Tomas Young’s Iraq War Letter
by Benjamin Studebaker
So today there’s an open letter going around the internet from a fellow by the name of Tomas Young directed toward George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Young is terminally ill and has chosen to parlay that into an opportunity to vent his anger at Bush and Cheney over the feckless war they waged in Iraq. Having myself been opposed to the Iraq War as early as 2002 (and yes, I was quite young to be in opposition), I agree with some of what Young has to say, but I think he makes a common mistake in conflating two contradictory responses to the war.
One of the things that is so striking about the letter is how it lays the war at the feet of Bush and Cheney on a moral level:
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Simultaneously, however, Young points out that the war did not benefit the American interest:
The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure.
These two critiques don’t really match up. The former critique is an accusation of malevolence on the part of Bush and Cheney–they wanted wealth and power for America, so they went into Iraq to get it. The latter points out that going into Iraq failed to achieve this. It did not set up a pro-US democratic counterweight to Iran; if anything it put an end to the Iran-Iraq balance of power and left Iran in the driver’s seat. Young also notes that rebuilding Iraq was supposed to be paid for with Iraqi oil, but that never really happened, with extensive costs born by the US state (and in the meantime, we figured out how to frack, so it turned out we didn’t even need the oil after all).
To be fair, I realised I was confounding the same things too when I interviewed at Oxford (unsuccessfully) in 2010. It was pointed out to me that it was strange to simultaneously argue that Bush was incompetent while simultaneously claiming that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and company were malevolent bastards. My evolution on the question continued in college, when I read George W. Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points. With Hanlon’s Razor in mind, I have come to the conclusion that the liberal stereotype of the Bush administration, that they were simultaneously useless and malicious, is not true.
Let’s remember the assumptions the Bush administration went into Iraq with. These were the people who subscribed to the democratic peace theory, the notion that it is in America’s interest to bring democracy to new lands purely on the basis that democratic countries are easier to get along with (never mind our excellent trade relations with China). These were the guys who thought bringing democracy to Iraq would result in a democratic domino effect, in which all the Middle Eastern countries became friendly democracies. Iraq was supposed to be a beacon, remember? And we would be greeted as liberators. And somehow, no matter how corrupt Maliki’s government gets, no matter how much sectarian violence there was and is, no matter how much Iran is aided by all of this, we are supposed to still feel okay about the war because we got Saddam, because somehow it is meant to be impossible to make the political situation in the Middle East worse than it was before we got Saddam Hussein.
This is not clever. This is not even malevolent. These people went into Iraq thinking they would do something wonderful, not merely for the Iraqis, but for the Middle East in general. These guys thought they were opening the Middle East to the world, that we would gain exponentially from strong trade relations in the region, and that the only losers would be the Baathists and the terrorists. They were totally wrong, and everyone has suffered for it–the United States, its allies, Iraq, just about everyone except Iran is worse off. But can we blame Bush and Cheney for this? Surely not. They were fools–fools we elected in 2000 (or came close enough such that rigging Florida was feasible, either way, it’s on us).
But that’s not the kicker. The kicker is that 2004 rolled around. We were a year into the war. We knew what these guys believed. We had every opportunity to see that it was stupid. We voted for them again–by a larger margin than (allegedly) in 2000.
It’s easy to pick on Bush and Cheney, but they are mortal men, not gods. I’ve met reasonably intelligent people who think the things Bush and Cheney thought. These guys mean well, they’re just mistaken people. We are the ones who failed to question their ideas, to pick them apart and discard them. We are the ones who elected them, and re-elected them. The voters are the fools. So when the cry goes up again to put the “war criminals” on trial, it is a cry I feel much misplaced. I hold no enmity for the members of the Bush administration. They made a mistake, a grave mistake, that ruined the lives of thousands of people and damaged the interests of the country, but they did so within the confines of the democratic system they were part of. We were well aware of what they were doing, and we sat idly by–we did more than that, we voted for it and supported it. “Don’t cut and run,” we said. Imagine that.
And it’s not just us as a group–Tomas Young himself joined the military voluntarily after 9/11. He put his life in George Bush’s hands. As Young points out, Bush and Cheney both were clever enough to realise that going to Vietnam was not in their interest. In this respect the men we condemn for their foolishness were wiser than some.
So were it up to me, I would not, as Tomas Young suggests, put Bush on trial. I would not send him to prison. Nor would I jail his officials. What I would do is eliminate the system that made it possible. I would strip the vote from the great majority of the people of this country, for they proved once and for all, that even with our elaborate modern education system and all our college graduates, we are not capable as a group of choosing our own government intelligently. But that would actually entail accepting our failure rather than pointing it elsewhere, would it not?
I agree that the country was incredibly foolish to elect and re-elect Bush and Cheney, but that does not absolve these two buffoons of any blame. Incompetence and selfishness on this grand scale deserves to be punished and if it leads to war crimes and crimes against humanity, then both deserve to be held accountable by the ICC. Back during the Guatemalen Civil War which lasted thirty years and killed 200,000 people while 50,000 disappeared, it was American military advisors and the CIA which trained the various Gautemalen military governments during that time period in counter-subversive tactics and provided immense weapons and training support. Not only that, driven by the irrational and incompetent fear of communism and leftist reforms along with acting selfish in terms of trying to preserve the agricultural monopoly of the United Fruit Corporation in opposition to land reforms taking place in the country, they orchestrated the entire overthrow of the government back in the early 1950’s, which eventually precipitated thirty years of human rights violations. And yet who are the only ones standing in front of the ICC? That would be guatamelan military generals. There is a real problem with leaders and officials of Western countries somehow being completely ignored when it comes to prosecuting them for war crimes that were committed in other countries in their process of trying to “bring democracy.” Bush and Cheney didn’t learn from misadventures by America during Communist times. They ignored the massive moral costs that occurred when trying to pacify other countries. That is a crime. It is a crime of conscience and a complete abdication of responsibility. The idea of invading of a country to try to install your own friendly government is inherently anti-democratic and it hasn’t worked in the past. That’s all about consequences and Bush and Cheney had a responsibility to learn from mistakes of the past. They did not, and they still have not paid for their reckless and hawkish actions except in the court of public opinion.
I don’t see how the fact that Bush and Cheney should have known better makes them any more blameworthy than the millions of people who voted for them, joined the military during their terms, and supported their actions. Everyone should have known better. Blaming individuals, particularly elected individuals, for collective state actions does not make sense. If crimes were committed (and I don’t subscribe to the notion that there are such things as “war crimes” in the absence of a superstate–though we certainly acted against our own interest, which is a grave error), they were committed by the American people as a whole. If anyone is to be tried or sued, it is the state, not individuals, who should bear costs.
it is not feasbile to hold 300 million people responsible for war crimes. you forget that Bush and Cheney were responsible for whipping up pro-war and “patriotic” sentiment…that indoctrinated most Americans go along with the Iraq War. democracy means working in the interests of the people that elected you…that automatically implies being honest with the people about what is in their best interests we may advertise ourselves as a democracy but we are an imperfect democracy where the people’s interests are not always served for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that we elected our leaders in a democratic process , in terms of Bush an Cheney, they had the ear and interests of a massive military-industrial complex more than the interests of the American people in mind. our government has the propensity to perpetrate anti-democratic tendencies here at home as much as it does abroad, and often these go hand in hand. America’s version of “democracy” is not as simple as the people elected you, therefore everything you do automatically goes back to the responsiblity of the people who elected you, and therefore you can’t be held responsible. I hold us responsible for re-electing Bush but to say that the American people should have been able to foresee that Bush would be so incredibly hawkish and irresponsible back when they first elected him is absurd.
true democracy requires quality education of the people…..that doesn’t mean democracy is bad governmental system…it means that a true democracy, which America is not, exercises responsibility and committment to the notions of justice, equality, and equity, and honesty in its education..Bush and Cheney did not do that…therefore they need to be held responsible…
There’s a point on which we have differed in the past that has relevance here–I do not hold people personally responsible for their actions because I consider the universe to be determinist. It’s the structure of our society that produced men like Bush and Cheney who held to this series of erroneous fallacies. If anything is to be labelled the cause and consequently maligned, it is the structure, not the people who were mere vessels for it. The American political system produced the Iraq War, not Bush and Cheney personally.
Bush and Cheney believed the Iraq War to be in the American interest. They were totally wrong, but it was a belief genuinely held. Millions of Americans shared that belief. I don’t think any of them are individually culpable, it was a system failure that allowed that belief to become predominant and gave it the power to take the form of actions. I don’t blame individual voters, I blame the structure that was designed such that ignorant or misguided people could come into state power.
What good would putting Bush and Cheney in prison do? It’s no different from punishing a person with some sort of mental condition. These people don’t have agency, they’re just misguided vessels for bad ideas. If we punish them, we harm them and we don’t solve any of the problems we caused. We don’t get back the trillions of dollars we lost, or the thousands of people we killed. All this would do is create an extremely capricious system in which politicians can be jailed years later for doing what they believed to be in the best interest of their states purely on the basis of having been wrong. It is wrong to jail people purely for being wrong or for being stupid.
It is impossible for the people to gain the level of education necessary to adequately govern the state while simultaneously performing adequately in other professions.
just a follow- up thought..if you indeed say that some people are just determined to mess up and be incompetent like Bush and Cheney and not advance the consequences of human betterment….while saying conversely that others, like you, are determined to discover the knowledge that will advance human society, do you advocate the killing of all people in Bush and Cheney’s classification before they do any harm? I don’t see how your philosophy could possibly let you say no on that one.
Absolutely not, I desire a political structure that prevents the politically incompetent from coming into power and directs their efforts elsewhere. Bush and Cheney might have been fabulous at some other profession, and killing them robs us of that opportunity to make better use of them.
“It is impossible for the people to gain the level of education necessary to adequately govern the state while simultaneously performing adequately in other professions.”
I fundamentally disagree with this, and I believe that if our democracy is to become stronger and the true interests of the American people are to be served…education is the key.
By your logic we shouldn’t even have a prison system because according to you no one has agency and therefore none of us are individually responsible for anything we do. I disagree with the idea that if we put Bush and Cheney in jail, that there are not consequences for that. Soldiers like Tomas will some sort of closure, and that counts for something in terms of an entire nation’s psyche and the belief that justice can be served.
Also, I believe you said that even in a determinist society we are capable of finding better ways to build societies and governments and social structures and political structures which are already determined to have better consequences for us. Even in a determinist society, Bush and Cheney were capable of learning from the past. They did not. Perhaps now we will never enter another Iraq type war. But there is no reason, with all the misadventures in terms of overthrowing communist governments, that our leaders should have taken that long to realize it,and cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in the process.
If you hold that in a determinist society, people’s actions are only influenced by the social norms that went before them, how in the world have we progressed? How does progress happen. If you put progress on the y-axis of graph with time on the x-axis, then it would just be a line with no slope, and yet that’s not our reality.
Prison exists not to punish the prisoner, but to protect society from him. If a man is locked up, he cannot harm others. The only people who should be imprisoned are those who will inevitably harm others if freed. While in prison, the state should work tirelessly to learn about their psychology and seek to cure them of their lack of sociability. Punishment for the sake of punishment is barbarism and regardless of the opinion of soldiers like Tomas, it is not in the social interest.
When I say we can have better political structures, I say we can have a better means of selecting our leaders so that individuals like Bush and Cheney cannot come into power. I do not mean to say that Bush and Cheney can magically become competent through agency. That is impossible.
We do not reproduce the same social norms each generation. As new technologies, ideas, ways of doing things are introduced, our norms shift to reflect those novelties, and so social progress ensues. We get new technologies and new ideas in no small part because scientific and human inquiry are norms in themselves, things we encourage. Societies that do not encourage this behaviour, or worse, discourage it, make less progress.
Actually, in my 36 years I have done everything from chair dncinag at an Anne Richards for Texas Governor rally, being beaten up for being gay (a thing of the past) to attending meetings with right wing leaders in DC and locally (Orlando).The left’s activists are the ones that have told me personally that I don’t deserve to exercise my free speech and religious rights and in some cases have gone to great pains to tell me that I don’t deserve to live.The guys who beat me up? please forgive me,I was 19 and forgot to ask who they voted for or what they thought about prescription meds and our border security.When I say I think it is an opinion not a lie. And the hate email I get from some on the fringe right? I can assure you .they do not see me as their own. Fred Phelps and his clan actually spit at me when I (as a conservative) confronted him in Lynchburg Virginia.I have not only seen both sides I lived both with complete conviction. The left is far scarier because they are the new blindly self-righteous.
[…] Tomas Young’s Iraq War Letter […]