Confessions of a Repentant War Supporter

I supported George W. Bush in the presidential election in 2000, believing then that he best reflected my love for America and our tradition of liberty. I supported the war in Afghanistan. In March of 2003, I believed the invasion of Iraq was justified based upon prewar revelations presented to Congress and the American people. Accordingly, the indictments contained herein apply, first and foremost, to myself.

Many Americans whom I know and love, including many current supporters of President Bush, remain conflicted over both his ultimate intentions in Iraq as well as domestic curtailment of civil liberties.

Many have given the benefit of the doubt to President Bush, and, in a misdirected spirit of unity, have supported, as did I, administration policies that conflict with our essential values.

This essay explores many of the issues that led me personally to the recognition that the policies I was supporting in Iraq were not consistent with the justifications made for the invasion in the spring of 2003, and that implicit in our post-invasion actions was the goal of permanent occupation, which would ensure endless war and the resultant degradation of our liberty, security, and moral authority.

For me, recognizing that I could no longer support the president for whom I voted, and the occupation of a land we had invaded, remains personally painful.

I have learned that while it is difficult to admit being wrong, such recognition is a prerequisite for redemptive action, necessary both for individual growth and for the healing of our nation.

It is in this spirit that I submit these reflections.


“Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.”
– Ulysses S. Grant

Heeding the admonitions of battle-hardened generals is scarcely a strength of the Bush administration.

Dwight Eisenhower, his leadership tempered by his experience as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during WWII, and facing, in the dawn of the nuclear age, an arms race with the Soviet Union, cautioned,

“There is no way in which a country can satisfy the craving for absolute security, but it can bankrupt itself morally and economically in attempting to reach that illusory goal through arms alone.”

In his farewell address, Eisenhower was the first to warn Americans of the dangers he observed in the rapidly expanding military-industrial complex:

“The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. … The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower’s judicious leadership and balanced priorities, despite a unified, nuclear-armed, and assertive Soviet Union, averted nuclear catastrophe and preserved civil liberties.

In contrast, despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Bush regime, not content with America’s current status as the world’s sole superpower, has adopted a National Security Strategy that seeks American hegemony and total dominance, entailing a military industrial complex far greater than any of which Eisenhower warned.

Those familiar with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose founders include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and many others who went on to serve in the Bush administration, know about their long advocacy of increased military assertiveness, supported by an expanded worldwide network of permanent military bases.

Regarding the Middle East, the PNAC policy statement published in 2000, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses [.pdf],” plainly stated the objective of an increased military presence in the region as a reason for invading Iraq:”While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

An Administration Astray

“Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.”
– Thomas Jefferson, instructions to William Carmichael

The goal of total military dominance, pursued by civilian (mostly non-veteran) war hawks despite the opposition of and warnings from many of our most experienced generals, not only conflicts with American ideals but is irreconcilable with administration rhetoric. Indeed, President Bush and members of his administration have taken precautions to dispel any notion that they have plans for a permanent military presence in Iraq.

On April 13, 2004, President Bush said,”As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation and neither does America.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 17, 2005, stated, “We have no intention, at the present time, of putting permanent bases in Iraq.”

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in an interview on Iraqi television Aug. 15, 2005, “We are not seeking to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.”

But concrete speaks louder than words. In March 2004, the Chicago Tribune reported the planned construction of 14 “enduring bases” in Iraq. By May 2005, the Washington Post reported that plans called for consolidating American troops into four larger, more substantial facilities, designed to withstand direct mortar attacks, centered around the airfields in Tallil in the south, al-Asad in the west, Balad in the center, and either Irbil or Qayyarah in the north. These were redesignated “Contingency Operating Bases” in February 2005. Funding for the first group of redesigned barracks was included in the $82 billion supplemental war spending bill approved by Congress in May. Also included was funding for construction of the world’s largest embassy, located on 104 acres, with a staff of 1,020 and 500 guards.

This dissonance between President Bush’s rhetoric of democracy and self-governance and the reality of his actions has yet to be reconciled.

Once again, we may find guidance in Eisenhower’s words, which are relevant not only to Iraq, but within our own borders:

“We know that freedom cannot be served by the devices of the tyrant. … And any who act as if freedom’s defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.”


“The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.”

Indeed, within America, in the name of defending our freedom, we witness the ongoing and significant erosion of fundamental civil liberties and the rule of law, erosions so egregious that it is indeed difficult to comprehend their reality and future implications:

  • We witness rulings that in the War on Terror, not only non-citizens, but even an American citizen apprehended and accused on American soil, may be imprisoned indefinitely without charges or trial.
  • We witness the administration concocting legal theories to evade both the Geneva Conventions as well as American legal prohibitions on torture. These legal theories have now expanded to include the remarkable proposition that the president, as commander-in-chief, has the “inherent right” to “set aside” American law. When the Senate requested the relevant legal memos advocating this proposition that “The president is above the law,” the administration not only refused congressional access but classified the legal memos to be inaccessible until 2013.
  • Despite military leaders and Republican senators, including former POW John McCain, cautioning that American observation of laws against torture have been vital to protecting our own servicemen, we have seen the administration systematically oppose congressional efforts to reinstate these prohibitions.

Of the consequence of loosening the prohibition against the obtaining of confessions by torture, Patrick Henry said in 1789, “We are then lost and undone.”

The moral gymnastics a patriotic American must perform to reconcile support for these positions with long-honored American traditions of justice grow greater with each subsequent encroachment.

How has it come to this?

Framing the Issues

“No speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11. …

“If you describe it simply as a ‘preemptive action,’ some Americans will carry deep reservations about the rightness of the cause. Americans are conditioned to think that hitting first is usually wrong. … By far, the better word to use than ‘preemption’ is ‘PREVENTION’….”

– from GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz’s June 2004 talking points [.pdf]

Even the corrosive influence of a coarsened public dialogue dominated by personal invective and focus-group-tested, predigested talking points is not sufficient to blind observant Americans to the dissonance between these actions and our values. The repercussions of perpetual war, unwanted occupation of a foreign land, a reviled America abroad, and permanent erosions of our liberties have rendered the rents in the fabric of our democracy all too apparent. Rationalization for such egregious departures from our values can be accomplished only with the generous use of denial and self-deception.

A predictable pattern has developed. Misguided policy – most specifically, a policy that convinces Iraqis we are intent upon permanent occupation – fuels increasing insurgency. With each setback, President Bush has reacted by rhetorically “upping the ante.” Each escalation of rhetoric is accompanied by increasingly strident claims that those taking exception to his policies are “siding with the terrorists.”

In his call to arms, “You are either with us or against us,” by paraphrasing the words of Christ from the 12th chapter of Matthew, President Bush appropriates the language of faith for the cause of total and unquestioning support for his war policy.

Such framing of the issues encourages a view of reality with only two options: siding with an infallible, virtuous, freedom-spreading America led by George Bush, ordained by God to democratize the world, or siding with evil.

“Upping the ante,” as well as the redefining of both patriotism and divine will so as to be in accord with administration policy, solidifies our emotional commitment to the premise that every act of war, every Fallujah, every death of a son or daughter, every “liberated” Iraqi civilian who becomes “collateral damage,” every new infringement upon our civil liberties, is all for the greater good. By such a process, we may find solace, avoid recognition of the actual horrors we have come to support, and psychically deflect responsibility for the unintended, but predictable, consequences of our actions.

When faced with facts that do not fit this worldview, a “true believer” may resolve the cognitive dissonance by simple disbelief. When confronted, on Hannity & Colmes, with the revelation that American hero Pat Tillman, killed while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, opposed what he viewed as an illegal war in Iraq, Ann Coulter could only express disbelief. Hannity agreed: “I don’t believe it either. … He signed up because of a desire to fight.” Coulter then incorrectly speculated that this must be a fabrication of the media. The reality of a patriotic American who would give up a lucrative sports contract to risk his life defending America in Afghanistan, while simultaneously opposing the war in Iraq, appeared to both Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity simply incomprehensible.

A “with us or against us” dichotomy forces Americans to choose between blind support for misguided policy, or painful but necessary patriotic dissent while being unjustly maligned as “siding with the enemy.”

Like the courageous and patriotic Pat Tillman, many Americans share a more nuanced view of the world and are committed to proper moral action. But rejecting a falsely polarized, overly simplified “Us or Them” view may be difficult for those patriotic Americans who share a deep commitment to our values of liberty, but who also feel a moral obligation to speak out to correct policies inconsistent with those values.

Breaking free from this false framing of reality requires independent vision, intellectual honesty, and the courage to face painful realities. Skillful control of the framing of issues [.pdf] has been a significant factor in advancing the Bush/Rove agenda. Utilizing the skillful linguistic and psychological cunning of Frank Luntz’s talking points, the Bush/Rove machine has mastered the art of spin.

But just as the fabled unclad emperor learned, there are limits beyond which a false version of reality cannot be sustained. There comes a point at which the price of believing the prevailing myths becomes too great.

Such is now the case on the ground in Iraq.

Voices of Reality

“The ear that heareth the reproof of life abideth among the wise.”
– Proverbs 15:31

While President Bush emphatically rejects the suggestion that “extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq,” senior military and intelligence officers report a different reality:

But President Bush is undeterred by these patriotic voices of realism.

As with his threats to veto congressional attempts to reinstate American bans on torture, the president rejects congressional action to neutralize the greatest of source of Iraqi resistance by rejecting a permanent military presence in Iraq.

On a national level, the “moral bankruptcy” of which Eisenhower warned may be reflected in a loss of American moral authority. Not only may this be a factor in worldwide loss of esteem, but it may provide passion and longevity to the widespread resistance to our leadership.

The most tragic moral consequences, however, accrue to those who suppress their more noble instincts to blindly accept ill-fitting and ever-changing rationales for policies that conflict with our most cherished principles. That this may be done out of a misdirected sense of patriotism or faith is of little consolation.

Reclaiming the American Consensus

Emerging from moral bankruptcy requires that we properly reframe the issues:

We must not surrender the flag and faith to those who would use both to support a war that honors neither.

To those who would attempt to silence Americans with the call that “We must support our troops,” we must meet squarely on the issues: The troops are our sons, our daughters, our husbands, our wives. They volunteered to defend our nation, not to pursue a hidden agenda of those who do not honor our nation’s values. We must never abuse their courage, their patriotism, and their sacrifice.

To those who insist we must spread liberty: Our Founders established our nation as a beacon of liberty. We must never confuse the defense of liberty with the pursuit of an agenda of domination that is offensive to our democratic values and counterproductive to our security, inflaming the passions and determination of those less powerful.

To those who exploit a climate of fear to assert that we must now abridge fundamental liberties for the sake of security, we must recall the insights of wiser Americans:

“Any people that would give up liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither liberty nor safety.”
– Benjamin Franklin

“Liberty is always dangerous, but it is the safest thing we have.”
– Harry Emerson Fosdick

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”


“We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.”
– James Madison

To those who claim that we who oppose the war in Iraq are “anti-American,” we must answer with the truth that we who oppose the occupation come from all points on the political spectrum – Democrats, Republicans, and independents, left, right, and center – and include the majority of Americans. To those who persist in challenging our patriotism, we must speak the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, it is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.”

The issues that unite the growing American “antiwar majority” today are principles that since our founding have defined what it means to be an American. So ingrained have these core American values become in our national psyche that even those who seek entirely opposing goals routinely give them rhetorical lip service:

  • War only with prior constitutional consent obtained for justifiable, non-aggressive, honestly stated purposes.
  • No ambition of empire, or desire to dominate, and rejection of the role of world policeman.
  • Belief that only a society that both respects and actually practices individual freedom, rather than seeking the illusion of security through authoritarian measures, will succeed in preserving and spreading genuine liberty.
  • The conviction that no man, including the president, is above the law.
  • An uncompromising belief in the humane treatment of even our most despicable enemies.

Americans, with broad bipartisan support, have not only embedded our unambiguous rejection of torture into American law (establishing legal constraints the Bush administration is now determined to dismantle), but have for generations been in the forefront of establishing such standards worldwide through treaties including the Geneva Conventions.

Similarly, previous generations of Americans – left, right, and center – have been unified in the belief that not only is such conduct essential for the safety of our own captured servicemen and women, but that any nation that does not adhere to its own basic values (regardless of any self-proclaimed virtue) would cease to possess the moral prerequisites for genuine success.

Our present need for “the decent respect for the opinions of mankind” is no less compelling than it was for our Founders. But the primary need for realigning our actions with our values is not improved public relations. The most compelling need is for the benefit of our own society, to reaffirm moral constraints upon our actions, individual and collective, without which the character of our nation will be diminished.

Accomplishing this can only be done by reframing the issues in a manner befitting our Judeo-Christian and secular values.

This will be contentious. The unifying values implanted by America’s Founders – values of liberty, nonaggression, and antipathy to authoritarian government – have historically prevailed despite significant opposition from Americans with less honorable priorities. Indeed, the very eloquence with which Jefferson, Madison, and others defended civil liberties and warned repeatedly of the dangers of power, war, and empire was necessary because their views were not universal. Their beliefs in liberty, defended by non-aggressive, anti-imperial foreign policy, and the right of dissent have survived to become the “common ground” of the American civic vision only after bitter and divisive political battles. During such battles, these cherished principles – now universally claimed (even by those who oppose them in substance) and taken for granted – have not infrequently been severely threatened.

Today, the rhetoric of this consensus vision of liberty and nonaggression remains unscathed. But the substance of our political compact is under assault. Certainly no one overtly challenges our commitment to “liberty” and “democracy.” Yet we witness proponents of “freedom” at home and abroad advocating perpetual military occupation and rationalizing the permanent detention of American citizens without charges or trial, and those who claim to respect the rule of law remaining silent while administration lawyers concoct giant loopholes for the president.

How have conscientious and patriotic Americans come to support policies so antithetical to our values?

  • How can so many remain unmoved when all evidence shows our stated justification for our first ever preemptive war is unsubstantiated [.pdf]?
  • How can a self-proclaimed Christian, writing in his weekly column in National Review, the “flagship of the modern conservative movement,” bemoan that our nation is not willing “to fight this war the way it needs fighting, with grim ferocity and cold unconcern for legalistic niceties? To lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike, to level cities, to burn forests and divert rivers, to smite our enemies hip and thigh, to carry out summary execution of captured leaders”?
  • How can anyone have their “faith renewed” by British police putting “Five in the Noggin” of a an innocent man?
  • How can so many who profess “moral values” remain missing in action as the president claims the right to legitimize torture? How can they remain in denial even as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an Air Force colonel with congressional access to suppressed Abu Ghraib evidence, reports, “The American public needs to understand we’re talking about rape and murder here. We’re not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience”? How can 20 million radio listeners a week applaud as a mocking Rush Limbaugh maligns Sen. Graham as a “Republican in Name Only” and shamelessly promotesAbu Ghraib Day” parties?

Most sobering is that these perverse sentiments do not result solely, or even primarily, from the shameless exploitation of fear. Rather, they arise as the unintended consequence of a worldview that derives its strength from a direct appeal to and diversion of American’s most honorable instincts.

Support for virtuous goals may mutate over time into support for malignant policy. Many, perhaps most, who now tacitly support perpetual occupation would never have supported such a policy at the time of the invasion. Many supporters of President Bush applauded his repeated past assertions that any commitment of troops requires an “exit strategy,” and his rhetoric opposing conquest, occupation, and “nation-building.” Congressional Republicans cited similar convictions in opposing the war in the Balkans.

Support for misguided war policy evolves incrementally with shifting justifications for the war. After support solidifies, the “goal posts” may be moved to align with a prior hidden agenda. Doubts as to the soundness of the policy or the propriety of its circuitous implementation are deflected by appeals to patriotism. Ultimately, anesthetized supporters may dismiss abhorrent consequences with such mantras as “Bad things happen in war.”

Increasing casualties may paradoxically galvanize support as it becomes ever more consequential to acknowledge error. Culpability is negated by increasing commitment to the initial noble goals, and to the contention that the policy fits those goals. Conflicting information eliciting cognitive dissonance is met with increasing denial. Views calcify.

In this manner, good people may become inexorably committed to malignant policy.

That such a flawed paradigm can be based upon noble values both underscores the import of the proper framing of the issues and illustrates the formidable challenges of achieving constructive change.

Fear perversely augments this process. In a perilous world, authoritarian measures that exploit an insatiable desire for security become especially seductive.

Our present policies provide ample evidence of the perverse outcomes of such an illusory quest for security. In Iraq, the pursuit of “stabilization” by means of perpetual occupation is bearing instead the fruit of endless war. And in America, the upward ratcheting of the “national security state” in pursuit of “safety” can only deliver one result: the abdication of our individual liberty and our open society. Countless refugees from tyranny know that suppression is no guarantee of safety.

When Edmund Burke observed, “The people will only give up their liberty under some delusion,” he presciently foretold our current paradox: a “freedom-loving” people not only acquiescent to the surrender of their liberty, but welcoming “Big Brother” in the pursuit of the mirage of security.

Rejecting such beguiling but false promises requires more than the courage to face uncertainty. Although authoritarian solutions are counterproductive in securing liberty, a frenzy for safety may reward the unscrupulous politician at the polls.

Reestablishing an American consensus for an honest, reality-based policy of national defense and domestic liberty requires the integrity to refrain from exploiting the twin passions of fear and hope.

But this is the challenge we must overcome if we are to avoid endless war and preserve for our children a free and open society.

This will be difficult. The cult of empire is propped up by a ubiquitous and effective spin machine. Megastar media surrogates saturate the airways with their 24/7 presence. They advance a creed of conquest that confuses the strength to defend the nation with the pursuit of world domination. Their message thrives on the demonization of both foreign power and domestic dissent. While they peddle a creed that holds in contempt both the actual exercise of liberty and the practice of authentic faith, these false prophets cloak their message with a veneer of moral and patriotic values. And they have infected our culture with their audacious claim that their values reflect the values of America. The challenge of properly reframing these issues is amply demonstrated by the 22 percent of Americans who say they rely on talk radio as their primary source of news.

But cracks are appearing in the ideological foundation beneath this ahistorical and insupportable view of America as empire.

The moral blind spots displayed by those who profess respect for the rule of law and moral values regarding a presidential “right” to “set aside law” and legitimize torture are symptoms of the “moral bankruptcy” of which Eisenhower warned.

These blind spots reflect a void in the soul of America. Filling this vacuum requires rejecting false idols, repairing a flawed paradigm, and restoring a consensus based upon authentic American values. No simple formula will address all issues. But the “common ground” to be found in the still revolutionary vision of America’s founders – a vision embracing individual liberty, opposing wars of conquest, protecting the rights of dissent, limiting presidential powers, and maintaining the moral high ground with unambiguous rejection of any legitimate role for torture – maintains its power by virtue of its moral authority. This compelling vision provides unifying objectives to America’s growing antiwar majority.

Those supporting current policies will continue to use all the resources of their propaganda machine to attempt to perpetuate their distorted view of the role of power, of empire, and of America’s role in the world. And they will continue to appropriate the rhetoric of “freedom” to promote policies that repudiate the substance of the American vision of liberty.

We must reframe the terms of debate to reclaim America’s authentic vision.

We cannot permit a war begun for the purpose of disarming a tyrant to be used to justify the permanent unwanted occupation of a foreign land.

We must never enable the rhetoric of patriotism and faith to support a policy of domination pursued through deception.

Nor the rhetoric of fear to blind us to the dismantling of the legal framework for our freedoms.

We can no longer tolerate business-as-usual politicians in either party who will not act to reassert constitutional restraints on executive power, end a misguided war, and repel the perilous assault on civil liberties.

Effective action requires that we first overcome our own denial.

We cannot absolve ourselves from responsibility by pointing to our cowardly media.

John Locke, intellectual mentor to America’s Founders, stated in his “Essay on Human Understanding” in 1689, “It is vain to find fault with the arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived.”

Overcoming this human frailty remains a formidable challenge.

The False Comfort of Self-Deception

Many besides myself can attest to the difficulties associated with effecting genuine personal change. Denial remains a potent disincentive to change precisely because of the compelling subjective benefits it affords. These transient emotional comforts can present a formidable barrier both to personal growth as well as to the correction of a dysfunctional political system.

For many reasons, it may be problematic to move beyond the illusory comforts of denial to experience the uncertainties of reality.

  • It is much easier on our moral sensibilities to believe we invaded for the noble cause of disarming an outlaw than to face the shameful truth that the rationale we used for our first ever preemptive war was based on false information [.pdf].
  • When evidence for weapons is lacking, it is much more gratifying to believe we are on a mission to democratize grateful oppressed peoples than to grapple with the unpleasant understanding that they regard us as unwelcome occupiers.
  • It is less depressing to imagine we are stabilizing a volatile region than to recognize that we are fueling the insurgency and hardening hatred.
  • It is less disconcerting to delude ourselves with the belief that our leaders are on a mission to liberate all humanity than to comprehend that, in a climate of fear, the legal infrastructure protecting our own liberties is being systematically and permanently dismantled.
  • It is more reassuring to believe in the truthfulness of our president than to grasp the fact that while he continues to claim no intent for permanent occupation, permanent-base construction continues unabated.
  • It is more tempting to seek solace in the “With Us or Against Us” simplicity of George W. Bush, disregarding inconvenient facts and unintended consequences, than to heed the wise and more nuanced counsel of Generals George Casey, John Abizaid, Anthony Zinni, Joseph Hoar, William Odom, Wesley Clark, Tony McPeak, or Dwight Eisenhower.
  • It is far more comforting to believe that the Iraq war has been sanctioned by God than to recognize that fallible human leaders have dishonestly abused the rhetoric [.pdf] of patriotism and faith to advance policies that dishonor our values.
  • It is more consoling to entertain the myth that our soldiers will be there “as long as they need to be, and not one day longer,” than to awaken to the terrible truth that those who peddled this war to Americans as a focused military action, necessary for disarming a tyrant, have no intention of ever departing from Iraq, regardless of Iraqi wishes, and contrary to administration rhetoric about Iraqi democracy, independence, and sovereignty.

But the price of continued denial is too great. The realities on the ground in Iraq, of which Gen. Casey tells us, cannot be changed by wishful thinking. Occupation of foreign lands incites insurrection. And in our own land, as James Madison observed, “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Blind adherence to the false conceits of those whose quest is world domination can lead only to continued erosion of our moral authority and our esteem and influence abroad, and damage to our freedoms and democracy at home.

In the eloquent prose of the King James translation, the Author of Proverbs tells us, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

The solace to be found in self-deception is impermanent.

A true solace, one more substantial than that afforded by the denial of reality, may be more profitably sought in constructive action.

Thomas Jefferson told us, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

Patriotic Americans can no longer afford the hollow comforts of blind self-deception, nor the transient respite of continued silence.