James Fallows has been running a series on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and his essential questions are about accountability and the future—as he says, “Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.” I’m not quite there, but in 2003 I basically favored the war because I was an idiot who listened to government propaganda.
I didn’t really realize or hadn’t yet internalized that government—especially the political parts—lie all the time, and one important part of living in a democracy is paying attention to when parts of government lie. My professors, however, did. Many had lived through Vietnam and knew the capacity for political mendacity. I wonder if, 30 years from now, I’ll be addressing a group of gullible students and watching their skepticism at my own claims, and the sureness of their faith in the powers that be.
At the time the war started, I also happened to be taking a seminar called “State Building in the Middle East and the Balkans” with a guy named Petros Vamvakas (who is still teaching!); being 18 or 19, however, I knew everything that a person who’d lived through the Greek Junta and studied the Middle East for decades didn’t. Vamvakas also knew how to teach, and he knew some of the tricks that I’ve since learned: you can’t usefully confront student ignorance head-on. You have to attack it obliquely, through questions, readings, and your own example.
That’s exactly what he did.
In the seminar, anti-war students outnumbered pro-war students, which led to predictable debates. In retrospect, however, the interesting thing was what Vamvakas knew about deep ethnic divisions, tribal identity, and oil wealth. He also laid out what was going to happen and even how it was probably going to happen: he foresaw that the U.S. military would crush the Iraqi military, and that the U.S. would then botch the peace (which it did), because that peace would be almost impossible in a made-up country like Iraq—at least, impossible without a dictator. To Vamvakas’s mind, one major Iraq question was how long the Kurds would remain part of the country. Whether the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq is still really part of Iraq is up for debate (and they like the war, for reasons not all that dissimilar to the reasons Americans like the role of the French in the American Revolution).
Vamvakas also predicted the guerilla war, or insurgency, or whatever one calls it. He understood that inflicting democracy is a difficult if not impossible thing to do.
History vindicated his views. It has also shown me that a single professor in a small liberal arts college can know and understand far more than people in positions of enormous, life-and-death power. It’s cliché to say that hubris and ignorance fueled the war, but it’s still true; no one in the White House thought to ask Vamvakas what was likely to happen after the invasion. Few dissenters within the political and military establishment, like Eric Shinseki, were ignored, marginalized, or punished.
I watched the war on TV and believed what I read in the press. The war taught me, the hard way, not to be chary of what I read, and to look more carefully and who is speaking and what they know. The most knowledgable person might not have a megaphone, and the person with a megaphone may want to lie.