Consider it the art of forgiving and forgetting before it’s right to do either.
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which is being celebrated nowhere. One country lays in angsty resignation, divided and unsure how to cope with the mistakes of its past. Iraq isn’t in such a great state, either. In terms of lives lost and money squandered it has been a disaster of epic proportion, a Hurricane Katrina hundreds of times as destructive, created from the basement of the Pentagon, and that’s landfall millions of Americans once celebrated.
And yet the figures themselves, the specifics of this loss, remain elusive even in this Google-empowered age. Joseph Stalin’s alleged quote of “When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s statistics” seems the case here. And few seem terribly concerned with these statistics, let alone the hard facts that politicians and the mainstream media overwhelmingly supported the invasion.
The Figures Will Not Be Televised
Both the death toll and the cost of this war for the American taxpayer are not too difficult too find if one chooses to look. But they’re not terribly prevalent, either. It’s worth noticing how this information is most likely found on sources that seem somehow shady, or radical. Think of the public perception of Wikileaks versus CNN. Reading these figures can feel a bit like browsing a black marketplace of ideas and information. Which should tell you something about the institutional push to undervalue figures that belong in American history textbooks for decades to come, let alone contemporary mass media.
This need not be institutional push, or even a conscious one. News outlets have a motivation to shy away from information that makes people feel bad about themselves – and they certainly have cause not to admit mistake if they can avoid it.
Both these factors work together to a sort of war-fatigue; years ago Iraq market bombings became so commonplace, and their coverage so superficial, not because we are bad people, but because sometimes it’s nice not to care. Even your humble correspondent’s choice to omit the aforementioned statistics from this article was part an effort not to alienate, part a wish not to overwhelm himself you with grief.
And so it goes: First we ignore, and then we forget.
The Forgetting of Bad Things
The fact is that people don’t like remembering bad things, and collectives of people are generally much better at forgiving and forgetting their own transgressions than are individuals. It’s not an American trait, nor a British trait, but a human trait. It’s happened before, all over the world.
In a bid to unite people and party, the government of China occasionally stirs up mass demonstrations against the Japanese school system. Not without reason: The World War II Japanese atrocities in China, known as “The Rape of Manchuria,” is noticeably missing from Japanese history textbooks, not unlike the extent of the Native American wars from U.S. lower education. Both peoples have found ways not to face unpleasant pasts: by ignoring them. Praise Atatürk and watch the young Turk light up with pride; mention the Armenian Genocide and expect that peculiar mixture of feigned ignorance, denial, and anger.
And so we continue the proud tradition of not taking full account of our collective transgressions. It is all too obvious that the process of forgetting has already begun, and forgiving our collective selves for things that should not be forgotten.
Certainly the people of Iraq will not forget. If in twenty years time there is an Iran-esque hostage crisis / popular Islamic revolution, will the United States have the self-awareness to understand their role in it? To recognize that history unfolded in the way it did because of their own actions? Did the American or British public consider their 1953 overthrow of (democratically elected) Mohammed Mosaddegh when Iran became an anti-Western Islamic state in 1979? Doubtful. Madeline Albright only admitted C.I.A. involvement in the coup in 2000; by then, Iran had known for 47 years and firmly hated us for it, and the U.S. and British publics had long forgotten what a ‘Mosaddegh’ was.
No one cares to learn the lesson because the lesson hurts.
The Next Generation
It was a coincidence that the Freshman Composition class I teach at New York’s Pace University was to discuss Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis on Persian New Year, and the week of the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. To provide background I showed a video on the history of Iranian-American relations (they were unsurprisingly unfamiliar), and breached the subject of Iraq. Did they remember the build up to war? How does it relate to the themes in Persepolis? What do they think of the war, its rationale, and its aftermath?
A normally outspoken class went silent, their faces blank and avoiding eye contact.
I was struck by the feeling of being old, the way my parent’s friends must feel when I brush off their pop-culture references I don’t understand. My students were eight years old when the war began; they’d never been called “Communist” by their frat brothers for arguing it would be their generation’s Vietnam.
In them I saw the way this war would, or would not, be remembered. In 2013, to consider the Iraq War in any politically relevant way is to invite ambivalence at best, judgment at worst, and universal perception of being embittered, and passé. The 10th anniversary may be in the news, but look how superficial, how toothless, is the coverage. If everyone has egg on their face, does anyone?
The war is wed to a Zeitgeist when people purchased CDs and said things like “surfing the web.” And just as surely as we become more like our parents as we age, so too has “Bush” replaced “Nixon” and “Iraq” “Vietnam.” This self-forgiveness has been in the process for a while, so strong is the desire to forget. Who can remember the ceremonial withdrawal of troops from Iraq? Flags were lowered and a band played, but this was not VE Day. It received only passing attention on the news, and no wonder: It combined all of the pageantry of a 6th grade graduation with the optimism of a drunk driving victim’s funeral.
Who would want to remember?
But had we remembered the Vietnam War the way we will not remember the Iraq War, there would never have been an Iraq War. Those statistics wouldn’t need to be ignored because they wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t need to forget. And so it’d been true all along: This has been my generation’s Vietnam.