Human beings have strong emotional immune systems, and human societies have a remarkable capacity for collective forgetfulness. Milan Kundera, writing of the effect of the news cycle on historical memory, once said: "The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."
Likewise, the histories of our time might say: there was an American invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war that amounts to a crime, but it was quickly followed by other wars, a financial crisis, and an economic depression – and we found that we had enough problems on our plate without worrying too much about the past.
Americans are leaving the Iraq War behind; it is seen as an embarrassing episode, best unmentioned in polite company. The Obama administration is stacked with liberal hawks who supported the Iraq War, and figures from the former Bush administration are signing book deals and making the rounds of press conferences and interviews, propagating meae culpae of the "mistakes were made" sort. A war of choice is being quietly transformed into an unfortunate but ultimately unavoidable mistake, one caused not by politicians and public intellectuals cocooned in their hubris and their reckless ideologies, but by an "intelligence failure."
It is possible that Americans feel that, having elected a president who had the courage and foresight to oppose the Iraq War from the beginning, we have done our penance and can now move on with our national political life. There is no talk of holding any of the national leaders who dreamed of and executed the war accountable; the idea of war-crimes trials for the leaders of a rampaging superpower is a pipe-dream, far removed from political reality. And so while the Iraqi and American families who lost everything in the war struggle to find stability and rebuild their lives, the great majority of Americans are far too concerned with the sudden evaporation of their wealth, savings, and jobs to spare a moment to reflect on Iraq.
While there is no denying the severity of the problems Americans face in the present, our ability to navigate future crises depends upon our ability to learn from the mistakes of the past. Most Americans have come to acknowledge that the Iraq war was a mistake – and that’s a significant start. However, the challenge peace advocates face is to demonstrate that the war would have been a mistake even if it had been "successful" for the United States.
Back when the easy credit was flowing, stock prices were ballooning, and the reality of the American failure in Iraq had not yet set in, President Bush remained popular enough to easily win reelection. The "antiwar" sentiment that followed the 2004 election and led the Democrats to sweeps in the national elections of 2006 and 2008 must be seen for what it is: a mood, and not a lasting realignment in American politics. Not a wholesale turn away from war, but a realization that we have lost one particular war – the war in Iraq. (Some will object that America is "winning" in Iraq, but I argue that no reasonable observer, looking at the totality of the American military adventure in Iraq, could conclude that America’s conduct should be called a victory.)
American peace advocates have convinced the vast majority of Americans that withdrawal from Iraq should be a priority; we have made the case that neoconservatism and its idea of spreading democracy at gunpoint is a ludicrous theory whose proponents should be held accountable for their failures in Iraq and elsewhere; and we have worked hard to elect many vocal, unashamedly anti-Iraq War politicians to office. But our work is far from complete.
Peace advocates must play two very important roles in society. First, we must remain fully aware of the movements and machinations of states, vigilant and ready to stand up against those who would engage in unjust wars (and they are nearly all unjust). Second, we must act as educators: we must constantly work to eliminate the psychological distance that estranges people from those who are or may become their "enemies."
We must work to humanize the "other," emphasizing the individual human lives obscured by the veils of labels, prejudice, and racism. In contemporary America, that might mean promoting the study of Arabic and Farsi and Chinese, reading Islamic literature, and increasing the number of student-exchange programs. Every small step matters. A popular recent cookbook featuring the "cuisines of the Axis of Evil" struck another blow against ideologies that would assign a lesser value to the lives of citizens in states considered "enemies." Movies such as Slumdog Millionaire and best-selling fiction by writers such as Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri have introduced thousands of Westerners to alternative – and more human and realistic – ways of looking at the Middle East. Such works help to free us from the prejudiced, conflict-centered narratives we learn by watching the evening news.
Empathy is inversely proportional to emotional distance; we empathize most with our closest family and friends, and least with people on the other side of the globe. Political education must aim to combat apathy and stand between people and their prejudices.
One critically important way to accomplish this is to keep the memory of war – and, crucially, its effects on the individuals caught up in its maelstroms – alive. As Iraq recedes from the headlines and slips from the public’s mind to make room for the next "crisis," we have a responsibility to give some thought to the two million Iraqi refugees displaced by the war and the tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed or maimed as a consequence of the war. And what we should remember is not statistics or grand narratives, but individual stories and the weight they lend to the principles of prudence, humanism, and nonviolence.
And yet as the Iraq War itself demonstrated, the memory of war’s horrors never seems quite strong enough to prevent the next war and provide for a lasting peace. Can individual citizens and educators change that? Can a nation’s conscience overcome its lust for political power and international primacy? There is hope – in the contemporary world we find a wide range of nation-states and polities, each more or less violent, more or less war-prone, and more or less democratic than the next. By remaining politically awake, working to improve our understanding of the world, and struggling to live our values personally and politically, we can use our small strength to work toward a better world.