Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I recant!

Ten years ago today, I was snowed in a hotel in Casper, Wyoming. I had been on my way back to college from spring break when the annual University of Wyoming Spring Break Blizzard hit, leaving me stranded. I had decided to spend my evening catching up on homework for an independent study I was doing with the UW Classics professor (note the singular- at the time there was only one) on Tacitus' Annals.



For those who don't know, "Annals" are sort-of history that gives a year-by-year record of what happened in the past. (So not quite the same thing as a "history", which isn't as tied to the calendar year and can be more wide-ranging.) I had just started Book XI (AD 47-48) with the TV on in the background when at 7:45 pm March 19, 2003 my regular broadcast was interrupted by a Fox News Special Report announcing that we were invading Iraq. I know this, because on page 231 of my copy of the Annals I left a note: "Reading here when Iraqi war started, 7:45 pm March 19, 2003, Super 8, Casper WY (snowed in)." Over the course of the evening, I read the first few books of the Annals while watching the invasion unfold via inbedded reporting on TV.

This in itself would not be worthy of record, if not for the content of Book XI (and the following books) of the Annals. As I was watching America getting involved in the Middle East, I was reading about Rome doing exactly the same thing nearly 2000 years earlier. The events are complicated (when are events in the Middle East not complicated?), and you can find a decent summary of the war here. The short version is that the Romans got involved, won (eventually) the military conflict, and then didn't really know what to do with their victory. They then proceeded to lose many of their gains to guerrilla warfare, and managed to fight their way back to a sort-of victory, which they then used to restore the status quo.

Through all of this, it seems that the Romans didn't really want to be overly involved in the region (especially given that there were perfectly good, long-standing governments already in place), but they felt some level of obligation to do so. Besides, their honor and international reputation were at stake, and if they left then certainly dictators hostile to Rome would come to power and Rome would lose its economic and political influence in the region. Something which, to be fair, happened on a regular enough basis that the Romans may have been justified in their concerns.

What complicated the situation was that the war in the Middle East was in progress at virtually the same time that Roman virtue and order was collapsing at home. For example, the Roman general Corbulo, easily the most competent military mind of the day, had been sent to sort out affairs, only to find on his return that he had done his job so well the Emperor (Nero) was jealous of his reputation and had ordered him murdered. Even in victory, Roman decay meant that nothing of note was accomplished and the situation in the Middle East remained unchanged. (The general who took Corbulo's place learned the lesson and used his army to make himself Emperor, rather than undergo the same fate.)

All of this to say that in the years since, my views on the Iraq war have changed. Not so much because of Tacitus (I've never gone back and re-read the Annals, though I plan to do so someday), but because my way of thinking has changed -or "evolved", as our beloved President would say- to match something akin to Tacitus' gloomy musings on the state of Imperial Rome.
As it was, the morality of their fathers, which had by degrees been forgotten, was utterly subverted by the introduction of a lax tone. (XIV.20)
But I run the risk of turning this into a musing on the state of America, rather than keeping focused on America's involvement in Iraq.

We were told -and at the time I agreed- that the Iraq war was just because if we are to truly defeat terrorism, we need to turn our enemies into our friends. And the way to do that is to spread freedom, democracy, and economic liberty the world over. The fact that our hand has been "forced" (by September 11 and Saddam Hussein, though not at the same time) is perhaps unfortunate, but opportunity knocked and someone had to answer. We had an obligation to remove Hussein from power, establish a democratic state, and begin the spread of freedom in the Middle East. The recent "Arab Spring" would seem to have cemented this doctrine* as correct and wise in the long-term.

While I have not gone completely the other direction -I won't say that the Iraq war is unjust- I will say that I have come to hold such arguments as at best naive, and at worst sinister. A close reading of de Tocqueville my senior year of undergrad, and even closer readings of Burke, Rousseau, and a host of other authors in grad school, has left me convinced that the sort of nation and culture that we ourselves enjoy and which we with good-natured hope may wish to see others enjoy as well cannot be imposed as an act of power from the outside in or the top down, but rather has to grow over the years (even centuries) from inside out and the bottom up. Americans enjoy freedoms and rights that did not spring from nothing, but rather take time to develop and grow. To insist that others instantly jump to where we are at is as unrealistic as it would be to ask Americans to adopt a culture that is radically different in the same way- even at gunpoint I suspect we will not be living by the ancient Spartan military educational system any time soon!**

So, where am I today? Well, again, I won't go as far as to say that the war was actively wrong. There may have been good policy reasons to have done what we did. Nor will I say that those involved at the top were ill-intentioned in their goals or attitudes. I will, however, say that I was wrong and that I should have paid more attention to the book I was reading than to the news I was watching. A more nuanced and balanced view should prevail, not the noisy shouting of either side. Which is of course generally a good rule anyway.

I'll let Tacitus have the last word, since he's wiser than I am:
"Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons... May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honorable!" (III.55)

*I hesitate to label it the "Bush Doctrine", since Clinton and the former Bush pursued similar goals, albeit on smaller scales.

**Please note that my criticisms are focused on American arrogance and attitudes in making policy, not on the people of Iraq or the American military apparatus. I lack the knowledge and skills necessary to make those sorts of criticisms (if such criticisms even need be made).

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