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The American Prospect

Iraq War: The Missing Measure of Our Outrage

If most of us can agree the Iraq War is a colossal failure, why aren't we doing much about it?

How do you measure war?

It is a question that many of our greatest political philosophers have wrestled with for thousands of years. What number, what unit, what fields of inquiry could possibly describe the progress (or in our present conflict, the lack thereof) when it comes to the mess of war? Is it the number of dead soldiers? The dead plus the injured? The new alliances and government infrastructure? The "collateral damage"? Can it be measured by an absence -- of terrorist attacks, of tyrants, of dreams?

As our Democratic-led Congress looks towards answering this question, or at least attempting to, I have been mulling it over myself. And of course rather than leading to an answer, it seems to have left me staring down another, perhaps even more difficult question: how do you measure a public's responsibility to end war?

I sat drinking beers among family friends on a recent Sunday evening, discussing just this topic with a group of people hailing from both coasts and many places in between, spanning political persuasions from loyal Republican to anarchist, and at all stages of life, from a recent widow to a puppy in love. We were boomers and echoes of the boom, the moneyed and the starving artists. And we were all totally stumped as to what our responsibilities as citizens were in a war, that -- regardless of party affiliation or tax bracket -- we all agreed was a colossal failure.

Why haven't we been more outraged? And if we have, why hasn't it manifested in desperate action?

There were a couple of Vietnam vets in the room, and they were convinced that one of the reasons we have failed to feel strongly about the Iraq War is, sadly, a matter of personal interest. In all of Vietnam, there were somewhere around 58,000 U.S. soldiers killed. In our four years so far of the Iraq War, we haven't even suffered 4,000 yet. There are simply far fewer of us who have had to deal with the war in an acutely personal way. (Though injuries are on the rise because of new forms of warfare.)

My mom teared up as she remembered how many of her friends disappeared to the draft, their empty seats in class like open wounds among those remaining behind. My cousin did two tours of duty in the unforgiving Iraqi desert. I'm proud and lucky to report that he is now studying history at UCLA, galvanized by his mix-bag experience as a Marine to understand the legacy of war and the way that our world is changing.

But among my college-educated friends, I am an anomaly. Most of them don't know anyone who has actually served in Iraq, much less lost anyone. We, the children of Desert Storm and the teenagers of September 11th, experience war through an unarguably class-determined lens. Those of us who grew up with trampolines and college guides know little of IED's beyond what we have read online.


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You may think I'm creeping dangerously close to advocating a reinstatement of the draft. In fact, I think that the idea is unconscionable, not just because booming young cities like Denver and Austin would be ghost towns and Canada would be rich with innovative, young blood, but because it is morally indefensible -- as is manipulating the poor and the newly American into chaotic war. Why add more cracks to our already broken moral character as a country?

But if not a draft, than we need something, anything, that would help us override the basest of moral reasoning -- "If it affects me or mine, I'll protest" -- and move into a more enlightened zone -- "If people are suffering, dying, losing hope, then it affects me and I'll protest." We have developed technology that allows us to email from Antarctica and send songs to strangers via wireless connection on the streets. How can we not develop some new sense of our interconnectedness, and as a result, our responsibility to do something about a war that we -- by and large -- don't believe in? Today, according to CBS, a full 69 percent of the American public disapproves of the war.

In a war that has highlighted how complex identity politics are, how much our technological advances have changed the look of and loss during war time, how wide the abysses have grown between economic classes, it is imperative that we still see the simple truths.

We are all, every last American, responsible for this messy war. We must demand a new moral accountability from ourselves that transcends self-interest. If we are truly principled, it shouldn't matter whether the death toll is 1 or 100,000, whether we know someone directly affected by war or not. We must take the war personally simply by virtue of being American, and even more radically, simply by virtue of being human. And last but certainly not least, we must find a way to move, to act, to affect change.

I grew a bit embarrassingly passionate, to none of my family's surprise, as the conversation meandered from Vietnam-Iraq contrasts and comparisons to the elephant in every room: What the hell do we do? I looked one of the 50-something-years olds deep in the eyes and asked, "But seriously, what do you suggest we do in order to actualize our outrage? I've been to protests, and they were called focus groups. I've signed online petitions that, as far as I can tell, just got lost in the internet ether. What do we do?"

She shrugged her shoulders, as did the other balding conservatives and aging hippies around the table. "Things are changing," they swore. "Bush is getting closer to pulling the troops out."

Okay. Fine. Time and plunging public opinion may have whittled away Bush's cowboy confidence to the point that he will concede some defeat. Perhaps some soldiers, even some Iraqi civilians, will be spared by the constant barrage of criticism the current administration has incurred from pundits, politicians, bloggers, antiwar vets and activists. I am grateful for that, though I still believe that too many have done too little to end this seemingly endless war. But American civilians are no closer to understanding how to harness our own outrage, how to live in a modern world where poor kids die while rich kids fight ever harder to get into Harvard, how to go to bed with a peaceful sense that we have done what we could to end war.

We remain angry and inert, privileged and distanced, a nation of living rooms loud with debate and proverbial streets empty and silent. The only way to measure our silence will, I fear, be the deafening echo of what this war does to future generations.

Courtney E. Martin

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (Simon & Schuster's Free Press). You can read more about her work at

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