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Mythology and the Iraq War Debate

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On the development of mythology:

Consider this: When Colbert first launched his new show as a spinoff from “The Daily Show” our nation was awash in the culture of fear that followed the attacks of 9/11. In those pre-torture report days anyone who criticized the Bush administration was immediately accused of treason. Those who thought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ill-conceived and immoral, who staunchly opposed torture, and who believed our nation depended on an active, inquisitive and critical citizenry were silenced. In those days it was common to hear of journalists and professors losing their jobs because they had dared to question the administration and ask more of the media.

That was the atmosphere when Colbert took the stage in 2006 to roast President Bush to his face at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. Standing only a few feet away from the president, Colbert dealt a scathing blow to the hubris of the administration and the docile media that covered it. The moment was a real watershed in our nation’s history, because it was the only time in the entire eight years of the Bush administration that anyone had directly critiqued Bush in such detail to his face.

Eh…. I don’t remember it that way.

I’ll grant that things played out differently in Seattle than in other parts of the country, and that the conversation was different in the academy than in other sectors. But by 2004, much less 2006, American public debate had space for some bitingly savage critiques of the Bush administration, and especially of its war performance.  The 2004 Democratic primary was won by someone who, while he nominally favored the war, was exceedingly critical of the manner in which it was being conducted.

Even in 2003, voices in opposition to the war weren’t cries from the wilderness.  Many major newspapers, including the New York Times, either outright opposed the war or believed that the administration had botched the diplomacy. Anti-war protests in 2003 were, by an large, not met by truncheon-wielding thugs.  Instead, they were either completely ignored or used by the right to feed narratives of out-of-touch pacifists who couldn’t protect America. 

With respect to journalists and professors losing their jobs, there surely were cases, but by mid-2004 (if not earlier) opposition to the war in the academy was so ingrained that it was almost certainly more dangerous to be strongly in favor of the war than strongly opposed. For example, I can say without qualification that while the founders of LGM may have worried about how blogging would affect their professional prospects, we were not at all concerned about how potential employers would view our opinions on the war.  In 2005, for example, I was hired to teach national security by a program with a conservative reputation in a southern state. And of course there was a robust internet debate (back when blogging was still a thing) in which anti-war voices were welcome; by 2005, arguing that the United States should withdraw gradually rather than immediately was enough to get a writer lambasted.

We’ve become increasingly fond of saying that there was no debate in 2003. But there was a debate, and our side lost.  It wasn’t fair and square, but such debates rarely are.  We were right at the time, and we were decisively proved right by the course of the war. War supporters have not suffered the public opprobrium they deserve, especially given how solid the consensus now is that the conflict was a mistake. The other side lied relentlessly, although I still doubt whether it really needed to. But we should be hesitant about mythologizing how hard it was to be right at the time, and we shouldn’t paint ourselves as martyrs of latter-day McCarthyism.

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