We're all responsible for Iraq
By James Reston
Today" -- - - It’s not enough to merely criticize
the president or say you voted for another candidate. Every
American citizen has a political and moral duty to do what’s
right for our troops, and for our country.
By James Reston Jr.
Between those who manage the war in Washington and those who
fight it in Iraq, the American people enjoy a safe middle
ground. The country is both at war and not at war. The war
machine in Washington hums along as it did in other great
international conflicts. U.S. troops fight as vicious a war
abroad as they have ever fought. But at home, there is no
sacrifice, no serious deprivations, no mobilization of youth.
Life goes on pretty much as normal.
In what sense then can the average American be held accountable
for the chaos of Iraq? If the citizen did not participate in any
decision that led to unprovoked warfare, did not mislead anyone
about weapons of mass destruction, did not engage in torture or
kill any innocent civilians, does that American bear any
responsibility for the mayhem that Iraq has become?
The philosophers tell us that there are four types of
responsibility for which an individual and a society can be held
to account for aggressive or unprovoked war. Criminal guilt
applies to the power structure that drags a country into an
abyss against its will or upon false pretenses, or the
individuals who engage in crime on the battlefield. After Iraq,
there will be no grandiose trials in which our leaders are asked
to account for their deeds. There will be only a few military
trials for low-level criminal soldiers. Criminal responsibility
for decision-makers will be left to the opprobrium of history
and to Nixonian exile.
There will, however, be a long period of collective
introspection after the war. It will, hopefully, be a period of
reconciliation and regeneration. The central task of the
president we elect in 2008 will be to bind up the nation's
wounds and to rediscover the country's fundamental bearings.
Recognizing the breadth of responsibility for the Iraq disaster,
down to the level of the individual citizen, must be part of
When guilt applies
Metaphysical guilt means that every human being is responsible
for injustices committed anywhere in the world, but especially
crimes that are committed in our presence and with our
knowledge. Does this apply to us? The legitimization of torture
is one instance that seems to fit. It has been done in our
presence, with our knowledge. Or the scrapping of the Geneva
Conventions. When both a nation and an American citizen
acquiesce in the dissolution of accepted moral norms,
metaphysical guilt applies.
The two other categories, moral and political guilt, are most
pointedly relevant at this stage of the Iraq conflict. It is not
enough to complain about President Bush, or to mock him. To mock
the president does not relieve one from responsibility for the
war being fought in the name of every American. Bush's disaster
has become the country's disaster. Every American is now
connected to it politically and morally. We cannot be
indifferent to the scorn for all things American that
characterizes the worldview of us. We must pay attention. It
should move us.
In our safe zone, the hypocrisy toward our troops is another
instance of moral and political guilt. When a person flaunts his
patriotism and then tolerates the exploitation of soldiers, then
that citizen is morally culpable for that outrage and a
participant in it. Even during the Vietnam War, when I was a
soldier for three years, no soldier was sent back to the jungle
against his will for second and third tours.
Pact with our troops
There existed then, in that "immoral war," a solemn pact between
the soldier and his country that was honored by the military and
accepted by the soldier, even as the war was winding down toward
humiliation. That pact was especially important in the years of
1969-75, when it was clear that the Vietnam War was lost, and
that young men were being asked to die simply to extricate
politicians from their blunders.
And so it is now. No one talks of a noble cause any longer,
especially our troops. Young men are recruited merely with
appeals to their testosterone. When the highest military
officers now warn that this conflict is breaking the military
system, it is because this honorable bond between the country
and the soldier at risk is being broken. The general populace,
despite the horrifying spectacle of severed limbs and wasted
minds, seems indifferent. Didn't these boys and girls sign up
for this? Such a question conveniently separates the citizen
from the soldier.
As for political guilt, all citizens bear the responsibility for
the way their country is governed. They are, therefore, liable
collectively for the political decisions of those leaders they
have elected, regardless of whether one voted for the winner. In
the elections of 2002 and 2004, the Democrats might have halted
the rush to war, but they deliberately avoided the subject. This
lack of resistance permitted this war to be fought and funded as
it was. The Democrats of 2002 and 2004 must share in the
political and moral guilt for the calamity.
The 2006 elections was the first time the political and moral
aspect of the Iraq debacle was joined. In the next election,
that connection will be even more pivotal. If there is no
collective grief about what has happened in Iraq, and no
collective determination to change course, if the hollow
drumbeat for victory and continuing war wins out over
withdrawal, then that, at the very least, will define what and
who we have become, as a nation, as a people, and as
James Reston Jr.'s new book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon:
The Untold Story of the Frost-Nixon Interviews, will be
published June 19.
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