When I first started listening to podcasts, I checked to see if This American Life had one: I very rarely listen to the radio, but it is one show where I regret reaching my destination if it’s on the radio while I’m driving. Unfortunately, a podcast wasn’t an option: you could listen to the show for free over a streaming player, or you could pay to download episodes, but neither of those was a solution that I was willing to use.

I checked again recently, and I was pleased to discover that they’d added a free podcast. They only make the last week’s episode available at any given time, so you can’t use it to delve into their back catalog, but that’s okay with me.

The episode that I listened to on the way to and from work today, The Center for Lessons Learned, had some really striking moments. (It’s already vanished from the podcast feed—I didn’t get around to listening to it last week—but there’s always the streaming version.) The title is taken from an Army office whose job is to learn from the past; what a neat idea! In general, the episode is about things we might or might not have learned, taken from issues surrounding our current war.

About which, some random thoughts.

It seems to me that there might have been two defensible reasons to support going to war in the first place: either you thought it would be good for the American people, or you thought it would be good for the Iraqi people. I didn’t support the war at its inception because I didn’t believe either of those reasons: “good for the American people” in this context basically meant some combination of fighting terrorists plus preventing WMDs, and even at the time you could see Bush’s active dishonesty behind his claims to that effect if you just poked around a bit. (Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda working together? Give me a break. The Democrats still have a lot to answer for, in my opinion.)

Good for the Iraqi people was a bit harder. (And almost entirely absent from the administration’s original justification, though they’ve tried to stick it in there retroactively.) I’m quite willing to believe that Iraq was very much not a place where I’d want to live, and that the Iraqi people would have been better off with another government in place. From a pragmatic point of view, though, I wasn’t particularly convinced that we’d do a great job of bringing in a better government. I wasn’t sure, though, and the truth is that the pragmatic argument wasn’t what was important to me: it didn’t seem to be my job, or my government’s job, to tell the Iraqi people that they’d be better off with us changing their government. If I had reason to believe that the Iraqi people wanted to be invaded, I would have supported it; in the absence of such a belief, the idea of invading them for their own good seemed patronizingly paternalistic (at best).

Still, I didn’t have any particular foresight as to how things would actually turn out. Before the war, I read some articles saying that it could turn into another Vietnam; I didn’t seriously consider that the authors could be right, and was surprised at how quickly we won the war. And then things got worse, and I started to be more impressed by those articles. Now, my feelings are a bit more complex: it’s turning into a remarkable misadventure, and I’m sure many productive analogies with the Vietnam War could be made, but (from my naive point of view) the details seem quite different: here, we’ve conquered a country which is now fragmenting and descending (has descended?) into civil war, while there we never managed to defeat our single, well-organized opponent.

That is the past; the question now is: should we stay or should we go? Again, the possible justifications are the same. This time, though, few people seem to be able to take the “good for America” argument seriously. (Other than in the sense of “our ego would be bruised if we left”, a justification for war and occupation that I consider morally abhorrent.) The “good for Iraq” argument gets more plausible, despite our amazing attempts to undermine that. (Free tip to future occupiers: if you claim that you’re invading a country to save its people from being tortured in its dictator’s prisons, you should avoid torturing its people in the prisons that you set up!) While things are awful now, it seems plausible to me that if we leave, matters will get even worse in the short term, quite possibly a lot worse, and who knows about the long term.

But I still have the same misgivings about that justification as I did when starting the war. What it basically comes down to now is “you broke it, you bought it”. The problem with that here is that I don’t think the Iraqi people consider their country to be for sale. I’ll listen with respect to any case for “you broke it, you make it right”, as long as the discussion for what it means to do to make it right is focused on what Iraqis actually want. If they want military support, sure. If they want police support, sure. If they want training, sure. If they want goods, money, sure. But it has to be about what they want, not about what we want, not about assuaging our guilt by continuing to occupy their country over their desires. (And, it goes without saying, not about a desperate attempt by our president to cover his ass while simultaneously burying his head in that same ass.)

But what do I know about what the Iraqi people want? For one thing, they’re individuals, not some collective hive mind. For another thing, being human, they doubtless have conflicting desires; what if they want both to avoid further chaos and to not be occupied, and what if we can’t figure out a way where our departure won’t make things worse? Not good. Despite which I continue to think that the contradiction is the Iraqis to resolve, not ours. And that an urgent issue is to figure out what a cross-section of Iraqi society thinks would be best to do next. (And no, a puppet government doesn’t count as an adequate representation of a cross-section of Iraqi society.)

Having said all that, I can understand why others might say that, if we’d managed to get Hussein out and a good government in place, even over the Iraqis’ protests, it would have been worth it. Sometimes people need to get extricated unwillingly from a bad situation through an outside intervention, and if that’s true for people, why can’t it be true for countries? After all (as always, based on my admittedly shoddy understanding of history), we’ve done occupations and reconstructions successfully before: as far as I can tell, our postwar reconstructions of Germany and Japan worked out great. (Except for the whole partitioning Germany thing; I’ve been given reason to believe that we might have been able to avoid that, but I’m not an expert on the details.)

One of the sad things about the podcast was listening to people talk about how it could have gone better, if we’d just spent some time learning about what we were getting into and about similar situations in the past. Of course, prediction is always easier when it’s about the past, but there were people who had spent a lot of time studying what happens after wars end, and what actions lead to better outcomes, what actions lead to worse outcomes. But those in charge were too full of their messianic dreams to admit the possibility of imperfection (let alone disaster): in such situations, planning, learning, thinking is shunned as evil.

Can we do anything now to salvage outcomes? What lessons can we still learn from the past? I wish I knew; I wish much more that the people who are making decisions knew. But the debates seem completely uninformed by such studies, as far as I can tell. And I’m too lazy to do much digging on my own; so I to will fall back to my default position that being there isn’t good for us, and (much) more importantly the Iraqis don’t seem to want us there, so we should respect their wishes, get the hell out of there ASAP, start trying to heal our country and let them try to heal theirs.

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