Knowing What We Don’t Know About War

For the past month, the media has managed to remember the fact that the Iraq war was bad. Or rather, would-be and official candidates for the 2016 presidency are being asked about their stance on that war, and whether they would have supported it at the time.

This is both an important question and an exercise in “too little, too late.” Much like the media failed at the time, then wrote self-flagellating, self-satisfied articles of regret five to ten years later, politicians today know the war wasn’t popular enough to support without waffling. So they respond in kind.

Rick Perry wouldn’t have gone in given the lack of WMDs. Jeb Bush would have – maybe? Rand Paul wouldn’t have. Marco Rubio has expressed support for nation-building in the past, but has finally decided that this war was kind of bad. Scott Walker had the same general answer about the war being mistaken, but that most leaders would have (and did) support the war given what was known at the time. In order to prepare for 2016, Hillary Clinton made sure to include a mea culpa on her “yes” Iraq vote in her memoir. Lindsey Graham. – well, the man sticks to his principles, even if they are of the most hawkish variety.

Like the tragically tardy popularity of being against the war on drugs, this attempt at distancing from the Iraq war bodes well. “We” in the general sense get that that war was a disaster, and that worn out chemical weapons stocks is not the same thing as Saddam Hussein threatening the world with WMDs. Or that as bad as Saddam was, invading was worse. Recent polls even suggest that Americans aren’t scared enough of ISIS to want to send American troops back into the mess we made.

But polls fluctuate based on how scary the media says a hot new threat is, and how it threatens your children’s safety. And politicians are all about testing the winds and following which way they blow to the best of their ability. These changes are good, but they are small.

Knowing that Iraq was a mistake is the least we can ask for in a 2016 candidate. But we need more than that. We need something that we’re not going to get in any electable politician. We need someone who understand that Iraq was always going to be a disaster.

Plenty of people with blood all over their hands – perhaps the majority of them – will grant that various wars were ill-advised. Perhaps Vietnam was unwise. Perhaps Iraq was, too. Any war – popular and unpopular alike – is a great excuse for a solemn politician to furrow his or her brow and speak of the difficulty and ugliness of a conflict. That’s easy. Admitting that war is tough and not any fun can be done by anyone. Even the biggest advocates of intervention admit it won’t be pretty, but we “have to do it.”

Naturally, we need another Ron Paul. Or rather, we need anyone willing to say that this war – and any other – is not a good idea for moral, fiscal, and practical reasons. We need someone who doesn’t qualify their objection to a past conflict with “well, we didn’t know X at the time.”

The failure of Iraq was predictable, but only with humility and an understanding that human beings in other countries are not pawns or puppets. That strongmen do help hold countries together. That firing thousands from government and civil jobs will give you a pool of resentful, unemployed people. And that it’s easy to start a civil war if you have no understanding of what might cause conflict between religious populations – and if you see them as papers to shuffle and figures to tweak, not human beings.

To be a real change, some candidate would need to say that it was obvious that they weren’t going to “welcome us with flowers.” They need to mention that the knowledge problem still exists when you leave the borders of the United States, and is in fact magnified when outside cultures try to impose their will on another nation. They have to make it clear that the end result of an invasion may not be perfectly predictable, but that anger, death, chaos, and blowback is inevitable.

They won’t. It is not the nature of government to admit that it should never do something. The best we can hope for right now is that one war goes out of style, and that domestic policy is distracting enough to prevent a new one from coming to fruition.

But truly understanding Iraq would look different. It wouldn’t be Jeb Bush vaguely critiquing his brother, or Marco Rubio admitting there were a few intelligence failures, or Hillary Clinton remembering that the best of the left was vehemently opposed to Iraq, and she’ll need their vote next year. It would be someone – anyone – saying that America hasn’t the moral right, or the practical knowledge to invade other countries and reshape them in their own image. And that it never will.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.