Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) visited
the Green Zone in 2005
One of the first of many powerful passages in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book about the protected area that has housed the Coalition soldiers during the Iraq War, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, is that of the U.S. soldiers' mess hall.
The food—Fruit Loops and crisply fried bacon—was American; the décor—stackable chairs and glass covered buffet tables—was American. And the story that made the U.S. presence there make sense, that was American too:
A mural of the World Trade Center adorned one of the entrances. The Twin Towers were framed within the outstretched wings of a bald eagle. Each branch of the U.S. military—the army, air force, marines and navy—had its seal on a different corner of the mural. In the middle were the logos of the New York City Police and Fire departments, and atop the towers were the words THANK GOD FOR THE COALITION FORCES & FREEDOM FIGHTERS AT HOME AND ABROAD.
Four years after the U.S. invaded a country that posed no pressing security threat, and which had no meaningful connection to the World Trade Center attack, public debate still rages on about how American policy makers, and a supportive public, made the decision to go to war.
The image of the mess hall gives an answer, though it goes unmentioned in the daily back-and-forth about who thought what about the intelligence made available at the time.
The decision played out a story based on emotion more than intelligence or rational thought. The decision to go to war was made in the American gut, where the compelling and terrifying image of America's virility in literal meltdown lodged itself as fear and as wish in the year after 9/11. The wish was for a clear and visible enemy to take responsibility for the tragedy. Saddam Hussein and Iraq fulfilled that wish (so much easier to take down than a roving movement of unclear size or definition). Every man and woman – American and Iraqi – who passed through the Coalition mess hall was fed daily the myth that fighting in Iraq meant fighting the 9/11 attackers.
We are learning about the power of would-be terrorists to create compelling messages and alluring images on the Internet, even to manufacture viscerally compelling video games that truncate logic and gain support for unworthy goals.
We need also to learn about the power of our own storytelling machinery, and of our own susceptibility to illogic and myths that make us feel better when times are bad. Vigilantly, insistently, seeking to see reality—even when it doesn't offer up clear answers, or doesn't provide the muscular image of America we seem to like best--is a real pre-emptive strike on behalf of U.S. security. Otherwise, we may end up giving up real lives and real resources to fight on behalf of an illusion.
Also see my colleagues' excellent commentaries on the meaning of the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War: Iraq War Enters Fifth Year (U.S. Foreign Policy) | Iraq War Four Years Later, Conquering, Not Helping? (U.S. Liberal Politics) | U.S. and Iraq Citizens Views of War (U.S. Politics)