The War Was Right, but the Rhetoric Was Wrong

I supported the Iraq War from the start. I supported it so much that as the anti-war movement built momentum at home and around the world — and as key members of the U.N. Security Council failed to support a new resolution authorizing the invasion — I felt anxious that President Bush would blink. Yes, I believed that Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of WMDs, but I also believed there were ample additional (and sufficient) reasons to invade: He was violating the Gulf War cease-fire accords, he was shooting at our pilots on a daily basis, he was a prime financial supporter of the Palestinian suicide bombing offensive in the Second Intifada, and he tried to kill a former American president. All those events occurred after he had previously launched two offensive wars (against Iran and Kuwait) and gassed his own people. Both the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq (2002) and the Iraq Liberation Act (1998) detail Saddam’s many sins, yet even these Acts of Congress fail to provide the full list.

In other words, there were legal, moral, and strategic grounds for war even absent weapons of mass destruction.

Yet it was here that we made a terrible rhetorical mistake. By grounding the public case for war so solidly in the existence of large and dangerous stockpiles of existing weapons — rather than making the more complete case for war — when those stockpiles didn’t exist (much to the surprise even of many Iraqi generals) to a great many Americans the reason to fight simply disappeared.

Then, we made a second mistake — adopting the hopeless idealism and soaring rhetoric of the “freedom agenda.” Even if there were no stockpiles of chemical weapons, the administration tried to empower the longing for freedom that allegedly “resides in every human heart.” Turns out, however, that not all human hearts are the same, and for many a longing for their own political freedom does not translate into a longing for their neighbor’s political freedom. To be clear, Iraqis are far, far better off than they were under Saddam, but the soaring rhetoric made Americans believe that “victory” looked something like Nebraska-on-the-Euphrates, with ancient enemies living in democratic harmony. That was never realistic.

But rhetoric shouldn’t obscure the reality of our hard-fought victory. We removed a deadly regime — a genocidal declared enemy of the United States located in the strategic center of the Middle East — then defeated a follow-on insurgency that would have transformed Iraq into the epicenter of Mideast jihadism and terror. Yes, we made military and political mistakes that helped create and sustain the insurgency, but we corrected ourselves, stayed the course, and ultimately decimated al-Qaeda in Iraq. We defeated our enemies and left behind a far more just regime that remains an ally and has committed none of the sins of Saddam. Of course there are grave concerns about the way forward, but under no probable scenario do we return to the strategically intolerable status quo of 2002 or to the jihadist madness of 2005–2006.

As some readers may know, in late 2005 — as Iraq spiraled out of control and our resolve at home wavered — my conscience wouldn’t allow me to sit on the sidelines. The “chickenhawk” label is a bad-faith slur, but as for me, well I simply couldn’t continue supporting a war I wasn’t willing to fight in myself. So I joined the reserves (thank you, age waivers and lax recruiting standards!), volunteered to go to Iraq, and spent a year deployed with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Diyala Province at the height of the surge.

I’ll never forget my nighttime helicopter flight into Forward Operating Base Caldwell, my home for almost eleven months. Looking over the door gunner’s shoulder, I saw fires in the distance and knew that everything was so very real — and that I might never come home. When we landed, I’m afraid the fear and concern showed in my face. One of our troop commanders put his arm around my shoulders and said, “If you live through this, it will be the most important year of your life.”

While I made it home, many of my brothers did not. I think of them every day — especially today. And, yes, it was the most important year of my life. I saw true courage, served with men who are my heroes, and I know their sacrifices — as some gave their lives, some gave their bodies, some gave their families, and all gave a year of danger, fear, and uncertainty — were in service of a just, righteous, and ultimately victorious cause.

This article first appeared here on National Review, where it’s generated a lot of conversation.

  • antithesis

    Are you ******** kidding me! This is pure Republican propaganda. I can agree with some points Republicans make, but this is nothing more than political friends drawing a smiley face on a pile of dung. You’d do well to read some Glenn Greenwald. This just makes me sick…SICK!

    • John R Huff Jr

      You said it absolutely. What a piece of right wing Republican propaganda.

  • antithesis

    The Iraq War Was a Just War -Dave Vance

  • Zeke

    Neoconservatism: never look back; never question; never take responsibility; always avoid accountability. Just seek power. Then wage war.

  • Rozann

    Thank you for your service and commitment to ideals. Could it be that the WMD stockpiles was not found because they had been moved, perhaps to Syria? Also, I always believed that Saddam was a weapon of mass destruction, ordering the gassing of the Kurds, and depriving his people of liberty. If for no other reason I feel the war was successful for his removal. The US is unique in the world and history because we don’t go to war to conquer for land or slaves or any other tangible thing. And after the war we usually rebuild and spread the gifts of liberty and opportunity for prosperity. How those gifts are used is different in different places. I think the war and removal of Saddam was well worth the sacrifices made. Thanks again for your service and the perspective in this post.

    • Dorfl

      I think you’re forgetting that weapons of mass destruction are, you know, weapons. If he’d had any, Saddam would have used them during the war. He would not have carted off his most powerful weapons to be hidden in a different country. The vastly more likely explanation for why no WMDs were ever found is that they never existed in the first place.

      I agree that Saddam was metaphorically a weapon of mass destruction. The problem is that the justification for the war wasn’t that Iraq had metaphorical WMDs. It was claimed that Iraq had some combination of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. There is no getting around the fact that this claim turned out to be false.

      I agree that the US is fairly unique in first invading another country, and then trying to figure out what on earth the invasion was for. I can honestly say that I can’t think of any other nation that I’d expect to do the same thing.

  • Michael Snow

    Charles Spurgeoon: “The Lord’s battles, what are they? Not the garment rolled in blood, not the noise, and smoke, and din of human slaughter. These may be the devil’s battles, if you please, but not the Lord’s. They may be days of God’s vengeance but in their strife the servant of Jesus may not mingle. ”

    “..the truth as to war must be more and more insisted on: the loss of time, labour, treasure, and life must be shown, and the satanic crimes to which it leads must be laid bare. It is the sum of all villainies, and ought to be stripped of its flaunting colours, and to have its bloody horrors revealed; its music should be hushed, that men may hear the moans and groans, the cries and shrieks of dying men and ravished women….”

  • Dorfl

    You do agree that the way the war was justified was a mistake. That the main justification the US government gave at the time was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and they turned out not to have any.

    You seem to agree that the way the war was planned was also a mistake. It was assumed that Iraqis would welcome American soldiers as liberators, a well-functioning democracy was going to be instituted quickly and then America could go home. I was in my early teens at the time, and I was still old enough to realise that things were never going to go this smoothly. This was not simply a case of over-optimism, it was grown men failing to see the difference between real life and a Hollywood movie.

    Since the planning was fatally flawed, there was no way to avoid the actual execution of the war containing terrible mistakes as well. This is just a case of “if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. As you said, things spiraled out of control in 2005, when it had been expected that everything should be more or less over.

    Given that the justification given for the war was wrong, the planning of the war was wrong and the execution of the war went wrong in so many ways, isn’t it reasonable to say that the war itself was wrong? You seem to be arguing that because a different Iraq war than the one actually fought – one with different justification, planning and execution – could have been right, then the actual Iraq war was right too.