Self-deception will kill us

If our president wants to insist this war was justified, by whatever means, he is only human.

When I first decided to travel into Iraq to conduct research for my thesis, I reverted to my earliest decision-making skills and created a list of pros and cons. You can imagine how it came out – pro: opportunity to experience a life-changing moment in history; con: total risk incalculable.

So how exactly does one make a decision when all possible outcomes are unknown (and one conclusion hopelessly bleak)? And how have so many people made this seemingly impossible decision for centuries before me? From Ernest Hemingway to Bob Hope, from Margaret Hassan to my very own grandfather, people who travel into war zones interminably tiptoe over this tenuous line between personal convictions and, at its most extreme, death.

To make my decision, I did not ask for counsel from many of my friends or family members. I knew they would tell me not to go – not because my goals were ill-formed or meaningless, but because my life is more important to the people who love me than any idea. In my secrecy, I began to feel a surprising empathy for President George W. Bush and grew to understand how reasons such as “weapons of mass destruction” are paraded around for weeks, then quietly tabled.

Clearly, a personal decision to go into Iraq does not carry the same consequences as leading a nation to war. But at its core, there is no justification for the needless death of an innocent person. When the list of cons includes “risk incalculable,” people begin grasping for straws.

A reason, any reason, gives the momentary illusion of control. It transforms death to a far-off and intangible silhouette on the horizon. It creates an imaginary rubric that, when viewed with eyes squinted, answers the enduring doubts in our hearts to which we know there are no proper answers.

Just take a look at my pro – “experience life-changing moment in history.” It’s nonsense. I could easily travel three blocks from my home in St. Paul and help a new immigrant learn to read English for the first time. Isn’t that a life-changing moment? Yet there it sits, at the very top of what I have written, hoping to convince everyone, including me, of its weighty significance.

My reasons to risk my own life are essentially nothing more than ideas. Ideas that my family probably finds self-important and full of hubris. When the final tally is calculated, there is no good reason at all for my decision – just as we all knew there was no really compelling reason for the war in Iraq.

What we must come to accept is not how we were deceived, but in what ways we asked to be deceived and came to tacitly accept the mythology of the war. Whether it’s weapons of mass destruction or the startling absence of flag-draped coffins, the public is practically begging for lies. Let us go ahead and admit what we know: Wars are hardly ever started to take down the Adolf Hitlers and Saddam Husseins of the world.

In our search for a pious war, the people themselves instigated the admissions and retractions, the infinite shades of gray. We began a dance of rhetoric so profoundly lacking in substance that, in our desperation, entire arguments and counter arguments began to rise like a mirage above the sand.

Weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden were never the answer, and now, the time has come to demand a real conversation on the subject of a U.S. agenda for democracy in the Middle East. Ideas and agendas might not be good reasons for a war, but nothing is. As a card-carrying member of my local co-op, I would like to take the scary first step and recommend that we shelf our prejudices – against our president, against blue states, against all nefarious Republicans.

If our president wants to insist this war was justified, by whatever means, he is only human. Presidents want to go to war for lots of reasons. After the damage is done, it is no longer our obligation to persecute ourselves. Our obligation is to lift the suffering that is done and that cannot be undone. Our obligation is to the future of Iraq.

Emily Troutman is a former Editorial Board member currently doing research in Jordan and Iraq. Please send comments to [email protected].