Time to break the silence

Questioning The War In Iraq

August 22, 2005|By William E. Connolly

THE PROTEST by Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas - while a wartime president takes a five-week vacation - posed a difficult question. Why was there a protest movement during that last quagmire in Vietnam but no equivalent has emerged today? Ms. Sheehan clearly touched a nerve.

But, nonetheless, why, after thousands of Iraqis and Americans killed and maimed, the increased risk of terrorism the war has fostered and the high probability of a civil war in its wake, do so many Americans remain quiet about this disaster?

I am not speaking about that percentage of the populace who defend the hubris of the Bush administration no matter its cost in lives, safety, money and noble American values. I am talking about those who now see that it was a horrible mistake, for which we and others will pay for generations.

Several reasons might be expressed for this silence. The first is that many who now see how mistaken the invasion was think we are trapped in a quagmire with no place to turn. There is, indeed, no easy way out, which is why it is so important to hesitate before invading another country.

But the United States could admit its mistake, beg forgiveness from the world, ask the United Nations to create a peacekeeping force and pledge a few hundred billion dollars to help fund that effort. That, it's arguable, would improve upon existing policy. Other alternatives also could be considered.

But many refuse even to entertain such a possibilities. Why? Inside the judgment that there is no way out, a second hesitation simmers.

Millions of Americans find it difficult to admit that they participated in the myth of American righteousness and omnipotence peddled by President Bush and neo-conservative publicists before the war. (Remember how Iraqis would be cheering in the streets and the reconstruction would be funded by Iraqi oil revenues?) They register their dismay in impersonal polls but do not translate it into public opposition.

A third reason for silence feeds the first two. Today, the electronic news media provide space to report ever-changing justifications for "staying the course." But there is no public forum in which to articulate an alternative view. Those who attempt to do so on The Hannity-Colmes Report or The O'Reilly Factor, for example, find themselves talked over and condemned as unpatriotic before they start.

A final reason for silence is that, in a country which no longer has a military draft, middle- and upper-class Americans run little risk that their own children will die or be maimed in this venture. The hypocrisy of magnetic "Support Our Troops" ribbons on many cars is that few of those displaying them volunteer themselves or their children to join the occupation of Iraq.

These explanations may help to explain the silence but, given the size of the calamity, they do not justify it. All of us must now speak out, but those who once fell for the war face a special obligation to explain how they were duped. It is important to do so in order to become inoculated against future attempts to rush the country to war.

What mythic view of American righteousness and omnipotence blurred the vision of Bush supporters when they bought a story that millions of people in the United States, Canada, France, England, Germany, India, Spain, Japan, Australia and elsewhere saw through from the start?

That said, it is incumbent upon all of us today to publicize the lies that led to the war, the hubris that fueled consent for it and the terrible costs in lives, domestic security, Middle East stability, national reputation, money and legality it has incurred.

As we proceed, it will be wise to repair torn relations with citizens in other parts of the world whose estimation of America has plummeted. For they are well informed about the civilian casualties of American bombing, Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo gulag.

Finally, we must initiate cross-country citizen dialogues with those of the Muslim faith who find both the state terrorism of the Bush administration and the non-state terrorism of al-Qaida to be abhorrent.

It is difficult to protest publicly when your country is at war. But these difficulties do not warrant silence in the face of a reckless, destructive, unconscionable war.

William E. Connolly is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Pluralism.

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