Why this war is so hated
The war in Iraq is especially hated.
Of course, all wars are hated by most thoughtful people, since they involve bloodshed and suffering. And havoc.
It's not for nothing that Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: "Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war." The word "havoc" has two meanings: widespread destruction, and disorder or chaos. Any war unleashes the possibility of either or both; they are part and parcel of the enterprise.
But I'm not talking primarily of that sort of generalized hatred of war, the type that's shared by both sides and applies to all wars. No, there seems to be something special about the war in Iraq and its aftermath, the reconstruction, which seems to have aroused a level of ire unprecedented in my lifetime (a lifetime that's included quite a few wars, including another exceptionally controversial one, Vietnam).
So I've been wondering about the origins of the extremity and intensity of the hatred. After all, it's not as though this is a war with especially high casualties on either side, at least as wars go; that first element of the definition of havoc--widespread destruction--has not occurred, not even in Iraq.
And it's not as though Saddam Hussein, whose regime was the original target of the war, is anybody's hero outside of Iraq--and even in Iraq his supporters were/are limited, although previously powerful and presently out for blood. So no, even most of those who hate this war find it difficult to get worked up into a lather of sympathy for Saddam, and they often remember to begin war critiques with the disclaimer: "Of course, Saddam was bad, but...".
Nor is there a draft. So in this country--and in all the other coalition members, as far as I know--no one's life is on the line who hasn't volunteered for that solemn responsibility. In Vietnam, in contrast, there's no question that the draft gave enormous fuel to the protest fire. Self-interest being what it is, and human beings being what they are, that's understandable.
So, what's going on here? I've come up with a numbers of theories. The first, of course, is the enormous enmity people feel for Bush personally (I've written on the subject here, and Dr. Sanity has written a great deal more extensively about it here.) This hatred--and "hatred" is almost not a strong enough word for it--predated the war, of course, so the war has not caused it. Hatred for Bush is no small part of the hatred of the war itself; the two work in a sort of synergy. But by itself it doesn't appear to account for the degree to which this war is hated.
Nor do I think hatred of this war stems mainly from the failure to find WMDs, although that likewise contributes. Once again, the hatred of this war predated that failure, so it can't be caused by it.
So, what's going on? I think there truly is something qualitatively different about this war that contributes greatly. Perhaps many things.
The war in Iraq was characterized with a certain audacity in its genesis. The reasons behind it, although they were explained, were complex and multiple. Some of them seemed merely "technical"--violations of UN resolutions and the ceasefire of the Gulf War, and failure to cooperate with inspectors, are unusual (perhaps unprecedented?) reasons to attack a nation. Even though the war was described as defensive--including defensive of the UN's authority, which somehow seems ironic--it is very hard for most people to see it as defensive. This is partly because the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a third-world nation that might give them to terrorists is a relatively new one, difficult to credit and to wrap the mind around (and the failure to find WMDs in Iraq feeds into this difficulty).
But it is especially hard for many to credit the "self-defense" or "defense of the neighbors of Iraq" argument for the war because the US is a strong and powerful nation, especially militarily, and Iraq, although strong for a third-world country (as compared to, for example, Haiti), was no match for it. So the notion of bullying comes into play in many people's minds as an almost kneejerk reaction to the disparity, without a focus on the fact that Saddam was actually the quintessential bully.
But Saddam's bullying--and "bullying" is way too weak a word for it; better to call it "tyrannical systematic mass murder and the installation of a totalitarian fear state"--was simply not on the radar screen of most people in the West. Out of sight, out of mind, for the most part. I'm not being especially critical of this; it's something we all do in order to go about our lives without the constant awareness of all the suffering on earth about which we can do nothing. But the consequence of this tuning out of the hardship of others it that it makes it easy for many people to forget that earlier carnage, and to argue their case as though the suffering just began, sprung full-blown from the head of Bush and only as a consequence of "his" war.
This war and its aftermath also have also been unusually long, at least by modern standards. No, the war's not even remotely up there with Vietnam in that regard. But compared to the Gulf War, for example, it's extremely long and complex. That's mostly because it involves a reconstruction, always a long and difficult project. In fact, if just the original invasion and battles with Saddam's official armies are considered, the war was remarkably, almost freakishly, short. But we are all correct to consider those skirmishes just the beginning; the real war is the reconstruction.
That fact, combined with modern-day impatience, leads to some of the rage. We've lost sight of how difficult such a thing is; we want immediate solutions and clean and simple endings. And of course those things would be wonderful. But they are unrealisitic. And many believe that the Bush administration expected those things as well; witness the focus on Ken Adelman's "cakewalk" remark (I discussed that remark and its meaning and context here).
But even though Bush actually made many prewar comments on how difficult the tasks of this war would be does not change the fact that the actual reconstruction has been more difficult than most people (including, I believe, most in the administration) expected. I discuss these issues here, and I urge you, if interested, to read what I've said, so I don't have to reinvent the wheel.
Underlying all of this, I believe, is the fact that in some ways this war is sui generis. The invasion of a smaller, weaker country by a larger, stronger one is a familiar sight in history, of course. But previously (absent a provoking attack on the stronger by the weaker) the reason for the attack tends to have been that the larger nation was up to no good. That is, that the invasion was motivated by an exploitative impulse to plunder.
Ancient history is full of such examples, and it's also much of the modern story of imperialism. So that's the template: exploitation. The fact that one of the motives for this war--although certainly not the sole factor--was the liberation of the Iraqi people is a statement greeted with derision by so many partly because it isn't something with which we've previously had a great deal of experience. Therefore it's something we have reason to be cynical about.
But it is nevertheless the truth, in my opinion--part of the reason this war was fought was said liberation. But in this case the critics are at least partly correct, in that the motive for wanting to liberate the Iraqi people has not been solely altruistic. There's something in it for us, of course.
That's one of the reasons the dread neocons were in favor of this war: the liberation of the Iraqi people was felt to have been in our own interests. As such, however, it would be a win-win situation: the people's liberation would also have been in their own interests, as well as ours. And some of the anger of war opponents stems from a difficulty in seeing that self-interest and altruistic impulses are not necessarily in conflict, but sometimes (as in this case, if all goes well) can go hand in hand.
That leaves us with another question: has all gone well? Of course, the jury is out on that so far. And the answer also depends on one's definition of "gone well," which, in turn, depends on what one is comparing Iraq's present state to--Switzerland? Or prewar Saddam's Iraq? Or, especially, to what would have happened had Saddam stayed in power?
The answer also depends on how patient one is. I think the Iraqi people have demonstrated more patience than many in the West have. Of course, the "insurgents" have quite a bit of patience, too. The patience of Iraqis on both sides is understandable, because they've been through a lot more than most Westerners have, and have a lot more to lose. But, paradoxically, whether or not the patience of the freedom- and peace-loving elements of the Iraqi people will be rewarded depends in part on our having patience. And we in the modern West are not known for our patience.
[I may opine some more on this tomorrow; I've got enough material for a Part II. We'll see).