Memory  /  Comment

A Known and Unknown War

Twenty years later, I am living through the making of the Iraq War as history.

After the invasion, I remember how my anger motivated a lukewarm enthusiasm for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential candidacy. Maybe Kerry could stop Bush and reverse course in Iraq. Maybe I donated money to Kerry’s campaign, I don’t recall. I donated more than enough attention to it that I do know. Kerry’s loss only deepened my hopelessness about the war. Before his electoral defeat, the U.S. had learned of the torture at Abu Ghraib and witnessed the largest battles since the Vietnam War as armed forces fought to retake Fallujah. Shortly into Bush’s second term, the poor planning beyond faith in democratic capitalism spurred massive sectarian violence. By 2007, the year of the “surge,” I was in graduate school getting a PhD in History—I planned to write a dissertation about the United States’ exorbitant military power since the Cold War and why American democracy failed to resist it. If I couldn’t change my circumstances, I could find out where they came from.

Now, twenty years later, I am living through the making of the Iraq War as history. I’m seeing how historical memory is codified, how the creation of public memory works against the preservation of my own. My formative political experience is subjected to retrospective analysis, to unwitting, external complication.

Time and distance are essential to the historian’s craft. They help us pursue the false promise of objectivity. I should embrace them when thinking about the Iraq War, but I don’t. Not yet. I bristle when reading recent reflections on the war. With the twentieth anniversary of the war upon us, I’ve read mea culpas from (former) neoconservatives who now regret their support for the war, who have “concluded that U.S. foreign policy should not fixate on exporting democracy” but should not give up on promoting human rights. I have also read post facto justifications for the war, authors who argue that the invasion of Iraq was a judicious, necessary act because it rid Saddam Hussein of power and ensured that “Iraq is better off today than it was 20 years ago.”