On February 15, 2003, an almost unimaginable 13-plus years ago, I took part in a court-banned antiwar march in New York City. The police, it turned out, couldn't stop us (though they could, in various ways, pen us in). Depending on whether you believed the police or the demonstration's organizers, I was one of either 100,000 or 400,000 people who clogged the streets of the Big Apple that day, one of literally millions of protesters (no one knows just how many) who turned out across the planet in an unprecedented effort to stop George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of that crew from launching their deeply desired invasion of Iraq.
I wrote about the experience the next day and, looking back, it's clear that I was, in a sense, quite realistic about what the largest prewar demonstrations in history could (or couldn't) do to stop that invasion from happening. I was a good deal less realistic about what the future might hold (though I was in good company on that). Here's a little of what I wrote the next day:
"Excuse my enthusiasm -- but it must have felt similarly in Rome, London, Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, and on and on. As with our crowd, the largest I've ever experienced and I was at two marches on the Pentagon in the 1960s, every reporter or commentator I've read has noted the unexpected range of people by age, race, occupation, and political conviction who turned out globally.
"I'm not a total fool. I know -- as I've long been writing in these dispatches -- that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday. It felt wonderful. A mass truly, but each part of it, each individually made sign and human gesture of it, spoke to its deeply spontaneous nature. That is the statement of the moment. The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of 'the people' and the countless demonstrations of the people's many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration's peril."
Imagine, now, that you could transport yourself back 13-plus years and tell that Tom Engelhardt and the rest of the protesters in those vast global crowds not just that Iraq would be invaded, not just that it would be disastrously garrisoned and occupied for eight years by the U.S. military and the civilian authorities of the Bush administration, not just that out of the invasion and occupation would come the most brutal (and successful) jihadist group imaginable to date, and not just that the U.S. was, unbelievably enough, again in Iraq, fighting yet another war there, but that, all this time later, "the people" were nowhere to be found. They had, with rare exceptions, been MIA since not so long after that invasion in the spring of 2003.
"The world," it seems, instead of speaking truth to power again and again, packed up its signs and went home, while fruitless, destructive American wars rolled on and on. Peter Van Buren, who that long ago February was a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, generally cleaving to the State Department mantra of being policy neutral and opinion-free, would some six years later be sent to two forward operating bases in Iraq, and would prove one of those exceptions to the rule. He returned from his Iraqi experience and wrote a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, exposing the fraudulence of the State Department's war effort, and he's never stopped speaking up since. Today, he looks back on the strange repetitiveness of our never-ending Iraq wars in which the same "lessons" are always there to be absorbed, but no one in Washington ever seems to learn, while the people, who might have given their government a lesson its officials couldn't ignore, slumber on. Tom
Poof! It's Forgotten
Five Ways the Newest Story in Iraq and Syria is... That There Is No New Story
By Peter Van Buren
One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted. The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you'll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then... POOF!... they're gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they've happened at all, when there's a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what's of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we've forgotten that couldn't matter more.
It's a Limited Mission -- POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus's all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. "Tell me how this ends," he said, referring to the Bush administration's invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America's wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama's campaign promise fulfilled...
Until, of course, it wasn't, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a "limited" rescue mission. Then, more -- limited -- American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That's how Washington's wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we're lucky, a news item announcing what's happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America's global strategy that it's barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush's initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and "nation-building"? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That's now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.