New York Times, met with an unnamed aide to George W Bush who accused Suskind of being part of the “reality-based community”. The aide meant it as an insult: this was not the way the world worked anymore.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” said the aide, later alleged to be Bush adviser Karl Rove. “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.”

In one sense, this quote seams of a piece with its era – with the entry of truthiness into the dictionary, with the rise of whole industries, like reality TV, built on choreographed sincerity. But while we may associate the “creation of reality” with a wildly hubristic administration, it remains the flavour of our time, a manipulation that moves from crisis to crisis. 

Ten years after the Iraq war, we continue to live in an era of hysterical panic about invented catastrophes and false reassurances about real catastrophes. We laugh bitterly at the “Mission Accomplished” sign raised nearly a decade before the war ended, but the Bush administration did accomplish something. They accomplished the mission of persuading everyday Americans that the unthinkable is normal.

We see remnants of this created reality in the financial crisis – the ongoing “great recession” that, like preemptive war, has transformed what Americans will accept. It is normal for criminal financiers to receive record bonuses in an age marked by austerity, it is normal for professionals to work  years unpaid in the hope of someday landing a job, it is normal for one year of college to cost more than the average median income. This is normal, they say – but if Iraq should have taught us anything, it is how easily and brazenly “normal” can be redefined.

Iraq showed us that the consequences for gross negligence were less than anyone had imagined. This gaping disconnect between people and power, and the public’s resignation to adjusting to injustices rather than challenging them, has shaped the post-war era. If Iraq was launched on the illusion of invincibility, the financial crisis is abetted by the acceptance of powerlessness.

We lost accountability

On March 18, 2013, Tomas Young, a soldier who was paralysed fighting in the Iraq war, published a letter from his deathbed:

“I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr Bush and Mr Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done.

You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans -my fellow veterans – whose future you stole.”

Tomas Young is 33. When he was 21, he decided to protect the country he loved by enlisting in the armed forces. Like his fellow soldiers, he came of age in an era marked by a socio-economic gulf between the people who agitate for wars and the people who fight them. Like his fellow soldiers, he returned home to a country that denies veterans adequate health services or financial support. Because it is a recession, because times are tough. Because this is normal.

After September 11, 2001, President Bush drew criticism for calling on Americans to go shopping rather than relinquish comforts in a time of war. Young’s generation was not told to sacrifice – instead, they were the sacrifice. They paid the price with their lost opportunities, with their lost voice, with their defaulted investment in their nation.

We lost more in Iraq than a war. We lost accountability and faith in our institutions, and most of all, we lost the outrage that accompanies that loss, because we came to expect it and accept it as normal. This quiet acquiescence is, in the end, as damaging as any lie we were told.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior