The Chilcot inquiry and enablers of injustice

Opening bombing of Baghdad, 2003

The long-anticipated Chilcot inquiry report was released today. It chronicled British government decisions leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The key points of the report state that Tony Blair and his close circle of advisors misled the public and failed to prepare for the consequences of invasion and occupation.

American neoconservatives laid the groundwork for unilateral intervention long before 9/11 and the War on Terror. A 1992 strategic outlook written by Paul Wolfowitz, who was a key figure in the Department of Defense for both Bush presidencies, defended unilateral American military action. From the NYT report linked:

The continuation of this strategic goal explains the strong emphasis elsewhere in the document and in other Pentagon planning on using military force, if necessary, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in such countries as North Korea, Iraq, some of the successor republics to the Soviet Union and in Europe.

Nuclear proliferation, if unchecked by superpower action, could tempt Germany, Japan and other industrial powers to acquire nuclear weapons to deter attack from regional foes. This could start them down the road to global competition with the United States and, in a crisis over national interests, military rivalry.

and an excerpt from the report itself later in the article:

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil. We also seek to deter further aggression in the region, foster regional stability, protect U.S. nationals and property, and safeguard our access to international air and seaways. As demonstrated by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it remains fundamentally important to prevent a hegemon or alignment of powers from dominating the region. This pertains especially to the Arabian peninsula. Therefore, we must continue to play a role through enhanced deterrence and improved cooperative security.

While neoconservatives often talk about acting alone if necessary, their actions need collaborators to provide legitimacy and deflect accusations of American imperialism. Tony Blair and the British government, every step of the way, were willing to back the entire operation. Without vigorous British support, there would likely have been fewer European nations involved. As is, no country other than the US and UK provided more than a few thousand soldiers at any one time- Italy had the third-largest number of soldiers killed, with just 33.

The Chilcot report says that Blair told President Bush “I will be with you, whatever” in July 2002– over half a year before the invasion itself, while both countries ostensibly supported peaceful diplomatic means with regard to purported WMDs in Iraq. Four different questions were asked by pollster MORI before the invasion in 2003- with the question assuming no UN Security Council support and no UN evidence of weapons of mass destruction (the historical reality) having almost 70% opposed. Most of the largest anti-war marches were in Europe, including a massive march in London featuring address by Labour backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, who would take Blair’s job as party leader twelve years later (making Blair turn blue in rage).

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 8.43.36 PM
Protest march in London on February 15, 2003

Since Blair left office, the consequences of his decision to back invasion on tenuous pretenses continue to mount. Not only were none of the goals of the invasion met, but the rise of ISIS was built on the UK’s invasion of northern Iraq and the subsequent disbandment of the Republican Guard. Two car bombings this week add onto a large civilian death toll (at the very least 165,000).

I don’t know what the counterfactual is- would there still be an Iraq War, an insurgency, and an ISIS if the United Kingdom had turned President Bush down? The Chilcot report only documents that Blair decided on invasion, no matter the circumstances. And even if it wasn’t originally their idea, his circle supported it just as fervently as America.

 

 

 

 

The young, the old: society trying to keep itself together

Two crucial processes exist in modern life. One is society trying to get the younger generation ready for present reality. The other is society is trying to help (or sometimes make) older generations adapt to present reality. Tension between these age cohorts could be considered a more complicated version of the generation gap.

All groups are insulated, as everyone self-selects their friends and company. The young and old are special. Children have yet to shoulder the full weight of the social system. Their experiences are rarely independent of their elders. Even at 24, this split for me is clear.

For instance, I was just old enough to understand what 9/11 was without relying on someone. I understood that terrible people do exist, that the places targeted had great value, and that nothing was going to be the same from then on. Those entering college this fall do not have the same base of knowledge, something that the author of Gin and Tacos explains well as a professor having to deal with 18 year olds. As he states, we are failing in some regard because the present reality depends on both the distant and recent past. We teach the Civil War from elementary school onwards. History classes rarely give the same scrutiny to the post-Vietnam era.

I have a problem with how the tension between older generations and the middle strata of American society gets portrayed in the media. Clearly this line is blurry. People of typical working age are creating the technology and ideas that move things forward, but not exclusively. Also the political ruling class trends older, with many elite players being past retirement age.

However, stories about the gap tend to focus on narrow difficulties, like how inventions like the Internet have been difficult to diffuse among those who grew up with typewriters and rotary dial telephones.

If we are honest, it goes far beyond that. The civil rights movement marches on. Even I needed some help with discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. To spread new expectations requires going into communities that have their own standards. Children are far easier to teach than 60+ individuals, and that is a clear point of conflict in “the generation gap” or something similar. There is an expectation of change, but it will never fully translate.

This bit of sociology fascinates me. Popular media tends to ascribe special qualities to a generation; The Wire collected over a century’s worth of ‘the youth are so dang selfish, the worst ever!’ A better way to view it is in the rate of social change. When culture changes rapidly, the disparity between one group of individuals and another rises. In a time like now, when change is rapid and spread across all aspects of life, the stress of holding it all together is great and it shows. What is society but many different groups, held together by a few fragile chains?

Teaching for the present

Today I’m here to echo another blogger- Ed from Gin and Tacos. He teaches American politics, mostly to college freshman. Thus, he is an eyewitness to all the flaws of secondary education. Students often have issues following detailed directions, doing systematic research, and avoiding plagiarism. But besides those shortcomings, which we could call a lack of “study hygiene”, there are also the gaps in general knowledge. Ed’s point isn’t that American students don’t understand the past- they don’t understand the present.

In his April column “Out of Time” he asks a question that every history teacher must deal with at some level: why are most primary and secondary history classes taught in chronological order? As he writes

K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I.

In 9th grade world history, we started with the basic ancient civilizations- Rome, China, Egypt, Persia. 10th grade European history didn’t go all that far beyond the Five-Year Plan and vintage Stalin. 11th grade US history spent a couple months going from Columbus to Jamestown to the many reasons for the Revolutionary War.

These aspects of history are immensely important, but the world of 2013 is far more closely related to World War II than World War I, and both of those compared to the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. And what about even more recent history? Ed states that

I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.

I was born the year after the Berlin Wall fell. Incoming college freshmen now have no memory of 9/11. Unlike the high school history teachers I had, I was not around for the Cold War. Though for millions of Americans it is memory, everything from the Clinton Administration back is history for my generation.

Why is Barack Obama the president? Why is there a war in Afghanistan? Why did the world economy collapse? I know teaching history chronologically is very tidy and comprehensive for what it covers, but it also cuts out some of the most crucial parts if the class schedule falls behind. The Industrial Revolution is a world-defining process, but the deregulation of the late 1990s and early 2000s is one of the biggest reasons a student’s dad can’t find a job. The Civil War may have been the culmination of over a century of conflict and sectionalism, but modern politics also owes a lot to what happened in Vietnam.

Sitting in my college sociology class, I’m now five years older than the youngest student there. What do I remember that they don’t? And what does my professor remember that I don’t? Education is a continuum of memory, from the most senior teachers to the most junior students. The present needs to be tied to those important events in the past- going back centuries or millennia. But the focus has to be, in 2013, what is required to understand the world?

Eleven years

The events of September 11th, 2001 weren’t life-altering to me. I simply was too young- I had just turned eleven when it happened, and the odd circumstances of where I was (away from news, television for several days) means I don’t have the sense of solidarity that many other people had during that eventful Tuesday. The main feeling I felt was embarrassment- I had been so jubilant from the trip and finally being home; once home, I realized my enthusiasm was sharply at odds with the state of the country.

It is odd to believe that there are millions of Americans who have no memory of the attacks. Incoming college freshmen have only vague memories, in a few years they will have no memory at all. It seems strange that in a few years people will enter the military, perhaps serving in Afghanistan, and have nothing more than family and textbooks to tell them how we came to be there.

What September 11th did, quite starkly, is mark the end of my childhood, and was the initiation to the rest of my life. As the War on Terror began, I found that my sentiments were that of adults. I no longer had history wash over me, instead I interacted with it. I shared the same confusion in the run-up to the Iraq War. Some aspects of it I listened to, such as the dire world painted by the State of the Union in January, the inspectors finding nothing, and over the radio hearing Sec. Powell’s address to the United Nations. Rather than learning about these events at a later date, and forming a worldview from scratch, my opinions about the War on Terror are traced back to the very beginning, and are an evolution rather than a history lecture.

As each year passes, and the events fade little by little, it becomes a question of what September 11th will influence, and what it means. It cannot eternally be tears and three thousand candles. Neither can we move on entirely- partly because of its terrible scale, but because it has a deep impact on present day America. What has arisen is a national day of service, which I was involved in last year. I helped paint a fence for an American Legion post, with people my age and people fifty years my senior. It feels natural that a day of destruction move to become a day of rebuilding. Of making a better future while respecting the past. Of using our feelings about September 11th to make good in a world that needs it.

Continue reading “Eleven years”

What world event(s) have shaped your life?

I started talking with my father about this in the context of ‘generations’ but since generations are an increasingly eroded concept, we just switched to our lives.

My father was born in 1952, and considered the most important events in his life to be from 1968-1974. More or less it went from the violence of the summer of ’68 to the resignation of Nixon in ’74. What he pointed out is that had he been a year older, he would have been in college when Kent State (for the non-Americans, this was a shooting of student protesters, four died) happened, and he noticed that those older than him were much more militantly political.

Personally, I was born in 1990. It is not September 11th that is reflected in my worldview, but rather that America has not known peace for over half my life, and almost all of what I remember well. For me and those of my age, war is not only in our minds, it is background noise.

I have for days forgot that the country of my birth has spent trillions in a war with no clear enemy. I am not alone for those people who are not, through family and friends, close to the soldiers that fight. If anything it is the chief difference between my father and I- I have lived through wars without a draft, and thus without serious, endemic opposition to the war.