Ten Years After the Invasion of Iraq, Are We Any Closer to Peace?
by Randall Amster
No one in power specifically called it “a date which will live in infamy,” but when the U.S. commenced the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, it changed the political map of the world in ways we are still trying to disentangle. The basic idea that nations would only wage war for bona fide reasons and with general support from the international community — tattered as those notions already were — was essentially laid to rest with the Iraq war. What is especially troubling is that we didn’t even need the benefit of hindsight to realize the full implications; in real time and without precedent, millions (perhaps even billions) around the world raised principled objections to the impending war before it commenced. Many people knew (and said) that it was illegal, unjust, and immoral, but to no avail. And so it goes…
A decade later, the fictitious rationales of “weapons of mass destruction,” liberating people from an evil dictator, promoting human rights, and “restoring democracy,” are almost laughable and are not seriously asserted as a viable basis for the war. All we’re left with now is a self-fulfilling epitaph proclaiming that the war was about fighting terrorists and insurgents. And with the benefit of the intervening years, it has also become safer to say in polite company (if not publicly) that controlling Middle Eastern oil is a primary impetus of national security. The Iraq war thus lifted the veil on Machiavellian foreign policies and set a new template for the wars of the present — and perhaps the future.
That is, unless we heed the lessons and take steps to avert a continuation of the Iraq model. This may well be the only way to honor the fallen on all sides (totaling in the hundreds of thousands, or more) and to even remotely justify the trillions of dollars unwisely spent on the war. The price was definitely not “worth it” (as Madeleine Albright once said about earlier sanctions on Iraq and the resultant impacts on children there), but sometimes the best we can do is try to make sure it never happens again. Indeed, as the sign I held ten years ago said, the Iraq war in its totality was nothing short of “shocking and awful” — and it is incumbent upon us today to work toward ending the scourge of war and promoting the cause of peace in our time.
As a point of departure, let me suggest a number of interrelated “wars” that we might strive to end with undue haste in order to make the transition away from the precipice of perpetual war and toward a more peaceful world:
The War on Ourselves: Humankind seems to have a penchant for hastening its own demise. Symptoms of this phenomenon include rampant gun violence in the U.S., the toxification of our food and water supplies, endemic poverty, and a growing lexicon of industrial-era illnesses and ailments. As the first step toward ending war in general, we must stop waging it on ourselves and on our continuing ability to thrive as a species.
The War on Others: One of the basic lessons of living in an interconnected world is that there is no longer any “there” there, and dividing the world into us/them dichotomies is simply untenable. Pollution, waste, exploitation, disease — all of these know no borders, and cannot be outsourced on an inherently interlinked planet. When we make war (both of the militaristic and economic varieties) on others, we are making war on ourselves as well.
The War on the Environment: Perhaps the root war of all wars is the collective assault humanity is inflicting on the habitat that sustains us, and of which we are a part. In just a few short generations, we have alienated ourselves from the environment around us, poisoned our air and water, destabilized the climate and other essential systems, and dramatically increased our vulnerability to pathogens and sudden changes in ecological systems. As with the above, this war on the environment is likewise a war on us, too.
The War on the Future: At the end of the day, we seem to be leveraging our power and privilege in the present while blithely consuming the bases for future inhabitants to exist at all. Intergenerational justice must be part of our consciousness and ethical framework, in the sense that what we do today has direct repercussions on our children and their children, and so on. No species can survive that doesn’t take care to preserve livable conditions for its young. We can harmonize the needs of today with those of tomorrow, if we act now.
Concomitantly, as peace scholars and advocates have long perceived, it’s not enough to simply end war, as challenging and necessary as that may be. We also need to make peace, proactively and independent from the ravages of war that oftentimes tend to dominate the public discourse. In this regard, here are some of the potential interfaces for promoting the elusive value of peace:
World Peace: Long an idealistic mantra, the notion of world peace is becoming essential if we are to survive and flourish. We must make peace with the world and in the world — both with the planet and among all of its inhabitants. This doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly wake up in a conflict-free world (an undesirable aim, even if it were possible), but more so that we’ll begin taking immediate steps to promote the healthy existence of all components — human and more-than-human — of the web of life that sustains us within its workings.
Environmental Peacemaking: Activists and scholars have asserted that the environment can in fact serve as a tool for promoting peace. Not only are all living things conjoined by the environment, but in its transcendence of narrow human interests, the environment can serve as a powerful mechanism for highlighting shared interests and a sense of common humanity — even amidst conflicting ideologies or between warring parties. In the world’s most troubled “hotspots,” people often will share water and other essentials; if they can, so can we.
Healing the Nation(s): One of the unspoken traumas of warfare is the effect on the aggressors themselves. Nations that make war, and the soldiers they send to fight them, suffer injuries well beyond the obvious physical ones. An urgent need for war-weary nations is to establish healing mechanisms for dealing with trauma on all sides, including historical traumas from colonialist pursuits. Between nations and peoples, there must be open forums for reconciliation and remediation as a precondition for peace.
Restorative/Community Justice: At the level of our communities, there are many powerful examples of how to promote healthy dialogue, collective decision-making, and productive forms of conflict management. The growing use of devices such as restorative circles, alternative dispute resolution, non-punitive interventions, and nonviolence workshops in neighborhoods points the way toward a society in which people learn to work together in the pursuit of justice for all — lest there be justice for none.
Inner Peace: This may well be the most elusive level of peace; finding it in ourselves is too easily neglected even (especially?) among those who dedicate themselves to peace in the world. The rapid pace, all-consuming technologies, economic stresses, and expanding demands of our hyper-modern lives make it difficult to slow down, take inventory, be present with ourselves, or just breathe deeply. Note to self: take a moment, every day, to find solace and connection by doing something compassionate and peaceful for yourself.
Unquestionably, it would be facile to suggest that we can somehow “find the good” in war, and certainly we must not create a paradigm in which war is justified by the lessons learned after the fact. Nonetheless, try we must, since we can only move ahead in the direction of time’s arrow. As we strive to make sense of (and reconfigure) the world going forward, we come to recognize that part of our task is to develop the capacity to turn war into peace at every level. The war in Iraq has been a travesty of historical proportions, but perhaps in its stark realism it will be remembered as the genuine “war to end all wars” that people have been anticipating for a century.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).