On the evening of March 19, 2003, I went with a friend to the movies to see The Quiet American, adapted from Graham Greene's novel about American idealism's failure to understand Vietnam. Little did I know how appropriate that choice would be.
I came home, and a couple of hours later in the basement room, I watched the start of "shock and awe" with absolute horror. Rumors of war had been circulating for months, with a whole kabuki theater of nuclear inspections and Congressional testimony making the public believe this was about "weapons of mass destruction." I was in the minority of Americans who knew this was all bullshit. I had shown up to anti-war protests, had been yelled at by "patriots" from their pickup trucks and told I was ignoring threats to this country. Sitting there watching Baghdad being blown up on television I felt such profound despair. So many other awful things have happened since then (the 2008 crash, multiple police murders, Trump's election, COVID, January 6th, etc.) that we have failed to account for the consequences of the Iraq invasion. Beyond the human consequences, it represented the end of the United States' post-Cold War predominance.
The invasion of the anniversary has passed unmarked in this country because so many people pretend they never supported it when it had been very popular in the moment. Its boosters cannot deny that it was a disaster, so they must deny their connection to it. Even ultra-nationalists like Trump have done this, allowing his supporters, the same people yelling at me back in 2003, to wash their hands of the whole affair.
Even if the majority in this country may not feel the Iraq invasion to be an act of grave immorality as I do, they still understand that it meant the destruction of America's post-Cold War dominance in the world. After 1991 the United States stood as the lone superpower. 9/11 gravely shook the feelings of invincibility, but those same feelings spurred Bush's actions in Iraq. It was a completely elective war. Iraq posed no threat to the United States, nor was it threatening any of our key allies. Bush's crew really thought they could use this invasion to remake the Middle East to America's liking. Many of its own allies cautioned against it and the "weapons of mass destruction" had not been located, but no matter.
The Quiet Amerian, both the Graham Greene novel and the 2003 film, concerns Alden Pyle, a CIA agent in 1950s Vietnam in the twilight of French colonialism. He naively believes that he can create a "third force" in the country that is both democratic and anticolonialitst that will push both the French and the Vietnamese communists aside. Furthermore, Pyle is willing to fund terror attacks and sacrifice lives for his unrealistic vision. The narrator, a British journalist named Fowler, understands the country's realities far better and is not surprised when Pyle meets a bad end. Greene wrote the book years before American "escalation" in Vietnam, but like many of us on that night in March of 2003, he clearly saw what was coming.
Like Alden Pyle, Bush and the neo-cons soon discovered that not every group of people in the world are just Americans trying to come out. They hadn't even bothered to consider the most basic issues in the war's aftermath, watching mobs loot priceless artifacts from museums and calling it "the price of freedom." Any moral credibility the United States had managed to amass in its post-Cold War humanitarian interventions was erased in that moment. But it wasn't just America's moral hypocrisy that was exposed by the invasion. The American military's inability to win a decisive victory against Iraqi insurgents or to quickly capture Saddam Hussein revealed the clay feet of a supposed Colossus.
And so thousands died, including someone I went to college with. We wrecked Iraq, with the ultimate strategic winner being our regional rival, Iran. We destroyed homes, killed civilians, and shredded infrastructure for less than nothing from a strategic standpoint. Hussein is no longer in power, but I get the feeling that's cold comfort for those mourning their dead.
I want to remember the dead, but also that the vast majority of Americans supported the invasion at the time. It is easy to blame this all on politicians, but if there had been more robust opposition, those politicians would have changed their tune. The media helped too, treating protestors like me as unserious or naive. Practically every media outlet became a cheerleader for the invasion. Country music stations banned The Chicks when they criticized George W Bush. All of this has been forgotten because it is inconvenient for so many to recognize that the self-immolation of the American empire happened with the majority's full faith and support. Right-wingers certainly need to be held to account for their cheerleading of this conflict, but I should hope that this would prompt the Left to rethink their naive ideas about "the masses."