Memorial Day is the day the United States sets aside to remember those who died in wars–a legacy of our Civil War, which killed 625,000 people out of a nation of some 35 million.
But to hear some conservative pundits tell it, there’s something wrong about being asked to reflect on war–and questioning whether we could have avoided it a metaphysical impossibility.
“History is an infinitely complex web of causations,” argues New York Times columnist David Brooks (5/19/15):
To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river twice.
Therefore, he says, “The question, would you go back and undo your errors is unanswerable.” The subtext, of course, is that Jeb Bush’s difficulty in answering the question of whether he would have invaded Iraq is completely understandable.
What we should learn from Iraq, Brooks says, is “the need for epistemological modesty”: “We don’t know much about the world, and much of our information is wrong.” But he does know that the idea that “the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was all cooked by political pressure, that there was a big political conspiracy to lie us into war,” is a “fable.”
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Conservative columnist S.E. Cupp (Daily News, 5/19/15) likewise wrote a column about the “uselessness” of “ask[ing] a candidate to Monday-morning quarterback” the Iraq War. “Giving them a time machine isn’t telling us anything,” she insisted.
“It’s hard to understand how this became a thing,” she wrote, noting that “the Iraq War is not a topline issue for most Americans.”
And Jeff Jacoby (Boston Globe, 5/20/15) took issue with the “field day” journalists and politicians were having with Bush’s trouble with the Iraq invasion question: “Obviously there will be no do-over of the Iraq war authorization; the next president can’t hop a time machine back to 2003.”
“History is always messy, especially the history of wars and their aftermath,” declares Jacoby. “Rarely does the decision to fight proceed as expected. The same is true of the decision not to fight.”
With all this talk about epistemology and the messiness of history, it’s easy to forget that what Bush was being asked to do was not travel through time but to say whether or not he agreed with a decision, made by the last president from his party (who also happens to be his brother), that was based on lies and resulted in the deaths of half a million people. Would his brother have made that same choice? It’s an important question whose answer is obviously not obvious.
Since Iraq’s population is 33 million, it’s roughly the scale of devastation inflicted on the United States by the Civil War. When that happened to us, it left a wound that we’re still commemorating 150 years later. When our country does it to another, 12 years later it’s seen as distant history whose dredging up provokes head-scratching on the part of right-wing columnists.