There is a persistent story that people who stood up to fascism in the 1930s, before World War II took shape, were later condemned as “premature antifascists.” Some of the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, volunteers who fought the fascists in Spain in 1936-39, described facing this opprobrium when they later attempted to join the American armed forces, and again, during the Red Scare of the fifties.
Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, those who spoke out early against the war as ill-considered bellicosity, as a recipe for disaster at home and abroad, have been loudly condemned as traitors. Every type of spin-doctor and propaganda campaign has been deployed to refute and silence opposition. When you are up against a powerful myth-machine, even knowing you are right, even having the evidence to back that up, does not inoculate you against despair. At many times during the past 3 and 1/2 years, we have experienced that too-familiar surreal feeling of being trapped in the twilight zone, where most people cannot grasp what to us is plain truth, and where we are vilified for seeing and naming it. At times, we have been persuaded that our country will never awaken from the trance of complicity.
Now the bipartisan Iraq Study Group has issued its report, affirming what those of us opposed to the war have been saying all along: that the war was ill-conceived and poorly planned, that we have made a huge and bloody mess which we now need to clean up as best we can; and that posturing and belligerence are no substitute for real diplomacy. It is not an antiwar document, nor does it convey the values and outrage of the peace movement. But as the report of a blue-ribbon panel of Washington insiders, it is quite a wake-up call. This is from the introduction:
Many Americans are dissatisfied, not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq. Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable. The President and Congress must work together. Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support.
No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence, or a slide toward chaos. If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe. Because of the role and responsibility of the United States in Iraq, and the commitments our government has made, the United States has special obligations. Our country must address as best it can Iraq’s many problems.
I think of the parable of the king whose trusted advisor discovers that the grain crop is contaminated with ergot, which induces insanity. Without the grain, people will starve. At first, the king suggests that he and the advisor buy clean grain for themselves and their families. But the advisor says that if everyone else is deranged, even as they talk sense, he and the king will be judged as lunatics.
In the end, the king resigns himself to eating the grain, joining his people in madness. But he and the advisor put a mark on their foreheads so that when they see each other, they will at least be reminded that they are indeed insane.
I would like to be wrong, but I doubt that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and their advisors will ever admit to their own delusions and the terrible errors to which they led. Bush’s early response to the report seems mainly to reiterate the position he has been holding all along. It appears he and his advisors bear no mark on their foreheads.
But I am wondering if those who opposed the war from the first can learn something from this parable, if only we turn it a little. Is there a way to mark our own foreheads so that, in the event of another such epidemic of political madness, we remember that we are sane? I want to take this turn of events—the citizenry’s ultimate rejection of Bush’s policies, the recent elections, the Iraq Study Group report—not as an occasion of triumphal gloating, but as a reminder to listen for a compassionate inner voice and repeat its call even when all around us have blood in their eyes. Even when we doubt we will be heard. Even when we risk the strongest condemnation.
The lives lost can’t be reclaimed, and the attempts at remedy that will come now—even if they turn out to be adequate—are likely to take much time and money. But none of this erases the truth: that by seeing so clearly what is right and holding steadfast to it, we have turned the tide. I don’t want to waste a bit of my energy crowing about how the other side has been proven wrong. No doubt, I’ll be in the wrong again in the future as I have at times in the past. Instead, let’s mark our foreheads with this memory: that even through a dark time, an unrelenting grip on truth and sanity can bring the light.