Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the Abstraction

Sandstorm George Packer in World Affairs Journal:

Unlike Vietnam, where the arguments became truly poisonous only after a few years of fighting, the Iraq War was born in dispute. The administration’s deceptions, exaggerations, and always-evolving rationales provoked a counter-narrative that mirrored the White House version of the war in its simple-mindedness: the war was about nothing (except greed, empire, and blind folly). Once, after a trip to Iraq, I attended a dinner party in Los Angeles at which most of the other guests were movie types. They wanted to know what it was like “over there.” I began to describe a Shiite doctor I’d gotten to know, who felt torn between gratitude and fear that occupation and chaos were making Iraq less Islamic. A burst of invective interrupted my sketch: none of it mattered—the only thing that mattered was this immoral, criminal war. The guests had no interest in hearing what it was like over there. They already knew.

So the lines were drawn from the start. To the pro-war side, criticism was animated by partisanship and defeatism, if not treason. This view, amplified on cable news, talk radio, and right-wing blogs, was tacitly encouraged by the White House. It kept a disastrous defense secretary in office long after it was obvious that he was losing the war, ensured that no senior officer was held accountable for military setbacks, and contributed to the repetition of disastrous errors by the war’s political architects. Meanwhile, the fact that the best and brightest Iraqis were being slaughtered by a ruthless insurgency never aroused much interest or sympathy among the war’s opponents. The kind of people who would ordinarily inspire solidarity campaigns among Western progressives—trade unionists, journalists, human rights advocates, women’s rights activists, independent politicians, doctors, professors—were being systematically exterminated. But since the war shouldn’t have been fought in the first place, what began badly must also end badly.