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Prisoners of Knowledge

The Atlantic’s James Fallows on standing up to warmongering D.C.

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What was the mood like in D.C. in the lead-up to the invasion?
In my conscious lifetime, it was the most exultantly pro-war that I can recall. The prevailing mood was a William Randolph Hearst–type production. It was not just disagreement on the merits of doing this, it was dismissive ridicule of the weakness of the people who weren’t with the program. [If you were against the war] it was a sign that you shrank reflexively from the use of force, that you were a symptom of America’s long slouch into fearfulness around the world, that you were dismissive of the moral claims of the Kurds or others in Iraq. If you were tough as a thinker and decision-maker, if you were brave about America’s role in the world, and if you were properly sensitive to the moral claims of the people Saddam Hussein had abused, then the logic of history and the times led you not to just support the war, but to embrace it.

In August 2002, The Atlantic published your piece “The Fifty-First State?,” which laid out many potential dangers that became deadly realities in Iraq. How did you come to sound that warning?
By February ’02, we were sure that the war was going to come. So we thought, “What are going to be all the questions people are going to be asking after the war starts? Let’s ask all of those now and, as a bonus, see if asking those questions now might affect the decision of whether to do it at all.” Now, there was some tension within The Atlantic itself, because our then-editor, Michael Kelly, was very, very emphatically pro-war. He’d been a reporter in Iraq during the original Gulf War, and he had firsthand experience with all the cruelties of Saddam Hussein. He said, “We have to go to war, it’ll be great for Iraq, great for America, and I personally want to witness it.” He, of course, was an embedded reporter and was killed. And although Kelly and I disagreed entirely, he, to his credit, recognized that I and other people on the staff didn’t agree with him. He told me to go full speed ahead with the piece. It came out while he was still alive, and while he disagreed with it, he was supportive of our running it as a cover story and pushing it hard.

How did other war supporters respond?
A lot of my friends were in the liberal-hawk camp, and it was more just rolling their eyes: There he goes again. He didn’t like Vietnam. He doesn’t like this either.

Do you think there was an element of groupthink among the liberal hawks?
I’m wary of saying what were other people’s motives, but I’ll say there are different generations that have had their good wars. Some significant portion of people on the left, especially the D.C.-centric branches of people on the left, were uneasy always seeming to be against whatever war was on offer. So when there was the chance of a quote-unquote good war, many of them were attracted. There is the ancestral impulse in man—Samuel Johnson wrote about this; many other people have too—where you want to show that you are strong, and a proxy for that is being willing to support military action. And then there was the sense that there was just something weak and something wet and something just not really first team about you if you thought, Wait a minute, is this going to be a good idea?

Did it feel lonely not being on the team?
For me, no. I’ve done a lot of reporting in the military, and most of the reporting I did for [“The Fifty-First State?”] piece was among military people who were not enthusiastic about it. I think the moment that distills this whole mood in Washington was the exchange between [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and [Army Chief of Staff Eric] Shinseki. Shinseki was saying that it was going to take all these people, it was going to be very hard, we were going to have all these casualties. And Wolfowitz comes back and just with this merciless sneer says it would just be impossible to imagine it would take more people to occupy the country than to conquer it. That is the epitome of what I’m talking about.

Why do you think many liberal hawks haven’t issued full-throated mea culpas?
No. 1, it’s a difficult thing to do. No. 2, it’s a difficult thing to do correctly without seeming as though you’re underscoring your great acumen by saying, “I was wrong then, but I can see now exactly why I was wrong, so listen to me all the same way.” I do respect people who say, “Look, I was simply and objectively wrong about this.” Andrew Sullivan obviously did that. Peter Beinart did it in a different way. It is striking how few people who are now putting out pronouncements about the need for American intervention, whether it’s in Syria or Iran or someplace else, have that little asterisk saying, “I made a similar claim a dozen years ago, and I was wrong.” I hold out for special regard here the editorial page of the Washington Post, which was stridently pro-war and has never reflected on that—same management as it was a dozen years ago, and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen any introspection from them. They were the only major publication that on the ten-year anniversary didn’t have any look-back.

Should we all be holding unchastened hawks to more account?
There is no non-asshole way to keep pointing out, “Hey, you’re saying we should go to war now; what about a dozen years ago?” You just become a nag if you say that.

But maybe an important nag?
Yes, but you’d rather have somebody else do it. I recognize that I didn’t say clearly, “Stop! Don’t do this! This is folly!” It was an inarguable fact that the machine had been turned on and there was going to be a war. We knew that as a journalistic observation a year before the invasion, so the premise of my piece was “This is coming, here’s how to keep it from being a disaster.” If I’d had full foreknowledge, I would have had an extra paragraph saying, “This is coming, but it shouldn’t come because we’re not going to do these things and it is going to be a disaster.” But we’re all prisoners of our knowledge at the time.


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