This summer has been a strange time to visit England. First the Brexit fiasco, and now the Chilcot Report.
A few weeks ago, Sir John Chilcot and his team of researchers reaped the harvest of seven years of research into Britain’s involvement in the war in Iraq. The report covers an incredible span of information and materials, sprawls into some 2.6 million words of explanation and analysis, and has been hailed as the definitive word on exactly what went wrong with Iraq.
Despite the enormous scope of the project, and despite the wealth of information sifted and collected, more than anything else, here in Britain at the moment, the report has been reduced to a collective “I told you so” to Tony Blair, pinning the blame on him for the bloodshed in Iraq. More than a few voices, over the past decade, have even resorted to terms such as “war crimes” and have talked of prosecuting both Blair and Bush in The Hague for their leadership decisions. BBC—that venerated voice of objective news—even ran a story analyzing which ways Blair might face legal action stemming from this report.
The troubling aspect of the Chilcot Report, to me as a US veteran of the conflict, is not that it questions the leadership, is not it calls leaders to be accountable for their actions, and is not that it roundly condemns a war that I fought in. No, I have other reasons to be unsettled by the Chilcot Report.
For one, the blame is the thing. For most of the public, the enormity of the Chilcot Report serves not to understand further the conflict or to learn from the mistakes, but rather as a vehicle to blame Blair and Bush. Britain seems to forget that a majority of their representatives (and by extension, the people themselves), were in favor of prosecuting the “war on terror” against Hussein and into Iraq. It was only when the burden became heavier than expected—in terms of money, and time, and blood—that the mobs turned on the leader and demanded his blood instead. Now, reading through the media, you’d say that the entire population had been dragged kicking and screaming into Basra.
The popular voice exhibits exactly the mob mentality that led to hasty decisions based on unreliable intelligence criticized in their former leaders. It’s fair to say that most readers will not digest the wealth of intelligence Chilcot offers any further than the sound bites and quips offered by the media. The 2.6 million words of Chiclot are valuable not for the information they carry, but rather as a statistical bludgeon wielded against Blair.
Just as hasty as the leaders and the public were to bandwagon for war in Iraq, they bandwagon to tar-and-feather their leader. Media analysts and politicians alike claim to “learn from” Chilcot’s efforts, but no one seems to learn the lesson of mob-think and over-reacting.
Aside from blame, though, in the intervening years that have passed since I soldiered in Iraq, I have been irked by a tendency to blame Blair and Bush for the lack of contingency plans for the leadership of the country, and the Chilcot reaction rubs this wound raw all over again.
True, Blair acknowledges the oversights in his leadership. Bush has done the same. Rumsfeld and Rice likewise lament not having a better option of governing the sectarian systems that erupted in flames and bloodshed following the war.
While media in the West have been quick to heap blame on these heads, few have really, satisfactorily, placed the blame more squarely where it belongs – on the warlords and marauders and sectarian leaders perpetrating the violence.
True, the leaders did not foresee events precisely or plan for contingencies. But they were not the ones making deliberately evil choices.
The West has behaved as if the logical thing to do when electricity is slow to resume is to detonate a truckload of explosives in the marketplace. The media seems to assume that it’s perfectly normal for an educated, sociable, religious citizen, when freed from the decades-long stranglehold of a dictator, to start slitting the throats of neighbors. The columnists and op-ed writers seem to imagine that of course, any new governing body will logically, infallibly, not merely squabble over oil revenues, but assassinate, murder, intimidate and spill blood. Yes, everyone seems to agree that most sensible course of action for a cleric finally granted religious freedom is to blast the shrines and slaughter the youth of anyone whose theology differs.
Yes, the normal course of action for a frustrated, jobless youth is to plant roadside bombs and launch mortars into supply depots and kidnap and behead and destroy.
Yes, the post-invasion leadership failed to provide stability and safety. But it wasn’t as if Blair and Bush and Rumsfeld were the ones roaming the streets with AK-47’s and planting IEDs along every supply route.
And by the way, it’s not as if a handful of leaders in Iraq could possibly answer for all the misery of the intervening years. Tens of thousands of decisions by tens of thousands of individuals have time and time again fallen on the side of retaliation and violence and death rather than on the side of forgiveness and patience and love.
Why cast the entirety of the blame on the leaders for the failures of so many thousands to live peaceably, sensibly?
And for that matter, why blame the leaders of these nations when the populace has consistently been more concerned with which fast food to order and which celebrity is cheating and which smartphone to upgrade to while ingesting war-news via a facebook feed over a rushed breakfast? If the populations of these countries has devoted their energy and time and wealth to healing a hurting nation, something more productive than hindsight finger-pointing should resulted from the devastating news articles coming from Iraq.
Leaders stand guilty of flawed intelligence and inaccurate plans. Their people stand guilty of apathy and indulgence.
I would venture so far as to say that never in the history of man has more information on the horrors of war been available to the public, and yet made so little impact on the citizens.
Yes, leaders can make the process of reconciliation and rebuilding easier. Yes, more complete and realistic planning could have prevented much suffering. Yes, the Chilcot Report shows exactly the areas in which these could improve.
Sadly, though, it seems as if Chilcot’s report won’t be used in a productive way. Sadly, it seems the lesson the world has learned from Iraq is that, when intervention is truly needed – say in a civil war in Syria leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced – that it’s better not to soil the hands and spend the resources and take definite action, because in the end, someone will be blamed, the public doesn’t really care, and it’s easier for a leader to be likeable and palatable for the future when not taking risky actions.
I’m thankful for the work of Sir John Chilcot, and I look forward to see what exactly will come from a more detailed examination of his team’s findings. But from initial reactions and observations, seven years of labor and minute sifting of the facts will result merely in political wrangling and angry finger-pointing.
His 2.6 million words will be reduced to a half-dozen one-liners bantered around talk shows for a week until some new event takes over the headlines. It’s been three weeks, and it’s mostly forgotten already.