We've Done This Too
Updated: Mar 10
During these horrifically sad days, like so many others around the world, I have been listening to the unfolding of the events in Ukraine.
As I do so, I find my memory returning to a time two decades ago when my fellow Americans were justifying the war President G.W. Bush was about to launch in Iraq.
I have a memory of sitting down with coffee to watch Colin Powell make the American case to the United Nations Security Council for “stopping Saddam” as our government liked to call it. If there was going to be any morality in the inevitable destruction of lives in Iraq, I and the world were going to understand it as a result of Powell’s speech, for that was its purpose.
Once Powell was finished, it was obvious to me that he had presented no grounds sufficient to justify a war. Yet, all those hands around the Security Council table went up. Had those national ambassadors to the UN not all heard the same speech I had just watched – even as they were sitting at the same table as the man who had just made it?
Between Powell’s presentation of cartoons of anthrax labs on trucks (as if a cartoon were evidence) and the launch of the war in Iraq that Powell had been shamefully trotted out to “defend”, came claim after claim about the threat that Iraq – and its weapons of mass destruction – posed to us. The claims came, but never came the evidence.
To be fair, millions and millions of Westerners thought that their leaders’ apparently sincere words about the need for the onslaught we were about to unleash in the Middle East were evidence. Like the Russians, most of us had been sufficiently buttered up by our media.
Now we all know (just as anybody who’d read a history or psychology book should have known even then) that if sincere words of politically interested parties are any evidence at all, then they are not the kind of evidence on which a war may be justly started and hundreds of thousands of non-combatant lives consequently destroyed.
Nevertheless, my fellow Americans largely bought in, supporting their president in the murder of innocent Iraqis for their “own safety”. “We’re fighting them over there,” went the slogan, “so we don’t have to fight them here.” Which is, of course, what Putin falsely claims to be doing today.
It is a very small but important point of pride for me that I marched against Bush’s war in Iraq long before I developed my current interest in politics in general. At that time, joining peace marches in California (where I was staying) was the only “activism” I’d ever engaged in.
Today, about two decades later, I am pleased that my countrymen and people throughout the world are showing sympathy and support for the innocents who are undergoing at the hands and missiles of Russia what so many Iraqis underwent at the hands and missiles of America. Whatever the truth about each action and the differences between them (which surely exist), both wars were justified in the same way - by state-sponsored deception by a leader seemingly convinced of the need for it for the sake of his own nation (or at least for his own vision of his nation).
It goes without saying that my heart aches for Ukrainians today. I believe in peace except when survival and justice (in the moral sense of a just war) strictly demand the contrary. Those values are not truly served by Putin’s aggression today, despite his protestations and the partial responsibility that the West has for creating the current state of affairs.
But as a proud American citizen, my more familial feelings are toward my own country and compatriots, and what we will become in the years ahead – having already shown ourselves in times past to be as credulous, fearful and destructive as many other nations.
Accordingly, the sentiment that moves me at this moment to write is a simple wish that all people who rightly stand for the lives of Ukrainian children and against Putin’s lies, but who previously stood for Bush’s lies and against Iraqi lives recognize the error they made back then.
Not because there is need to assign blame: there isn’t.
Rather, I hope for the sake of the whole world, that the rape of Ukraine will cause Americans to confront whatever our history of supporting similarly terrible acts on foreign nations teaches us about our own credulity, tribalism and participation in evil when we naively trust in the words of our favorite political leaders, and in the power we too easily and excessively allow them to wield in our names.