This weekend marks thirteen years since the “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq, and while the Presidential contenders have gone back-and-forth about the war, not one of them is leading the way forward.
If they want to show they’re qualified for the Oval Office, promoting an American Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the war would be a major step in the right direction. Modeled after Truth & Reconciliation Commissions in Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere, an American Truth & Reconciliation Commission, convened at the US Capitol, would consist of a panel of select political, grassroots and spiritual leaders assembled to hear the testimony of the politicians and pundits who championed the war, as well as veterans and their families and the affected communities. Those first-hand accounts would help inform the panel in developing solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the restoration of relationships. If it were established as an initiative of the White House, the TRC would provide a powerful demonstration of moral courage and an opportunity to become wiser about the costs of combat. And we could apply that wisdom like a balm to the moral injuries of war, a salve for the soldier’s heart and the soul of this nation.
The presidency isn’t just about political leadership; it’s also about moral leadership, something this country didn’t have when the war began. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s not enough for Clinton, Cruz, and Trump to call the Iraq war a “mistake,” and claim to get it now. Senator Sanders opposed war from the start, but having gotten it right then doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do. Whoever our next President is, he–or she–must lead this country in making peace with that war in the future if we do not want to repeat the past.
America has been here before, in some ways this is all-too-familiar territory. We spent years in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, sick with shame, brittle with anger and betrayal, foisting our collective guilt upon anyone who dared to wear the uniform. This nation sentenced a generation of veterans, their families, and their grandchildren to suffer in silence. We know how that story goes. But this time, in our time, we have the chance to do it differently, to write a better cultural story. That better story demands moral leadership from the highest office in the land. Every Presidential contender has been campaigning, or preparing to, while more truth about the war in Iraq has tied its shoes and started to run.
In recent weeks, another one of the lies that walked this nation into Iraq has been revealed. The latest falsehood was contained in a memo from the Pentagon to Rumsfeld, stating there was no proof of weapons of mass destruction. Those lies resulted in more than 35,000 American casualties, 165,000 dead Iraqi civilians, and trillions of taxpayers’ dollars wasted.
The numbers don’t include veterans’ suicides or “accidental” deaths. There has been no accounting for the loss of twelve-year-old Daniel Radenz, who hung himself during his father’s second tour, or any of the dozens of other military family members who killed themselves during or after a loved one’s deployment to Iraq. There are very few metrics measuring post-war divorces and the attendant destruction of lives and families, hopes and dreams. I lost my home and my beloved husband, Lorin, who returned from two combat tours in Iraq with severe combat trauma and a mild traumatic brain injury. Those untreated traumas ultimately led to a horrific crystal methamphetamine addiction. Lorin is haunted by what he saw and did in Iraq. This nation will be, too, if we do not take a moral inventory and reckon with the deadly foreign policy failure of the war in Iraq.
By 2014, several polls indicated that nearly 76 percent of the country regarded the Iraq war as a mistake, precisely the percentage that supported the war in 2003. For the second time in American history (the first was Vietnam), the cultural bandwidth evolved rapidly enough within a single generation to transform public opinion on a war. The TRC would afford an historic opportunity to formalize and sanctify that shift by engaging those who have been harmed by the war and offering a public acknowledgment that their wounds could have been prevented. That would be a potent prescription for peace, and an antidote for the epidemic of disconnection between civilians and the post-9/11 military community.
Misled by our leaders, America did not get it right with the war in Iraq, but with new, moral leadership, we can try to make it right now. Our next president has to love this country enough to make us a nation with integrity, and lead us to replace the lies with truth and reconciliation.