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An atrocity, not a tragedy


Via pianomover, this John Ganz response to the inevitable Iraq War apologetics on the 20th anniversary is excellent:

One question that should be asked about any war: “What did all those people die for?” The answer should come back simple and clear: “They died to free the slaves,” or “they died to rid Europe of fascism,” or “they died defending their homes, or ‘”they died freeing their country from an invading occupier.” As the event recedes into the past, this reason should become more, not less, clear. What was perhaps ambiguous or complex to the actors in the moment should appear increasingly self-evident. But if the answer to that question comes back convoluted and equivocal, full of vague hopes, reasons of state, or stratagems about international relations, one can be pretty sure that war was fought for a bad reason or, even worse perhaps, no reason at all.

No one today can supply a simple reason for the invasion of Iraq that stands up to the slightest moral or factual scrutiny. Every attempt to provide a rationale for the war is patent sophistry or self-justification. This groundlessness, this inability to situate the war in anything tangible or concrete, is simply because it was based on a lie. More than a single lie, it was based on thoroughgoing hostility towards reality itself. It was based on an absurdly oversimplified ideological picture of the world. It was based on the willful ignorance and manipulation of intelligence. It was based on the fictitious and fanciful idea that Saddam was somehow connected to Osama bin Laden, a falsehood that played on the fears and anger of a wounded and humiliated nation, ready to lash out. It was based on indifference to the actual history and culture of Iraq, as if we could just easily shape another nation to our will. And, perhaps most disturbingly, it was based on the belief that projecting the image of power, of a tough and vengeful nation, was of paramount concern. The planners clearly thought about the war as it would play out on T.V.: in spectacular scenes that would impress audiences at home and abroad. “There are no good targets in Afghanistan; let’s bomb Iraq,” Donald Rumsfeld remarked to Richard Clarke — There was just more to blow up.


There is a tendency to try to portray the Iraq War as a “tragedy,” as a mistake, brought on by hubris or zeal. One should reject this framing, for the reason that it is intrinsically ennobling. Aristotle wrote that tragedy aims at making its subjects appear better than in actual life. Hegel thought tragedy did not result from the conflict of good and bad, but of two equally valid claims on conscience. The world of tragedy is a world of heroes, fate, ascents to towering heights and falls into the dark abyss; It is a world of high seriousness and profundity; of noble men with great flaws. It makes one seem worldly-wise and magnanimous to judge men and events in terms of tragedy. Tragedy is also meant to provide catharsis, a purging of the troubled soul. All this is improper in the case of the war in Iraq. It is an attempt to use heady incense to cover up a noxious stench. There is a revolting sense of self-pity in this conceit: as if the really important thing lost in the war was the innocence, honor, and reputation of our nation and its leaders.

One easy way you could tell (and many did) the case for war was bullshit in real time was, well, who its architects were — this argument was almost precisely wrong. As it was famously put after it was clear that there were no WMDs (even over-generously defined) at all:

The raspberry road that led to Abu Ghraib was paved with bland assumptions that people who had repeatedly proved their untrustworthiness, could be trusted. There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

But even leaving aside the lengthy track record of mendancity and incompetence on the part of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al., another way you could tell the case for the war was irredeemably faulty was the ever-shifting series of rationales — no one remotely convincing, and each one less convincing because they couldn’t stick to any of them.

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