"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." It's one of Milan Kundera's most famous lines , from his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting . It's one worth keeping in mind as we approach March 20, the 10th anniversary of one of the biggest disasters in the history of the United States. That was the day George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a team of others -- along with much of Washington and a very complicit mainstream media -- took the nation to war against Iraq.
The devastating consequences of that war will continue for decades, but a full accounting has still yet to happen. And that in itself has consequences. Allowing the toxic mixture of lies, deception and rationalizations that led to that war to go unchallenged makes it more likely that we will make similar tragic mistakes in the future. So I hope we can use this moment to assess what really happened, to look back in order to look forward.
At HuffPost, we'll be doing what we can in that effort by using the anniversary to look at the war and what led up to it from all angles: Who got it right and who got it wrong? What was the role of the media? What are the ongoing consequences? We'll be featuring analysis, blogs, video and more in an attempt to aid that struggle of memory against forgetting.
Of course, the most glaring manifestation of our failure to have a collective accounting of this fiasco is that those who are most responsible for it still have loud voices in our foreign policy. "For a decade or more after the Vietnam war, the people who had guided the U.S. to disaster decently shrank from the public stage," writes James Fallows. "Rusk, Rostow, Westmoreland were not declaiming on what the U.S. should and should not do."
And yet, after what Fallows calls "the biggest strategic error by the United States since at least the end of World War II," that accounting has not happened:
"After Iraq, there has been a weird amnesty and amnesia about people's misjudgment on the most consequential decision of our times. ... Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, Rice, McCain, Abrams, and others including the pro-war press claque are still offering their judgments unfazed."
He concludes: "I don't say these people should never again weigh in. But there should be an asterisk on their views, like the fine print about side effects in pharmaceutical ads."
Actually, the warning should be a lot bigger than fine print -- it should be as big and glaring as their blunders and falsehoods. There is, of course, almost no end to the lies and deceptions that led to this calamity -- we will be featuring many of them in our anniversary coverage and you can also revisit them in these timelines here and here. But here are just a few of the classics.
There's George Tenet, who, according to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, was asked by President Bush, "George, how confident are you?" Tenet's answer? "Don't worry, it's a slam-dunk." And what were the personal consequences of that colossal misjudgment? He was awarded the Medal of Freedom, as were then-General Tommy Franks and former Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer. "These three men symbolize the nobility of public service, the good character of our country, and the good influence of America on the world," said President Bush. So much for accountability.
Then, of course, there was Vice President Cheney: "We do know, with absolute certainty, that [Saddam Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon."
Or this one, from 2005 -- and note the question preceding the now-infamous answer, which has obvious relevance now:
Larry King: "...it's not going to be -- it's not going to be a 10-year event?"
Cheney: "No. I think we may well have some kind of presence there over a period of time. But I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
Or this one, from then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, uttered in the midst of the rioting and looting that broke out in the very predictable vacuum created when we toppled a central government with not much of a plan to replace it:
"Stuff happens... and it's untidy and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."
Or how about then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's warning that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Or, of course, when President Bush declared the end of "major combat" in Iraq on May 1, 2003, while standing in front of a banner that read "Mission Accomplished." Over 90 percent of coalition deaths occurred after that victory lap.
Then there was the moment when then-General Eric Shinseki told Congress that an occupation of a country as large as Iraq would require a force of "several hundred thousand soldiers." Two days later, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz indirectly called Shinseki's analysis "outlandish" to a House committee. He continued:
"I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's reconstruction ... We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down ... It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."
Actually, not so hard, given that Shinseki had just imagined it. And that's one of the most maddening -- and dangerous -- things about the Iraq War: the claim that everybody was in agreement and that everybody got it wrong. Because, hey, if everybody got it wrong, nobody's to blame, so there are no lessons to be learned, no accountability to be had.