My neighbor once announced righteously when describing a dispute at work: Feelings are facts! Well, not exactly. But what's great about them is we don't have to check them like we check facts. We just announce them. Or share them.
This is a column that's only marginally about the war in Iraq. It's not a fact column. It's a story about feelings.
Let's start by remembering how we got there. We watched the towers burn and fall. We cried and kicked the furniture. We felt angry and sad, and then we attacked Afghanistan. That's where the bad guys who'd hijacked our planes and blown up our buildings had been trained. That's where their bosses lived. We didn't catch Osama bin Laden but we killed a lot of his friends.
Yet it was over so fast and we still felt angry and sad. We'd been attacked spectacularly on Sept. 11. Could it happen again? Everybody said it could. So we began to feel scared, too. Especially when we were told Saddam Hussein had
weapons of mass destruction.
He'd used them before, so why not again? And why not against us?
This was a battle over the future of the world, our president told us. "You are either for us or against us," he told the world. He had his dukes up. He'd just bare-knuckled Afghanistan. So we cheered him on when he squared off against Saddam. The television news cheered him on.
When a singer said she felt embarrassed by him, her band's music was banned by hundreds of radio stations. We felt happy and righteous. We liked our cowboy.
Admit it. Many of us didn't, but most of us did.
So that's why we went to war in Iraq. Because we felt like it. We were feeling hurt, and we were feeling threatened. And this war was about our feelings. Not facts. We felt righteous and angry, and as my brother-in-law wrote me: We have to do something!
So we marched to Baghdad. We didn't even need that many troops. We had bombs guided by lasers -- and a national will guided by the illusion that others love us as much as we love ourselves. We imagined Iraqis would line the streets waving flags.
Instead, they spent a couple of weeks looting. All the stores and markets. All the weapons caches. Hey, we thought as we watched, what about us? Don't you feel happy we're here?
In the meantime, our president had landed on an aircraft carrier, hopped out of the jet wearing a flight suit, and announced that our mission in Iraq had been accomplished. We cheered lustily. Not all of us, but most of us. He was the boss of the biggest war machine in the history of Earth. He had ships, he had planes. He had lots of serious men and women ready to kill and die for him. So in a way, we all did! We felt very powerful!
No wonder the president thought he was doing God's work. No wonder when no weapons of mass destruction were found we easily changed the mission from the banal to the sublime -- we would bring the light of freedom to this dark part of the world!
Hey, why not? Wasn't it pretty to think so?
That was four years ago.
Since then there's been an election in Iraq. That made us feel great. But the Iraqi government has yet to pass even one law. At least not one that anybody follows. So we feel frustrated. And we are trying to feel patient.
But hundreds of people are dying every week. Thousands a month. Tens of thousands a year!
So we feel confused and exasperated, and every time an American soldier comes home to be buried, we feel very sad. Especially when we hear that the brave soldier died fighting to keep America free. Because we ask ourselves: Do we feel freer?
Since the start of the war, the laws in America have changed. Our government can now listen to the conversations of its free citizens. Our government is now permitted to haul people away in the middle of the night and put them in prison indefinitely. If the president feels you are an enemy combatant, he can legally have you locked up, tortured. And nobody you know will even know where you went.
Maybe not. How about safe? Do you feel safer yet?
Before you answer, here are a few things to consider. I won't call them facts, just things: There are hundreds of thousands of brothers and cousins and uncles and fathers of the tens of thousands we have killed -- and there are more every day. Many might not have thought two seconds about America before the war, but they don't like us very much now.
Or this: Before we invaded Iraq, there had never been a suicide bombing there.
One more: Before the war, moderate Muslim leaders around the world had a much bigger following than the radical Muslim leaders. Now, who knows? Do you?
So maybe we don't feel so safe either.
The Republicans in Congress have called the Democrats' plan to withdraw from Iraq a "surrender" plan. Surrender is a bad word, and we feel ashamed when we hear it. I know I do. Ashamed because of the mess we made. Ashamed because four years ago we sent our army into another country to kill thousands of human beings because we felt unsafe. Ashamed because we kept the war going because we felt all those good people who have done our killing and dying must have done so for a good reason (although the reason kept changing).
Ashamed because our big feelings and big weapons have caused big misery. The administration tells us to be brave, and to stick with the new war plan: to keep Iraqis safe! We've warned that if we think we feel unsafe now, we will be feeling really unsafe it the Iraqis are unsafe.
Why is it we are urged to be brave, and then asked to make foreign policy based on fear?
But don't think about that. And don't think about how none of the previous goals of the war panned out according to plan. As I said at the beginning, this column is only marginally about Iraq. And it's not about facts. It's about our feelings.
David Cates, a native of Madison and son of Madison attorney Richard Cates, lives in Missoula, Mont., where he teaches and writes.
© 2007 The Madison Capital Times