Episode 181: US Media’s 5 Most Popular Revisionist Tropes About the Iraq and Vietnam Wars
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Charting a different course in the Vietnam War to fewer deaths and a better end,” muses a book review in the Washington Post. “The Vietnam War was begun in good faith, by decent people,” a Ken Burns PBS documentary tells us. “The Iraq War Reconsidered,” reads a headline from The Atlantic.
Adam: Often, especially when an anniversary of a US invasion or withdrawal rolls around, we’re told that the devastation wrought by the US war machine was complicated, flawed, but ultimately necessary if not beneficial. Sure, the US has killed millions, destabilized power structures, wrecked communities and economies, lied about the reasons for doing it all, and drawn the ire of people throughout the world. But, in hindsight, many in US media insists, a horrible act of war from a world superpower wasn’t an unequivocal, deliberate, and needless crime against humanity, but somewhere between a misunderstood righteous cause and a bumbling, good faith mistake motivated by humanitarian concerns.
Nima: An ideological system of reassurance therefore emerges. Once wars are broadly viewed as either wrong or a quote-unquote “failure” in the popular imagination — as in the case of Vietnam and Iraq — a cottage industry of punditry and pseudohistory emerges in the subsequent years designed to soothe the egos of elites and muddy the waters of both memory and reality for casual media consumers.
Adam: Put another way: we all see a dead body on the floor, no one can doubt this, no one can reasonably argue the destruction of Vietnam and Iraq didn’t happen. So this cottage industry goes into action, on behalf of those that caused the death, working to get the guilty party a charge of third-degree manslaughter rather than murder. It was an accident, they were mistaken, they had bad intelligence, they were driven by concerns for freedom and human rights.
Nima: After all, those who destroyed Vietnam remained in power well into the 2000s. And those who destroyed Iraq currently run our major publications, universities, nonprofits, and think tanks. They still even run the country itself. So the incentive to make sure they all plead guilty to third degree manslaughter rather than first degree murder is tremendous, otherwise, we’re just a country led by war criminals — and this simply cannot be. We need absolution. We must remain, when all is said and done, innocent.
Adam: On this week’s episode, we’ll explore the war revisionism industry, breaking down five ways in which media seek to sanitize and justify even the most notoriously unpopular and horrific US-led and backed wars — namely Vietnam and Iraq — as unpleasant, imperfect, mistaken, but ultimately incidental byproducts of a noble and righteous empire that, above all, meant well.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by longtime friend of the pod, Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept.
Jon Schwarz: Barack Obama writes in his first book about spending some time in Indonesia when he was a kid right after this gigantic mass slaughter of half a million people by this government that was installed by the US and that absolutely no one talked about it, it had happened like a year before, and he writes about his mother and says, “The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely the same way the rich and loamy Earth could soak up the rivers of blood.” And that’s exactly the process that we’re seeing on a kind of less severe scale, because we can still complain about it on the internet and on podcasts without people cutting us into pieces with machetes. This was the case in Indonesia.
Adam: So yeah, this episode is a spiritual successor to Episode 13: The Always Stumbling US Empire that came out in October of 2017.
Nima: Way back when.
Adam: In fact, we did discuss the Ken Burns documentary a little bit in that episode, which we’re going to expand upon now, and this is a subgenre, if not a meta-genre of the idea of the US Stumbling Empire, which is every single time there’s a five year anniversary of the invasion or withdrawal of Iraq or there’s a major anniversary for Vietnam, one begins to see a lot of popular sort of pseudo-contrarian revisionisms of those wars — now revisionism is not necessarily pejorative, some historical revisionism is good — it’s revisionism in the sense that it’s revising badly, in the a that absolves, in a way that ameliorates guilty consciences and gets people off the hook, and it’s sort of presented as this kind of edgy truth telling, and with the recent passing of the 20 year anniversary of the war in Iraq, this appears to be getting more and more popular as the memory fades, as the horrific car bombings and quote-unquote “civil war” that emerged in 2006, 2007, 2008, sort of fades more and more out of our collective memory, there begins to be an effort to put a bit of Vaseline on the lens to make it sort of seem better than it was, and we thought it was worth showing that these media narrative mechanisms of doing so are not new. They were very popular and still remain popular in a lot of pro-Vietnam War revisionism and they have five kinds of similar tropes, because again, we began to get it more and more in 2013. Then in 2018, it really started to be more overt, and then the last anniversary, the 20th anniversary, now became kind of the prevailing narrative, these five tropes. So we’re excited to get into them, because I do think they’re easily identifiable if only because, I think, you know, 2028, when we sit down for the 25 year anniversary, it’ll be kind of the the entire conventional wisdom around the Iraq War, which does have political consequences for present day politics, right? This is not ancient history.
Nima: It really kind of butts up against this notion that we hear all the time, Adam, of history will not remember kindly….’Oh, well, living through the Bush years, and through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, well, it may be tough now, but history is going to reflect the truth, history is where there will be justice, there will be some kind of accountability.’ And we are seeing this play out, and you know, these major anniversaries kind of reinforce this, these kind of five-year, ten-year, 15-year, et cetera, et cetera, this idea that, no, it’s actually quite the opposite because the remembrance and the commemoration and the memorialization of these events, Adam, serves only to burnish the good intention so-called of who we knew then we’re war criminals, and were hoping that history would somehow catch up, and we are seeing exactly how the media aids those in power in making sure that history remembers a different truth.
Adam: Yeah, because the publications have editorial memory and institutional memory and institutional incentives and when the Atlantic of New York Times, which were the biggest, and New Yorker, are the biggest champions of the war in Iraq, many of those same editors and funders and higher ups are still at these organizations, they have incentive to push this line, right? There’s both institutional and personal incentive to push this line, and that’s why the revisionism gets more overt, more shameless, and I think more dishonest with each passing anniversary because the memory begins to fade, and we’ve typically, we very frequently look back on things with rose tinted glasses and forget the more sort of traumatic associated memories, and it’s a classic example of the sort of cliche George Orwell quote of ‘who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past.’ When these publications very much control the present and they therefore control the past, we think that’s worth complicating, and to do that, we broke it down into five tropes. These are kind of five very typical tropes you see throughout these publications and some others which we’re going to go over today.
Nima: So let’s get started. The first of these tropes is the “fog of war.” Repeatedly, media wonder why the US began or intervened in a war, and what lessons are to be learned from it. While media ask the questions, they rarely offer answers, let alone answers that would clearly indict the US or reinforce principled antiwar and anti-imperialist stances. This obfuscation serves to distance the United States from violent intentions and actions, ever absolving it of its aggression and responsibility.
And one common way this is done, Adam, is by saying, ‘Things are just so complicated, there was so much information swirling around and decisions just had to be made,’ right, battlefield decisions. Whether that was before an invasion or during, but it was still at a tenor of urgency, of immediacy, this idea that you need to make a snap decision, you have to just use what’s at your disposal, and you have to go from there.
Adam: So this kind of fog of war cliche was very, very, very popular and all types of Vietnam revisionism. In February 2003, the Washington Post published the foreword from Henry Kissinger’s then-new book, Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America’s Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War. Not coincidentally, it was released just in time to help popularize the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Kissinger, whose name is essentially synonymous with “war crimes,” as I’m sure our listeners probably know, wrote, quote:
The Vietnam debate has so far produced no ultimate answers. The administration that ended the war was too abstractly analytical when, in the face of massive media and congressional opposition, it insisted on its geopolitical design dictated by its view of the long-range national interest. The critics were too abstractly passionate in their refusal to relate their moral proclamations to an operational strategy reflecting America’s responsibility for peace and world order. The administration had concept without domestic consensus; the critics had passion without analysis.
The war and its aftermath, in other words, were all simply too complicated and muddy, there was a fog of war, and everything was sort of complicated and difficult. Therefore, there’s no real moral urgency to one side being bad and one side not being bad or one side being meaningfully less bad. Therefore, no one’s really guilty of anything, it was just very complex. It’s very complex and you’re too stupid to understand.
Nima: Well, and not only complex, but as you can hear in Kissinger’s foreword, there’s this idea that the fog of war leads to emotionality rather than rationality, and so in this fog, in this haze of just kind of being where you are, but not seeing the forest for the trees, you wind up being irrational, you wind up being unstrategic, you wind up not necessarily making the best choices, and so that idea of the fog of war, leading to emotionality, right, he says, the “moral proclamations” or the “abstractly passionate,” this idea that you’re just in this fray, and you can’t see clearly, and so therefore, you’re not making rational decisions, and therefore, we can’t really get clear answers to why things happened, even though we may have very reasonable questions, but the answers are just not so cut and dry.
Adam: And clearly the guy who unilaterally decided to carpet bomb Laos and Cambodia, without congressional approval and kill hundreds of thousands of fucking peasants, clearly, he’s going to have a lot of incentive to do the ‘Well, it’s unclear, really who’s at fault here, it is very complicated,’ because, you know, he at that point had become very much the target of war crime discourse in the Global South and was in fact barred from certain countries. So yeah, very fog of war. Who’s to say who’s guilty?
Nima: Who’s to say?
Adam: You know, it’s all very complicated. You’re too stupid to get it.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. And we have seen this, of course, with Iraq as well. Now, there’s one article in particular that kind of kicked off this debate for us, Adam, you and I, when we were talking about this kind of episode, and we got this kind of perfect example, published this year, at the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq by none other than Max Fisher of The New York Times.
Adam: In this article, this column, article, review, whatever you want to call it has literally every single trope in the book, I mean, this has every single trope we’re talking about today.
Nima: So Max Fisher, in the New York Times, published on March 18, 2023, at the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, this article entitled, quote, “20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?” Now, as we will get to repeatedly in this episode, there is trope after trope in this and we’re just going to start with the fog of war one.
So, Fisher breezes past the actual death toll numbers of Iraqi people during these 20 years, and especially during the active war years, the first decade, stating that they’re not up for debate, while noting only the tally of Iraqis killed, quote-unquote “directly by fighting” — which he tallies at 300,000 — and does not mention those killed by indirect violence, nor the fact that civilians are still dying due to ruined infrastructure, lack of healthcare, displacement, and myriad other factors from 20 years after having your country destroyed.
So Fisher starts the article that way like, yeah, you know, look, we all know that some people died, right? He doesn’t get into the potentially millions of lives destroyed, but just a very conservative 300,000 direct combat deaths of Iraqis. But he does this to move on to his real concern, Adam, and it’s this question, quote, “Why did the United States invade at all?” Now, one might think asking this question could provide an opportunity to critically examine the US’ history of lying to manufacture consent for wars. But oh no, Fisher was not interested in this either. Instead, Fisher asked a series of questions about whether the Bush administration’s claims, from WMDs to spreading democracy, were actually the impetus for the invasion or if it was, as Fisher writes, quote:
Oil? Faulty intelligence? Geopolitical gain? Simple overconfidence? Popular desire for a war, any war, to reclaim national pride? Or, as in conflicts like World War I, mutual miscommunication that sent distrustful states bumbling into conflict?
Adam: Right, so we literally have the bumbling Empire here bumbling into conflict. Fisher concludes, quote, “The world may never get a definitive answer,” getting no more specific than to, quote, “a mix of ideological convictions, psychological biases, process breakdowns and misaligned diplomatic signals.”
Everyone’s just so confused, it’s foggy, there are psychological biases, what those ideological convictions are are not really interrogated, they’re just kind of ideological, I suppose. Maybe the ideology is bad and racist and Imperial, but that’s not really touched on. So what’s to be learned from this kind of vague conclusion? Really nothing. There’s no actor’s name. There’s no bad guys. There’s no real reason kind of settled on. It’s just a lot of hand wringing, a lot of fog of war cliche.
Nima: Yeah, we’re asking the questions, but again, we may never get a definitive answer.
Adam: Right. Who’s to say, you know, there’s a dead body, but a lot of people came by, I don’t know, maybe it was this guy, maybe it was some other guy, who was really to say? You know, no one’s really guilty. It’s kind of a sort of Murder on the Orient Express. Everybody fired.
Nima: We all just did our best.
Adam: Yeah, and then you sort of move on, and it’s like, ‘Oh, well, like if I’m the editor of the New York Times, or the politician in Congress who voted for the war, or the current president, right, then I’m going to read this and go, that seems about right because it can’t be me, I can’t be guilty.’
Adam: Everyone sort of gets off the hook, and it’s all very sort of highbrow and has a lot of academic jargon, and it’s, you know, 4,000 words or whatever to make it look really serious and important, this guy did this real in depth analysis, and it’s all of course, just total chickenshit.
Nima: Another example of this comes from ABC News’s Martha Raddatz, who commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion in March, interviewed Congress members Tammy Duckworth and Dan Crenshaw, both Iraq War veterans and Iraq War apologists. Here is the clip.
Martha Raddatz: When President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Iraq.
George W. Bush: These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.
Martha Raddatz: Duckworth didn’t support the reasons behind the war, but never hesitated going into combat.
Tammy Duckworth: I was proud to go because it was my job as a soldier to obey all lawful orders and this was a lawful order.
Martha Raddatz: And was your sacrifice, was this nation’s sacrifice worth it?
Tammy Duckworth: My sacrifices were the Constitution of the United States, and that is always worth it.
Martha Raddatz: Congressman Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan in 2012, but had previously deployed to Iraq. When you look back on the decision to go into Iraq, that George Bush made, what do you think?
Dan Crenshaw: It’s a complicated situation. It’s super easy to look back in time and say, well, I could have done this better. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing. Mistakes were made. Was the entire thing a mistake? I don’t think you’ll ever know because you can’t talk about what the counterfactual is.
Adam: Alright, so it’s all very complicated.
Nima: We’ll just never know.
Adam: Was it worth doing? ‘I was filling a lawful order.’ I was under the impression you’re supposed to follow ethical or moral orders, like law is kind of a meaningless concept in that context.
Nima: No, man.
Adam: But I mean, whatever, rank and file, I guess.
Nima: But you just can’t handle the truth.
Adam: But it’s such a great way to punt because you’re like, I can’t say it’s good, but I also can’t say it’s bad because then I will be doing bad things. So I’m just going to say I’m proud I did the thing that I was told to do. But the thing you were told to do was bad. So, it’s weird to not be like, you know, it was bad, ‘I did it. It was bad. It was part of it.’ Obviously, a sitting member of the US Senate is not going to talk shit about it, make an existential critique like that. But it’s sort of an interesting way to kind of hedge the difference, which is, again, what everyone sort of does, because again, there’s a dead body, right? Someone killed someone but the goal is to sort of make it clear that no one’s really responsible, because if everybody’s responsible, then no one is, and that’s really the objective of the fog of war cliche.
Nima: I think my favorite part of the Dan Crenshaw piece there is the, you know, smug, well, you know, 20/20 hindsight. This idea that, ‘Oh, well, you know, looking back now, everyone has their opinions but when you were in the shit, when we were just getting all that intelligence, and when we were just preparing for war, everyone pretty much agreed this was the right thing to do. So all you armchair generals like now, 20 years later, where were you then?’ And it’s like, well, like there were millions of fucking people in the streets, then.
Adam: But even that aside, like outside of the highly propagandized Anglo-American population, the vast majority of the world opposed the war. The populations of virtually every country on Earth, other than the US and the UK, knew it was bullshit. So they like to do the, ‘Oh, well, you know, looking back,’ it’s like, no, it wasn’t no, no, no, we definitely think at the time, and that’s also part of the obfuscation regime of like, ‘Well, who’s to say,’ and literally billions of people were saying this was going to happen, and it happened. The Onion wrote an article that literally described exactly what was going to happen in February 2003. This was not a fringe conspiracy belief, right?
Number two on the list, which is probably my, maybe not my personal favorite, but definitely the most annoying and most pretentious and most kind of writerly. Gawker used to have a really good word called writerly, where you sort of show off what a writer you are and how you’re super a writer, one of the ways you do that is to get into psychobabble, and so many Iraq and Vietnam War revisionisms were all about getting “into the mind” of the war architects, right? There’s sort of the psychoanalysis aspect of it because people can’t just be bad and have bad ideologies and bad goals in the US and the Anglo US world and the quote-unquote “Western world.” Now, again, when it comes to the decisions of China or Russia or Iran, they’re just sort of all Bond villains, they do evil things for power, naked power grabs, nothing else, right? The US can’t do that, by definition, because that’s too cheap, too obvious, too reductionist, so those kinds of sinister motives are really only reserved for enemy states.
Nima: Leaders are just humans with all sorts of motivations and all sorts of information, Adam.
Adam: And the key is they mean well, and this way, we can kind of evaluate their quote-unquote “mistakes.” This is meant to humanize them and also functions as a way of justifying US action by obscuring the death and destruction waged by those who are the architects of the Vietnam and Iraq War. The most egregious example of this when it comes to Vietnam in modern times, in modern kind of pop discourse was the documentary that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick made for PBS in 2017, a 10-part, 18-hour series on the Vietnam War. This documentary has, I think, three or four of these tropes. In the opening minutes, narrator Peter Coyote declares that the war, quote, “begun in good faith by decent people.” Let’s listen to a clip.
Peter Coyote: America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy. It ended 30 years later in failure witnessed by the entire world. It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.
Adam: So our guest Jonathan Schwarz, writer for The Intercept, he wrote a critique of this at the time, in a September 24, 2017 article, Schwarz wrote the headline, quote, “Ken Burns Says the Vietnam War Was ‘Begun in Good Faith.’ So Was Every Other Lousy War,” in which he makes the point, which is a fairly obvious one, but it’s, I guess, one that needs pointing out because apparently Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are not aware of it, which is first off, how do you know it was in good faith? What does that even mean? How does an historian document good faith?
Nima: Or the decency of people in an objective sense.
Adam: Right. It’s solipsistic hogwash. It’s unserious, right? It doesn’t, there’s no objective way of analyzing it. There’s no way of really measuring good faith and to the extent to which it is good faith, even if you accept that premise, well, a lot of horrible things are in good faith, a lot of horrible wars and war crimes are committed in good faith. What does that even mean? A lot of people do horrific things throughout history because they genuinely believe their cause is right. It’s a fatuous kind of thing you say to butter up the audience to say, ‘Look, the US are not really the bad guys here, you know, they did a bad thing, but ultimately they sort of meant well.’
Adam: ‘They were in good faith.’
Nima: No one deliberately goes out to do evil unto others.
Adam: With one exception: Donald Trump. But that’s it. Everyone else does not, Donald Trump will tell you, ‘I’m doing evil.’ Everyone else doesn’t really think they’re doing evil except for Donald J. Trump. We see this in the Iraq War apology as well. In March 2023, The Atlantic ran an extended newsletter piece marking the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by Tom Nichols. It was headlined, quote, “I Supported the Invasion of Iraq,” and argued that the war was born of a quote-unquote “just cause,” but was simply executed wrong. Nichols’s preface acknowledged the unpopularity of the war, but holds firm that it was the right thing to do, stating, quote, “I supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I have changed my mind about some things but not everything, and I hope you’ll bear with me.”
Now, would you believe that Nichols hasn’t changed his mind about one of the major issues: that the US, even after Vietnam and Iraq, should still be allowed to wage war with impunity? He writes, quote:
Iraq was a terrible mistake, but it would be another mistake to draw the single-minded conclusion (much as we did after Vietnam) that everything everywhere will forever be another Iraq. The world is too dangerous, and American leadership too necessary, for us to fall into such a facile and paralyzing trap.
Nima: Don’t worry, folks, we shouldn’t learn the lesson too well, because then you don’t want to forever keep your Imperial gun in your holster just because it’s gone bad a couple of times, because, you know, we need to be the world’s cop forever, and therefore, we can’t learn the lesson too well, that will then make us unwilling to commit more war crimes in the future.
Adam: Yeah, this is the classic, you know, ‘I loved my country too much. We were trying to solve humanitarian problems too much.’ We just sort of got overzealous in both Vietnam, and Iraq. Now, of course, The Atlantic is sort of, as you’ll discover in this episode, The Atlantic is the final resting home of every Iraq War propagandist, and Applebaum, of course, is their staff writer, was a huge proponent of the war in Iraq and wrote editorials for The Washington Post to that effect, including one that said Colin Powell’s presentation about weapons of mass destruction to the UN in February of 2003, was quote-unquote “irrefutable.” Another staff writer, of course, is David Frum, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and coined the term “axis of evil.” And the editor in chief of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, as we discussed in Episode 180 on conspiracy theories, he wrote for The New Yorker at the time and peddled one of the most destructive and consequential conspiracy theories of my lifetime, which is that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, and had quote, “possible ties to Al Qaeda.”
Marking the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, Frum wrote his own revisionist piece, also for The Atlantic, again, a little bit of institutional bias here, entitled “The Iraq War Reconsidered.” In it, Frum sought to validate the invasion, stating, quote, “What the U.S. did in Iraq was not an act of unprovoked aggression.” Frum suggested that Iraq had avoided UN arms inspections it had agreed to in 1991, which, among other things, forced the US invasion. This is not true, as our guest Jon Schwarz has spent much time explaining: the UN withdrew its own weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998, because the US was preparing to bomb the country.
Adam: Also, Frum’s claim that the US was provoked, and simply had no choice but to invade Iraq, would never be a justification for other invasions such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No one would ever argue that Russia was somehow provoked by Ukraine to invade, right? Just as Iraq somehow provoked us because they didn’t allow every US spook to go check out all their other sensitive military sites ad infinitum forever to find weapons of mass destruction, which we now know did not exist.
Nima: And which they knew did not exist at the time.
Adam: Right, which, we would never sort of give that kind of, ‘Well, they had it coming,’ when baddy countries invade other countries, obviously.
Nima: Now we’re going to keep getting into Frum’s pieces as the show goes along. But we do want to mention another piece. This New York Times piece from March 18, 2023 by Baghdad bureau chief Alissa Rubin who argues that the US didn’t plan on creating instability and a power vacuum in Iraq which was, as she writes, quote, “left by the removal of Mr. Hussein,” meaning Saddam Hussein. Of course, who removed him and thus created the power vacuum by that statement, eh, you know, is that really what we’re talking about here? I don’t know, let’s move on to some other, better questions. Now, headlined, “20 Years After U.S. Invasion, Iraq Is a Freer Place, but Not a Hopeful One,” Rubin’s piece states this, quote, “Abetting and expanding Iran’s influence in Iraq was hardly the intention of American policymakers in 2003.” Beyond the kind of, ‘Oops, we didn’t mean to do it,’ Rubin also insists that the US, in fact, did Iraq the favor of quote-unquote “spreading democracy.” So yeah, all the tropes are consistently there. But of course, we just hear this trope again and again of, you know, what was actually in the minds of the leaders that sent troops to these places?
Adam: They just love democracy too much. They just love human rights and democracy so much they are hubristic. Again, fucking toddler brains shit.
Number three: that “it was a civil war.” There’s this US invasion or military funding or occupation, what have you, and that actually the US was kind of an incidental party, that it is actually an organic civil war between Shias and Sunnis, or Vietnamese that has pre existed time immemorial, and that the US kind of was there to tip the scales a little bit, but was ultimately kind of a second or third party to the conflict. Now this trop serves to deflect blame from the US towards countries far away, presenting wars as matters of national rather than international conflict and as one of typically a kind of lack of development or moral or political sophistication of the country that we destroyed. This was very popular in Vietnam, and Vietnam revisionism.
In 2005, the Center for American Progress released an interview commemorating the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The interview was with Stanley Karnow, a US journalist known for his coverage of the Vietnam War. In the interview, Karnow stated, quote:
Vietnam was a civil war between anti-communist and communist factions. The Vietnamese agreed, though, that there should be one Vietnam. It’s just they had different approaches.
The BBC similarly cites civil war as one of the reasons for US involvement in Vietnam. And, in his review of Max Boot’s Vietnam revisionist book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam — which we’ll discuss a little but later — New Yorker staff writer Louis Menand writes, quote:
There were two major wars against the Communists in Vietnam. The first was an anticolonial war between Communist nationalists and France, which, except for a period during the Second World War, when the Japanese took over, had ruled the country since the eighteen-eighties.
Menand continued, quote:
The second war was a civil war between the two zones created at Geneva: North Vietnam, governed by Vietnamese Communists, and South Vietnam, backed by American aid and, eventually, by American troops. That war lasted from 1954 (or 1955 or 1959, depending on your definition of an “act of war”) to 1975, when Communist forces entered Saigon and unified the country. The second war is the Vietnam War, ‘our’ war.
But, while Vietnamese people were fighting Vietnamese people, the Vietnam War was absolutely not primarily a civil one. It wouldn’t have begun without French imperial aggression toward Vietnamese people, which was bolstered by military assistance from the US long before the US sent troops in — the US made a decision to support French colonial rule in Indochina after World War II. The US‘s invasion, then, was meant to finish what the French had started. As historian Christian Appy wrote in 2018, quote:
When the French were defeated by Vietnamese revolutionaries (despite enormous American support), the United States stepped in directly to wage a counterrevolutionary war against an enemy determined to achieve full and final independence from foreign control.
And Ken Burns’ documentary very much frames it this way repeatedly throughout the documentary, that was a civil war between two sides of the coin of Vietnam, and when you say civil war it sort of implies a kind of 50/50 parity between two sides, when in Vietnam, that wasn’t really the case, these things are kind of hard to gauge, but you know, at least my personal estimation based on my reading is somewhere more like 80/20. Again, there’s a reason why the US had, you know, had to send in hundreds of thousands of troops and the Soviets didn’t, right? Because by the US’ own calculation, by the early ’70s, the Vietnamese communists were the popular revolutionary group, there were some remnants of religious types, holdovers from the French occupation, largely French speaking Vietnamese, and people directly on the CIA payroll. And again, this is based on the US’ own internal assessment. This is one of the things that the Pentagon Papers showed, that the US support was largely Potemkin and did not have a lot of organic constituency relative to the quote-unquote “North Vietnamese.” So to frame it as this kind of internal conflict, the US just sort of backed one side of it, is not really accurate, when the vast majority of the country, again, based on US’ own internal assessments, support your enemy, again, this is why they would bomb entire villages and kill women and children and say, ‘Well, they were armed,’ and it’s like, well, yeah, that’s what a popular insurrection looks like. It’s not like they’re using them as human shields or whatever. It’s because they don’t like you and they don’t want you there. And so the insistence that there’s this kind of 50/50 civil war that would have existed without US involvement, which in Vietnam, in Iraq, is absolutely not the case, again, it’s not to say that there aren’t organic elements of that, there always is, but you know, when you’re sending in 250,000 troops and 60,000 of whom die and you’re pouring in millions and millions of dollars in weaponry and cash and literally bags of cash to the corrupt South Vietnamese government, yeah, that’s no longer a civil war, right, for the term to have any meaning.
Nima: Yeah, we see the same thing when it comes to Iraq. In 2009, at the beginning of the Obama administration, some US forces withdrew from Iraq as part of an Obama administration promise to fully withdraw from the country by 2012 — one of many, many false pledges to end a war made by a US official. Now, Joe Biden, then Obama’s Vice President, visited Baghdad in July of that year, characterizing the war as a sectarian one. Biden, during his visit, said this, quote:
…Iraq has traveled a great distance in the past year, but there is a hard road ahead if Iraq is to find lasting peace and stability. It’s not over yet. There are still political steps that must be taken. Iraqis must use the political process to resolve their remaining differences. We stand ready — if asked and if helpful — to help in that process.
So yes, it’s so kind, right, like the US, we just want to help out, you know, ‘Iraq has its problems, people there have their differences, you know, man, but we’re here just to support. I don’t know how you got to this place where people are fighting each other in your country, but like, look, I’m just hanging out here. I’m just visiting man, and if we can help you out we will.’
Now, reporting at the time — and before of course, and since — emphasized the issue of sectarian violence in order to minimize the US’s role in creating it. In one good example, a Reuters story about Biden’s trip didn’t address the faults of the US until 13 paragraphs in, where it mentioned that, quote:
Biden helped author a 2006 plan to split Iraq into self-ruled Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish enclaves. That plan angered many Iraqis, and was quietly shelved as violence ebbed.
So it took until the fifth-to-last paragraph in this piece for Reuters to report this, quote:
The sectarian war and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have ebbed over the past year, but attacks continue. Some Iraqis blame U.S. policies for sowing divisions.
Adam: Other usual suspects play into this sectarian war, ‘Iraqis made their bed’ line. This was a very popular talking point from basically 2004 until the US withdrawal, and even today, which is that Shiite’s and Sunnis have existential enemies that are by definition designed to engage in large civil wars and that the US invasion was largely incidental. David Frum, again at The Atlantic, David Frum wrote in July of 2016, quote:
US-UK intervention offered Iraq a better future. Whatever West’s mistakes: sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves.
Which is a pretty evil thing to say. Indeed, the US was instrumental in stoking sectarianism in Iraq as a way of undermining the insurgency. The US invasion devastated Iraq’s economy, including public-sector jobs, causing people to seek employment with the sectarian militias. US-trained death squads and paramilitary militias conducted massacres in cities like Fallujah and fueled sectarian conflicts.
Nima: But you know, this really was just a civil war that Iraq had to figure out on its own and the US stood by ready to lend a helping hand.
Adam: Well, that’s why everyone in their mother became a Sunni and Shia expert around 2005 was, you know, you can’t say, ‘Oh, this is really bad. We shouldn’t have done or maybe the US is fueling sectarianism by supporting both sides like most anti-counterinsurgencies do,’ it’s, ‘Oh, they have this thing in their brain where they sort of just, you know, since the seventh century.’
Nima: Yeah, exactly. It’s not only an internal kind of national civil war, it’s also a religious one, right? So it’s not the US’ fault. It’s ultimately Islam’s fault.
Adam: Yeah, it’s the caliphate succession that got messy, and now we’re suffering the consequences.
Nima: That’s what it was. It wasn’t, you know, I don’t know, shock and awe and decades of sanctions and then murdering millions of people. No, no. It was clearly Mohammed’s fault.
Our fourth trope that we’re going to go over is the idea of alternative histories. Now this trope has media hypothesize about what might have happened if things had gone differently — whether a war had taken a different course, or the US hadn’t invaded at all. Typically, this translates to a defense of the war and an attendant indictment of its critics. In some cases, it’s a policy critique, showing how the US could have best fought a past war, and how it can do better in the future. In others though, it’s meant to demonstrate how much worse off a country would be if the US hadn’t intervened. In both cases, this alternative history tactic is always predicated on the idea that the war in question was ultimately and irrefutably good and necessary. It’s just about looking at the alternatives to realize that basically, we had to do what we did.
Adam: An exemplar of this type of revisionism is Max Boot. We alluded earlier to the New Yorker and Washington Post review of Boot’s 2018 book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. A 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist — yikes — the book is biography of CIA operative Edward Lansdale, whose career included the development of psychological warfare and suppression of popular anticolonial movements in the Philippines and Vietnam. Boot’s book was co-published by the Council on Foreign Relations, where he’s a senior fellow. According to Council on Foreign Relations, Boot’s book, quote:
…demonstrates how Lansdale pioneered a ‘hearts and minds’ diplomacy, first in the Philippines, then in Vietnam. It was a visionary policy that, as Boot reveals, was ultimately crushed by America’s giant bureaucracy, steered by elitist generals and blueblood diplomats who favored troop build-ups and napalm bombs over winning the trust of the people.
Boot’s critique, then, is strictly one of process. The US had a really good plan to win hearts and minds, but some of the bureaucrats, the sort of snot nosed liberals got in the way, and an occasional general. The issue wasn’t the fact that the US planned violent, anticommunist campaigns to destroy any rebellion against occupation in colonized Asia; it was the way these campaigns were sort of badly executed. It was the fact that a certain CIA reactionary couldn’t see his brilliant vision of swindling people into thinking he had a moral crusade behind him.
Boot would also use the book to make prescriptions for more recent wars — not to oppose them, but to make them more efficient and effective. He asserted that Lansdale, quote, “stands as a rebuke both to anti-interventionists who assume that fragile states should stand or fall on their own and to arch-hawks who believe that massive commitments of American military forces are necessary to win any war.” So basically it’s a commercial for the CIA, right? Because to do so we can wage war on the cheap by using psyops and any defunding to kind of give you the regime change you want. He further suggested that Lansdale’s use of political warfare and propaganda and his, quote, “tactics in fighting global communism” could “usefully be studied by officials today fighting global jihadism” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Washington Post, which employs Max Boot as a columnist, published an overwhelmingly positive review of the book, headlined, “Charting a different course in the Vietnam War to fewer deaths and a better end,” the review adopted Boot’s sympathetic portrayal of Lansdale, characterizing Lansdale as a visionary who couldn’t work his quote-unquote “magic” because of incompetent or bureaucratic governments.
This is the standard line Vietnam revisionist line, very popular one, which this is kind of a version of it’s sort of a CIA version of it, is that a bunch of snot nosed bureaucrats got in the way a bunch of weak kneed liberals, or in his case, the weak kneed liberals and bloodthirsty generals, if they had just listened to the CIA’s super duper awesome, appealing psychological warfare.
Nima: Then we would have gotten all those barbarians under wraps, man.
Adam: Yeah, then, you know, it wasn’t like the implication of that being is that actually that there really wasn’t a widespread organic dislike of the American occupation and bombing of Vietnam.
Nima: The guys who would have gotten the job done weren’t allowed to do the job.
Adam: Yeah. Which basically means the great kind of quote-unquote “mistake” of the last hundred years that everyone agrees on, even more so than Iraq was bad, Vietnam. Then is now thrown into the bin of, ‘Oh, maybe maybe we should debate this, maybe there’s a counterfactual that if we had just given them more rope,’ that’s a variation of the kind of Rambo to the politicians who got in the way.
Nima: Yeah, right. Exactly.
Adam: Politicians, e.g. people democratically elected are sort of, you know, ‘If they just turn the key and let us do our job, if they just let the CIA fund more fake newspapers and hand more people bags of cash they’ll win hearts and minds eventually, trust us.’
Nima: Now from Max Boot we go back to David Frum to talk about the alternative histories of Iraq. So in the 2023 David Frum piece in The Atlantic, the one headlined, “The Iraq War Reconsidered,” Frum asked this, quote:
…as we make our appraisals at the 20-year mark, we need to consider another assessment. Where would the United States, Iraq, and the region be today if the U.S. had left Saddam in place in 2003?
Now, attempting to answer the question, Frum posited that Saddam Hussein would have gassed his own people and stoked sectarianism, adding this, quote:
The one scenario that seems extremely unlikely to have occurred in Saddam’s Iraq: a peaceful transition of power to a better government. Mass violence was coming in that country. For Americans, it would probably have been better if the U.S. had kept its distance from the brewing trouble inside Iraq. Whether Iraq had an alternative future that would have been much better for the country and its people seems very doubtful to me.
Now, what we can clearly see here in Frum;s alternative historical musings is that just like Bedford Falls without George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Iraq without the United States’ invasion would have been a far worse off place. Now, as our guest Jon Schwarz pointed out in an analysis of Frum’s piece that he wrote for The Intercept, Frum attempts to lend credence to a number of outrageous, debunked lies used as a pretext for the war. One was that Iraq possessed, quote, “an arsenal of chemical-warfare shells and warheads.” Now, yes, Iraq did have chemical weapons in the ’80s and used them on Iranians during the Iran Iraq War, but turned most of those over to UN inspectors in the 1990s, after which they were destroyed. Some remained in Iraq and were found by the US during the war, but Charles Duelfer, who headed the US’ inquiry into the weapons, told Schwarz that, quote, “What was found were militarily useless remains left over from production during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam did not know it was around.”
So even in the attempts to tell an alternative history, you see writers like Frum who have direct and personal stakes in telling a new history, you see employed the same lies that people were told in advance of the invasion only now we’re supposed to reconsider those 20 years on and somehow come to a different conclusion.
Adam: The fifth trope is one we’ve touched on before in the show, specifically Episode 128: The Healing Con: How Warm and Fuzzy Appeals for “Unity” Are Used to Protect Power, which is the idea of healing. We have to heal. This bad thing happens, black and white days, 20 years ago, grainy four by three, you know non-HDTV, so it was kind of a long time ago, we need to heal the wounds and move on. This is kind of a great way to obscure responsibility because healing, a part of healing, is taking responsibility and being accountable. Any meaningful healing process, restorative justice processes that people actually take responsibility and do something to win back the trust or to earn healing. You can’t just sort of throw out a bunch of bromides about healing. Not the case when it comes to war crimes, US war crimes. No one’s really ever held accountable for Vietnam. No one’s really held accountable for Iraq, obviously. But we sort of need to move past the whole accountability part and get straight to the cliches about healing. This was a very popular framing of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary we had talked about earlier, the film’s explicit purpose was not to indict the US or to really center the plight of the Vietnamese people, instead as Burns stated multiple times, it was to heal the wounds of Vietnam. Burns stated in an interview, quote:
What if the film was just an attempt at some sort of vaccination, a little bit more of the disease to get you immune to the disunion that [the Vietnam War] has sponsored?
Let’s listen to a clip of Burns promoting a documentary on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2017, in which he makes this argument more explicitly.
Ken Burns: There are incredible stories so that we could understand that in war more than one truth could happen at the same time, that we could create a space, unlike today, we are so divided so everything is so toxic, that we wanted to remind people that even at a terrible time, we could actually describe the story by telling it from lots of different points of view, and representing that, and we went out and found underwriters from across the political spectrum who joined a nonprofit called The Better Angels Society. This is PBS, public broadcast, the thriving PBS, and across the political spectrum from left to right, we got an enlightened corporate underwriter, Bank of America, who said look, bring it on, all the controversy, bring it on.
Adam: Yeah, we needed an enlightened corporate sponsor. That’s our problem. And this kind of human wounds rhetoric was very popular in the promotion of it. In May of 2017, The New York Times published an op-ed by Burns and Novick headlined, quote, “Vietnam’s Unhealed Wounds.” Here’s an excerpt, quote:
In our own treacherously divisive moment, Americans would do well to take a long, hard look at the bitter and painful tragedy of Vietnam, as searing and difficult as that will be for our country. If we can unpack this enormously complicated event, immerse ourselves in it and see it with fresh eyes, we might come to terms with one of the most consequential, and most misunderstood, events in our history and perhaps inoculate ourselves against the further spread of the virulent disunion that afflicts us.
Nothing will ever make the tragedy of the Vietnam War all right. But if we are to begin the process of healing, we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.
What the fuck does that mean? Burns and Novick would continue, quote:
There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War. Many questions remain unanswerable. But if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.
So that’s all bullshit, right? Because it’s a way of saying no one’s really, it’s why John McCain was a huge fan of the documentary because he was bombing fucking rice farmers and villages and shit, right? So no one’s responsible. By the way, there can’t be more than one truth. There’s only one truth. That’s kind of how truth works. We make moral pronouncements about who’s guilty for things all the time. Go to a Cook County fucking courthouse and sit there for two hours. You’ll watch a guy, usually a white guy, in a row with the gavel sentencing people to 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 years, we make decisions about truth all the time and the attendant moral judgments that go along with that, all the fucking time. That’s pretty much all this country ever does actually. We establish the truth. We say you’re fucking guilty. But for some reason, a war that kills 3 million people in Indochina — three to five million depending what numbers you look at — is this mysterious, not really clear, multiple truths, who’s really to say what happened? And then you move on to healing well, okay, if we don’t establish who did the bad thing, how do we heal? The questions remain unanswerable. And of course, there’s no mention of restitution. There’s no reparations, there’s no payment to the Iraqi people. There’s no payment to Vietnam. There’s no sense that we’re putting anyone in prison or jail to be held accountable for lying to us about the reasons for these wars, which we know were based on lies, which we know are based on deception very openly, been sort of acknowledged now, even by the CIA itself.
Adam: There’s no sense that anything should really happen. It’s just Oh, Bank of America and the Charles Koch Foundation funded our documentary, you know, about how complicated things were, and it’s like, well, okay, because clearly, Bank of America isn’t going to fund the Nicholas Turse version, write the book, Kill Anything That Moves, which is pretty much makes the argument that the Vietnam War was genocidal, it was a 10 year PhD thesis turned into a book and it’s an incredibly detailed using the Army’s own own records, the CIA’s own records, that Turse got his hands on, pretty much makes it clear that this was a war of extermination, of basically you’re going to use collective punishment until they surrendered to US whims. This was a book that took a very clear moral stance. And if you take a clear moral stand against the word Vietnam you’re not going to get funded by Bank of America. So we’ll get you funded and get you on PBS and get you all this bullshit, you know, JFK award center, you know, applause from the kind of bourgeois media crowd is this facile, you know, who’s to really say, courage, patriotism, resilient? What the fuck does that mean? Okay. Now, again, people say, well, Burns did have a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the North Vietnamese. But this was kind of like, well, they got a consolation prize, because they were like, not all evil people. But there’s no sense the US is guilty of anything, because it all gets washed back into this vague hand wringing discourse about, you know, who’s to say, really what happened? And it’s like, no, because if you want to prevent future war, you need to understand that this war was something that was axiomatically bad, and that if you can’t say this is axiomatically bad, which again, we routinely do for other countries, we routinely do for Iran, Russia, Syria, you name it, right? Hezbollah, Hamas, we don’t say, who’s to say what’s true with the bombing in Israel, we just say that’s evil. But when it comes to making moral pronouncements about American actors and foreign policy, even when they’re manifestly killing literally millions of people, right? I mean, 1 million people in Iraq is one estimate, some people say half a million. Vietnam, three to five million. These are millions of people when it comes to making moral pronouncements about something that egregious you say, you know, who’s to say, really, it’s really it’s, you know, you like vanilla, I like chocolate. Let’s just agree to disagree. And it’s like, well, what?
Nima: Well, there’s something also baked into this healing piece, Adam, and it’s that it ascribes the two sides that must come together, of both being American, and both being able to agree that fundamentally the troops are heroes.
Adam: Yeah, but that has moral content, you know, like the troops are heroes has moral content, because like, if the war is evil, then the troops are not heroes, like they’re conscripted so whatever, but they’re not heroes.
Nima: Well, exactly. And so you hear this again, and again, this idea that, what we really mean by healing, when we publish these pieces again and again, and we make documentaries, and we make political speeches, that what is meant by healing is just, you know, ‘We may disagree on all the particulars, but at least we can come together and agree that there was,’ as Burns and Novick write, ‘courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died,’ just like when talking about Iraq, early on his presidency, Barack Obama delivered a speech at Marine base camp Lejeune in North Carolina, this is in late February of 2009, right after he took office, and in this speech about responsibly ending the war in Iraq, and bringing troops home, delivered again in front of Marines, Obama said this, quote:
As a nation, we have had our share of debates about the war in Iraq. It has, at times, divided us as a people. To this very day, there are some Americans who want to stay in Iraq longer, and some who want to leave faster. But there should be no disagreement on what the men and women of our military have achieved.
And so I want to be very clear: We sent our troops to Iraq to do away with Saddam Hussein’s regime — and you got the job done. We kept our troops in Iraq to help establish a sovereign government — and you got the job done. And we will leave the Iraqi people with a hard-earned opportunity to live a better life — that is your achievement; that is the prospect that you have made possible.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, what’s he going to do? He’s the president, he’s got to give them, they got to get a participation trophy. I mean, I understand that. The thing with healing discourse is that, you know, it’s one thing for someone like Obama to say, ‘We need to heal,’ right? He’s a politician, he deals in bullshit in terms of soothing egos, and sort of, I get that, the problem is when Ken Burns and Lynn Novick come along, and they’re supposed to be sort of independent filmmakers, when you say ahead of time, before you set out to even make the documentary, that our goal is to heal, you have just basically forfeited any kind of intellectual journalistic or artistic credibility, because you’re saying the goal is a fundamentally political one. ‘Our goal is to make people feel good about themselves,’ and the goal of documentary filmmaking ought not be to make people feel good, it should be to make them uncomfortable, to make them feel squeamish, and to make them be challenged, right? And to sort of say ahead of time, ‘Oh, no, we’re not really going to challenge you, you will have some stuff that’s slightly uncomfortable, and we’ll sort of mention Mai Lai and stuff, but ultimately, we’re going to circle back to the endpoint where we’re healing.’ It’s an aggressively anti-intellectual thing to sort of admit, because it fundamentally means, ‘I’m making a piece of political propaganda,’ and where this logic gets exposed when you sit when he says, ‘Look, we can have disagreement with Vietnam, but ultimately, we need to honor the troops,’ right, this kind of facile liberal patriotism. It’s like well, okay, so if we’re doing the thing where no one’s really to blame, and there’s not really any truth, so are you suggesting we also need to honor the North Vietnamese troops? Are you saying that the readers of The New York Times should honor, respect the courage and honor of the Vietnamese? Because you didn’t say that. So why didn’t you say that? Because obviously honoring troops carries with it political endorsement of the antecedent thing the troop is doing. This whole honor the troop stuff is just a way to kind of smuggle in your own ideological work with respect to the justification, again, albeit reluctantly, or with qualifications, of the actual act of war itself, and we know this because Ken Burns isn’t telling us to respect the quote, “patriotism, resilience, forgiveness, courage” of the North Vietnamese, right? I mean, is he? I don’t think he is.
Nima: Well, right. And so what we’re left with, after all of these tropes kind of compound upon one another, Adam, is this idea of shoulder shrugging, hand wringing, and, you know, head shaking that look, you know, we’re going to try and think about how we got to where we are. But ultimately, as Max Fisher in The New York Times ended his piece, he says this, “No matter how much we know about the facts of the 2003 invasion, Dr. Elizabeth Saunders of Georgetown said, quote, ‘some of it will remain fundamentally unknowable.’” End quote.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: The inscrutable face of God.
Nima: Inscrutable absolution for the United States, always. To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept and longtime friend of the pod. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Jon Schwarz. John, it has been way too long since you have been on the show. Welcome back to Citations Needed.
Jon Schwarz: Well, thank you for having me back. I hope you give me credit for being willing to return this to the show after so long after you removed the woo woo from the introduction.
Adam: You know, we did that like five years ago and people still complain about it.
Nima: That’s a pretty generous reading of the word “we” Adam.
Jon Schwarz: My understanding is that one of the hosts here was responsible for that.
Adam: Yeah, that was me, and, you know, I have to say other people complain about it. I now know how William Shatner feels about the Trekkies that come up to him and are like, ‘Hey, man, what about the…?’ Shut up. I don’t care. The woo woo is gone.
Nima: Get a life, you people.
Adam: All right. So anyway.
Nima: Welcome back, Jon. It’s great to have you here.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, in addition to the grim reminder of the Iraq War anniversaries about the Iraq War itself.
Adam: I want to start off by getting the focus on Iraq, we covered Iraq and Vietnam both, but I want to sort of start by talking about Iraq, because the 20th anniversary, of course, just passed recently, and you wrote about a few times. As you note in your writing on the subject, a lot of people in power in the media, think tank land, the government, they still have a lot of incentive to muddy the waters about the Iraq War — unlike Vietnam, which of course is now 50–60 years, depending how you define the start and end of it — this is very much present tense up to an including, of course, the President, and the editor in chief of many magazines and editorial boards of many newspapers. These are lifetime appointments, so they don’t really go anywhere. It seems like on this anniversary, unlike even say 10 years ago, I feel like with each passing year, the revisionism gets kind of more calculated, more brazen, and more ahistoric and more revisionist in the pejorative sense. I know not all revisionism is bad, but revisionist in the sense that you kind of feel like someone’s going into the wayback machine or doctoring a logbook, and sort of tampering with some historical record in a way that seems dishonest. I want to sort of talk about the articles you’ve written on this, specifically your criticism of The Atlantic, which is kind of become a, it’s sort of the Florida of Iraq war criminals. It’s wherever they all go to retire.
Nima: The dumping ground. Yeah.
Adam: Sort of are they all kind of end up. Obviously, because their editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, himself was probably the one of the top three biggest boosters of the war in the media.
Nima: The Boca of Iraq War revisionism.
Adam: Yeah, pretty much the Boca Vista of Iraq war criminals. I want to talk about what lie they published and why it sort of matters and what it kind of shows about this instinct towards revisionism?
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I mean, I think something about the 20th anniversary that I found extremely unsettling is that, you know, I feel like now I’m old enough that I’ve lived through a lot of history, and to actually see things that I saw with my own eyes turn out to not be true, according to The Atlantic really is bizarre, and it’s like reading in The Atlantic about how so well, of course, you have five arms, and you’re like, wait a second, I’m pretty sure I only have two and like you write to The Atlantic and be like, I think I have two arms, they’re like ‘Nope. You’re wrong about that one. You got five.’ Anyway, so David Frum wrote an article about the 20th anniversary in The Atlantic, David Frum, people may recall, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush in 2001 and some of 2002 and takes credit for the phrase and axis of evil which was in the 2002 state of The Union address, and that was where people really understood that they had Iraq in their crosshairs for sure, and you know, this was a bizarre axis of evil —
Nima: Iran and North Korea were kind of givens.
Jon Schwarz: Exactly. But I love the idea, so Iran and North Korea and Iraq were part of this axis. And, you know, it’s like Iran and Iraq, clearly, they’re part of an axis in the sense that they’ve been trying to kill each other for decades. Anyway, axis of evil, one of the dumbest phrases of propaganda in history, David Frum claims credit for that. Anyway, so now, of course, he has been scooped up by The Atlantic, and he’s done an enormous number of appalling things as a writer there. You guys may remember. He went on a diatribe on Twitter during one of the many Israeli bombings of Gaza where he claimed that a couple of men who were covered in their relatives blood were crisis actors who are only pretending to be covered in their relatives blood. I mean, it was incredible, absolutely, like Alex Jones level crap. But anyway, he that didn’t harm his career at The Atlantic, he’s still there, and he wrote this article, “The Iraq War Reconsidered,” and I’m just going to read the first paragraph, because it is four sentences long, and literally, every one of the four sentences is false. So it starts out, quote:
Twenty years ago, the United States went to war in Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Except for an arsenal of chemical-warfare shells and warheads, those weapons weren’t there — Saddam had shut down his efforts to build a nuclear bomb as well as his biological-warfare program. Instead, he thwarted and resisted international weapons inspectors in order to bluff the world into believing that he still possessed capabilities for mass killing. Saddam’s best-hidden secret was his (at least temporary) weakness.
And that is also absolute nonsense. Saddam Hussein was not running a sophisticated bluff on the United States to make us think that he had weapons.
Adam: He just didn’t have it.
Jon Schwarz: He just didn’t have to have it. It’s not like they were running a bluff. They kept on saying, ‘We don’t have anything,’ over and over and over again.
Adam: Something that was reported on at the time, and Jeremy Scahill was in Iraq in 2002, literally at the site that Cheney said had been a chemical weapons factory showing that it was they’re making, I don’t know, license plates or brakes, I forget what it was, so is that as if they had no way of knowing.
Jon Schwarz: Right. Exactly. So every single one of those four sentences was false. But I wanted to focus for this article that I wrote about this part, saying that Iraq had an arsenal of chemical warfare, shells and warheads, and that is an incredibly bizarre thing to say, and I know exactly how and why David Frum is lying about this, because what happened was that Iraq did have a chemical warfare program during the 1980s that was aided by, of course, the United States and Europe, and the use of these chemical weapons in their War against Iran during the ’80s, and as happens with every army, during every war, they lost track of a lot of their stuff, and so they lost track of some of their chemical warfare shells, and they are kind of scattered around Iraq on the battlefield or, you know, stored various places, and this is a problem for Iraq, they were aware of this, because the shells looked exactly like regular munitions, and they were scared that before the war in 2003, the UN was going to stumble across these lost chemical shells that really were nowhere near as deadly as they had been in the ’80s because the stuff in them generally tended to degrade. It’s not the kind of thing where you’d want to open up the shell and drink the contents, but it was probably not going to be as deadly as it was back then. But anyway, they knew that these things were mixed in with regular munitions. They knew it’d be a disaster if the UN stumbled upon these when they’re not supposed to have any, and Saddam Hussein, you know, issued orders saying, ‘You’ve got to look through these, find anything, you know, that is unconventional weapons and turn it over to the UN like on the pain of death.’ So they actually were making a good faith effort to find that stuff. But it’s just the fact that it’s impossible to track down all this kind of stuff, and I actually grew up in a neighborhood in Washington, DC, where about 20 years ago, they found a cache of chemical weapons from World War I, where there been like a field where they would test munitions in the outskirts of DC, and now it’s become this very expensive neighborhood, and they were digging foundations for new mansions, and they’re like, ‘Oops,’ they spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to clean it up since then. But anyway, so the point was, Iraq was not trying to hide anything unless you want to say Washington DC in the United States was trying to hide this arsenal of chemical weapons. That’s just nonsense. You know, some of these shells were found by the United States in the 2000s, after the invasion, but it wasn’t an arsenal, it wasn’t something that the Iraqi Government was trying to hide and it was really something that would be unusable in a war in any case. So that was all complete garbage. What David Frum said and I wrote to The Atlantic and their response was basically, you know, as you may remember Thomas Friedman saying, you know, like, well suck on this.
Adam: Yeah, I was definitely a suck on this. Yeah. Because I mean, obviously there’s incentive to muddy the waters, they’ve tried to do this around the margins with, I feel like every couple years, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies or some of these neoconservative psychos will have some really dubiously sourced article about Iraq having connections with al Qaeda or like, ‘Oh, there actually was chemical weapons’ or, you know, ‘Saddam Hussein was actually doing this or that,’ it seems like there’s, you know, people don’t I don’t want one thing I really were trying to get to with this episode is that people in power care deeply about what it is you think, they care deeply about you buying into the big kind of national mythologies, and as these great power competitions with China, and to a lesser extent Russia, become more acute, more codified, more intense, there’s a parallel effort that is just as urgent to maintain this idea of the US as this arbiter of human rights and democracy and the big counter to that has always been, in my lifetime, ‘Well, what about that horrible war that killed a million people based on totally made up thing.’ So there’s tremendous incentive to muddy the waters with revisionism, and it’s not just about David Frum’s ego, although that is a large motivator. It is very much a current political topic that we muddy the waters just as, again, we documented at the top of the show, we muddied the waters of Vietnam beginning in the ’80s, because of similar national, the sort of ever present urge for national mythology massaging and those kinds of self regard as global Avengers, protecting Human Rights and such.
Nima: Yeah, the kind of war on or war of memory and retrospection is a really crucial one. We see this in the minutia, in the details of these retrospectives, of these revisionist histories that are published as kind of heady essays or ‘Oh, you know, we’re still asking the big questions,’ and it seems like every single one, regardless of kind of where it lands on the facts, and they are all fairly dubious, but to varying degrees, right, there’s like your Max Fisher style, there’s your David Frum style, there’s your Ely Lake style, which are all maybe the same style, but the kind of how do we collectively remember this? Which, Adam, to your point earlier, it’s still living history. But in terms of the 20 year timeframe now, what do we say about the reasons we went in, the back and forth between the UN and the UK and Poland, all of these things? And then like in the wake of 9/11, I think that’s also been, suppressed a lot in these articles, this idea of, you know, ‘Well, yeah, sure, I guess, like 9/11 was, like, sort of fresh, but really, it was about something else,’ and not just about, you know, power projection. And so, Jon, you know, I’m curious, your thoughts on this kind of war over memory, and how the idea that every single other country is expected by the US to, at some point, I mean, unless they’re like super duper pals, but if there’s some horrible thing in a country’s history, we’re very, very concerned about reckoning with that history and grappling with it, and where’s is the accountability, where’s their truth and reconciliation, and it seems like every single thing that our media and our politics can do here is avoid any kind of truth and reconciliation, and so instead, we go the other way, and we just completely make things up in hindsight, and somehow this continues to work. So what do you think with this trajectory, where are we going to land at the next, you know, 10- or 20-year mark, out from the Iraq War? I think we’re probably going to hear that Saddam Hussein invaded us.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And, you know, 20 year olds will be reading this, and it’ll be, ‘Oh, thank God for George W. Bush.’ ‘Now, I understand why his President granddaughter is telling us that we have to invade Jupiter.’ It is terrifying, and in fact, you know, it’s interesting. Barack Obama writes in his first book about spending some time in Indonesia when he was a kid right after this gigantic mass slaughter of half a million people by this government that was installed by the US and that absolutely no one talked about it. It had happened like a year before, and he writes about his mother and says, “The idea frightened her, the notion that history can be swallowed up so completely the same way the rich and loamy Earth could soak up the rivers of blood,” and that’s exactly the process that we’re seeing on a kind of less severe scale, because we can still complain about it on the internet and on podcasts, without people cutting us into pieces with machetes, this was the case in Indonesia. But it really is scary, and it really does make you wonder, what else about history that you believe, that you think is absolutely true, is in fact a complete fabrication.
Adam: Yeah, and one of the ways they do this, of course, is the example used at the top of the show, and the one we have mentioned earlier when we talked about the Ken Burns documentary is Vietnam is very similar to Iraq in some key ways, which is that the detective shows up and there’s a dead body strewn about. So they can’t lie and act like there’s not a victim, right? They can’t sort of say there hasn’t been a murder, but they begin to negotiate it down to manslaughter, and the negotiation down to manslaughter is, I think, where this sort of primary propaganda happens with both Vietnam and Iraq, because there certainly were such unmitigated horrors was such huge, like, you can’t hide the dead body, right? But you can try to be, as a good lawyer, you can try to get him down to manslaughter or, you know, manslaughter two, right? Which has a lot to do with mens rea, guilty mind, and this gets to our next question about this Max Fisher revisionist recap he did for The New York Times, which I thought was, had about 85 different Citations Needed tropes in one sort of article. I mean, it was everything under the sun. It had stumbling empire, it had good faith, we meant well, it had, you know, sort of wires were crossed, had a lot of hand wringing, had a lot of psychoanalysis.
Nima: Thought it was true at the time.
Adam: Heavily sourced from people who are highly, highly motivated to lie or to bullshit, who were friends with or themselves were involved with one of the great crimes of our generation. But as you note in your 2017 piece, which discussed the Ken Burns framing of good faith and mistakes were made, and we spoke at great length about that as well, the framing of good intentions and good faith, it’s utterly meaningless, right? Because, you know, the Nazis were in good faith, right? Everyone’s in good faith, this sort of doesn’t mean anything. What matters is the ideology and the worldview you’re pushing bad, and whether or not you sort of have a pure heart, sort of is irrelevant, because ultimately, it’s unknowable, right? Epistemologically, I don’t, I can’t know what’s in Dick Cheney’s heart, and no one really can and all these kinds of pseudo-academic attempts to sort of summarize their state of mind, strike me as incredibly precious and exceedingly liberal. And this, of course, is not a standard we would ever ever apply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example. As far as I know, and I looked pretty thoroughly, there’s never been a New York Times piece that said that top Russian officials believed there were Bio Labs in Ukraine, this was dismissed at hand as pretextual, and again, I think justifiably so. No one really thought they believed that there was a Nazi invasion of Russia about to happen backed by NATO. This was rightfully dismissed as pre textual. Again, I think justifiably so. We are maximally cynical, and maximally skeptical, and engage in basically dismissing as megalomania or resource grabs, right? We get the big maps in Vox.com with oil pipelines through Ukraine, right, we sort of get the standard issue, ‘Oh, they’re doing this because of resources and because they’re fucking psychos,’ which is sort of my general opinion about most of this stuff, right? But that standard simply doesn’t apply to what we had with Iraq, and I do think one of the reasons why this iteration of Iraq War revisionism was so brazen and so cynical was because this is the first major anniversary after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they’re talking about, I mean, people in earnest in good faith are talking about reopening the ICC, which, of course is a joke, if you know anything about the US’s history with the ICC, especially during the Bush administration. So talk if you could about that double standard, how this kind of squishy psychoanalysis is really only reserved for US officials, and how everything kind of falls into this epistemological category of kind of unknowable squishy shit. Again, as you note, what does it mean to have good faith or good intentions?
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, I mean, I think that this is ultimately kind of an expression of human nature, on the international stage involving the deaths of millions. Everybody knows that when you’re judging yourself, you judge yourself by your intentions, and, you know, I always meant, well, no matter what I actually did, my intentions were good. I know that about myself, I’m a nice person. But when other people act, you know, you judge them by your actions, and if they do terrible things, you don’t really care about their interior mental state, and that’s an experience everybody has lived and their own life, and I have a weird belief, which is that countries truly do function as, like, gigantic human beings psychologically.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah. So of course, it happens that the United States thinks that about itself, you know, it’s like, we’re always trying to do good, and then oh, no, like, another 3 million people are dead. It’s like, ‘I feel pretty bad about this, but to make up for this, we’re going to have to invade another country. We can’t over learn the lessons of the past.’ So of course, that’s the way countries work. I’m sure the exact same thing is true in Russia, you know, and I did write that article about the Soviet Union and the invasion of Afghanistan, where we can read the deliberations of the Politburo that, of course, were secret at the time, and they were all talking about their need to bring democracy and freedom to Afghanistan. It didn’t really work out that way. So yeah, no, it is weird, and I think that is absolutely true. There was a specific need right now, right after Russia invading Ukraine to rebuild Iraq.
Adam: Because all the people now acting as if they’re defenders of NATO and freedom and democracy are like, I mean, Applebaum, David Frum, Jeffrey Goldberg. Pretty much you name it, it’s the same people.
Nima: It’s literally the same people. It’s unbelievable.
Adam: It’s the same people. Joe Biden.
Nima: How can people have not gone away after 20 years?
Adam: Tony Blinken, the Secretary of State was a huge promoter of the war in Iraq in 2002.
Nima: Like Rumsfeld’s the only dead guy.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah. Speaking of Rumsfeld. Well, and also, you know, Colin Powell, has the grace to die as well. But I like to remember about Donald Rumsfeld specifically, you know, I think, Adam, you and I both wrote articles about, you know, where are they now? The architects of the Iraq War?
Adam: Yeah, yeah. No, it was, yeah, I felt like it was kind of the obvious thing, but I decided to do it anyway. Because I feel like we can’t have too many of them.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, we really can’t. And one detail about Rumsfeld’s post Bush administration life that I don’t think gets enough attention, that seems impossible, it seems impossible that this could be true, but it really is, apparently, he owned a vacation home on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and the nickname for his estate was Mount Misery, and it was a former plantation, and The New York Times reported that it had been owned by, at some point in its past, a man named Edward Covey, and he was notorious for his ability to torture people who had been sent over, people who his neighbors had enslaved, sending them over to be tortured until they were broken psychologically and physically, and one of the people who was tortured at Mount Misery at his vacation home was Frederick Douglass when he was 16 years old, and Douglas later wrote about how, he said it left him “wrecked, changed and bewildered, goaded almost to madness,” and it’s like, how can you live in a house like that? Well, if you’re Donald Rumsfeld, and you yourself have been involved in torturing people, I like to imagine, you know, late, late at night, in the pitch-black darkness, the ghost of this guy, Edward Covey, would come to Rumsfeld covered in clicking chains and be like, ‘Hey, man, great job.’
Nima: ‘Yeah, this is really working out. Thanks for following in my footsteps.’
Jon Schwarz: Exactly. I’m so proud to have someone owning this home who is just like me. But anyway, so most of these guys are still around, Rumsfeld and Powell are two of the only ones, I think, who have had the grace to expire since then. They’re still around, they’re still making tons of money, they are still though the media people have just, they have only been promoted. I think there’s only one example.
Adam: Yeah. And you know, oftentimes just people bring up Iraq, and obviously, it was very formative for my generation, in terms of how we sort of viewed power, right? And then people say, ‘Well, it was 20 years ago,’ and it’s like, yeah, but they’re all around still, and, you know, you want to be sanctimonious about accountability for war crimes. It’s like you said, it’s, again, it’s what you said about governments being people is an analogy that Noam Chomsky has made for, you know, 60 years now, right, like physician heal thyself, that you can care about multiple injustices at once, not just your own, but generally, you should prioritize your own because it’s the simplest and most elegant thing you can solve, right? I can fix myself before I fix the guy down the street. But if the guy down the street is, you know, beating his kids, I should probably intervene, right? But generally, you can sort of fix yourself first. You’re the first priority. It’s not the only priority, but it ought to be the first priority, I think is a fair summation of Chomsky’s point and when I obviously agree with, but we don’t want to do that, because that sucks, and it’s messy and everyone makes a quarter million dollars a year writing, you know, sort of NATO claptrap about human rights, and there’s no real need to ever have any accountability. There was a weird phase in 2013 where we had some mea culpas. There was some vague public humiliation.
Nima: Yeah, everyone’s totally over that now.
Adam: They don’t even do that anymore.
Nima: Right. So Jon, I mean, what do you think has been the kind of like public utility, I guess, of having almost these ciphers for accountability out there, you know, if you think about our entire English speaking media, was somehow held to account just because when you say the name Judith Miller, now there’s a little cringe, but no one else other than her got that much in the same way that like somehow our entire nation atoned by electing Barack Obama, who had said some, you know, vague anti-war things when he wasn’t really in any power to do anything anyway, and so like, what do you think is the kind of purpose of those kind of Hallmark accountable moments that then somehow allow us to still ignore how nothing has changed and nothing’s been learned?
Jon Schwarz: Yes. Well, as Obama said, “We believe in looking forwards, not backwards.”
Nima: Not backwards. That’s right.
Jon Schwarz: You might ask, how can there ever be any accountability for anything and it’s like, well —
Nima: Right. So the police are kind of useless, right? Perfect.
Jon Schwarz: Right, right. Exactly. The problem with the police is they’re always looking backwards, you know.
Adam: Put one guy in jail, give me a fall guy, you know, not some soldier in Iraq, but give me, put David Frum in prison, you know, that’ll satisfy my, because it’s just there’s no sense of accountability at all, which like, in and of itself would be bad, but then there’s the subsequent constant fart sniffing about how fucking righteous they are that just requires the most profound cognitive dissidence and the most severe amnesia.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah. I mean, who wants to face reality, reality is awful. If we actually wanted accountability for the Iraq War, we would have to get rid of pretty much the top 2 percent of US society. Anybody who’s alive in 2003 knows that there was essentially uniform support for it. across the US political system, across US corporations. Katie Couric was on TV going, you know, ‘Navy SEALs rock.’ And nobody wants that. That’s a big hassle.
Nima: We are all neocons now.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah. And so let’s just move forward, knowing that there’s no need to mention any of this again, except to say that you maybe were right, who can say? Time has passed. Let’s get over it.
Jon Schwarz: Well, so Jon, before we actually like pivot to another one of our horrible national war crimes a few decades before Iraq, I want to ask one more question about Iraq, as someone who was pointing out bullshit, calling it out with wonderful citations, I might add, at the time, in real time before and after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, what do you find searching through the archives to be the number one most egregious bit of revisionism that you see time and time again?
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, well, it’s so hard to choose.
Nima: I know, they’re all our babies.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, they’re all our beloved children.
Nima: Is it that Saddam kicked out inspectors?
Jon Schwarz: That is a good one.
Nima: That’s my favorite. That’s one of my favorites.
Adam: Talk about that. Because I think that’s still a popular one today.
Jon Schwarz: Indeed, it is. Because, you know, I wrote a whole article about how that Max Fisher piece in The New York Times, which was, “20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?” Still murky? Who can say?
Adam: We’re held bum fizzled 20 years on. I don’t know, we pretty much figured it out in like 2004.
Nima: Yeah, I think millions of people around the world marched about that exact same thing before the invasion. We knew.
Jon Schwarz: But now it’s receded in memory. It’s very fuzzy, getting further and further away and quieter and quieter. But anyway, in this article, Max Fisher wrote, “Mr. Hussein had ejected international weapons inspectors in 1998, which was seen in Washington as a humiliating policy failure for Mr. Clinton.” I saw that, and it really did feel as though my mind had broken and I was like, you know —
Nima: You sprouted a sixth arm.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, exactly, a sixth arm. I do have six arms. Because I was wrong, I don’t have five, I have six. It was unbearable for anybody who was alive in the run up to the 2003 war to see this appear in 2023 because for people who don’t follow the minutiae of this, what actually happened is that there had been UN weapons inspectors in Iraq since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and they had, you know, we now know, like pretty much found everything that Iraq had produced and Iraq was disarmed. But Iraq was still from time to time obstructing a small number of the inspections, and Iraq said at the time, we now know this was 100 percent true that the reason they were doing this was that they had accurately realized that the US was using the inspections as cover to try to foment a coup against Saddam Hussein, and the United States, if there were weapons inspectors in the United States, would not allow people into the White House who are trying to kill the president.
Adam: Sure, immensely reasonable.
Jon Schwarz: Yes. You know, you might think, well, doesn’t he want to be declared disarmed, you know, so the sanctions against Iraq could be lifted? You know, why wouldn’t he let everybody go anywhere? Well, you know, that might be one priority of his, but his top priority is staying alive for the next 30 seconds, and so this was completely understandable behavior from Iraq, but it was presented in the United States as ‘Well, there’s no reason they could possibly be obstructing these inspections, you know, except that the country is full of weapons of mass destruction, and they’re hiding them from us.’ So anyway, what happened in 1998 is there were several confrontations between the weapons inspectors and the Iraqi security forces, and the United States wanted an excuse to bomb Iraq and just before Christmas in 1998 they told UNSCOM the UN team like, you know, ‘We are going to start bombing Iraq shortly,’ and UNSCOM understandably we’re like, ‘Okay, like we’re taking our our team out of there because we don’t want them to die.’ So UNSCOM withdrew the team, the United States bombed Iraq in something called Operation Desert Fox, which, at the time and ever since has I think struck people as being why are you naming US military operations after a Nazi general? But anyway, Operation Desert Fox. People may know Desert Fox with a nickname for Rammel.
Adam: Rammel, right?
Jon Schwarz: Yeah.
Adam: Yeah. That’s not great. Not good branding. But yeah.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, not really not the best.
Adam: When they first invaded, the first Iraq flag the coalition US government produced was the same colors as a flag of Israel and they had to redo it. Remember that? It was blue and white? Yeah, that was also not the best branding. But go ahead.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, they didn’t, they didn’t really get their top people.
Adam: This is not a Zionist plot. Now, here’s your flag. Oh, shit.
Jon Schwarz: So anyway, The New York Times said just now, just weeks ago, Mr. Hussein had ejected international weapons inspectors, as I was just saying, that’s not what happened. They were withdrawn after the United States informed them that we’re about to start bombing the country, and so the obvious implication of saying that he’d ejected our national weapons inspectors, wass well, you know, like he’s hiding all these weapons of mass destruction, and you need to get the inspectors out of there, and this was repeated over and over, Colin Powell said this, it was all over the US media, they ejected international weapons inspectors in 1998. What other possible reason could they have for doing that except for their huge pile of terrifying weapons? Anyway, this was a favorite propaganda talking point in 1988, and going back and looking at it, in New York Times, this, today, in 2023, this was the sixth time that they’d gotten this wrong.
Jon Schwarz: And they had, in fact, before today, corrected three of those times, so they’d gotten it wrong five times.
Nima: But then they keep getting it wrong. It is so embedded as the narrative.
Adam: You know, it’s funny, I don’t think I would have even caught that. Because like, I think that if you didn’t live through it, and I lived through it, but I was 17 years old, but like, there’s so many little things that just become fucking brain tropes.
Nima: Yeah, that has just become the story, and so that’s why each new report kind of regurgitates it and then some of them may be corrected or retracted or whatever, but it will then resurface again and again. What’s amazing about that story about ’98, Jon, is that then they just recycled it for 2003, because it’s exactly the same thing. We were still hearing that Saddam was preventing inspections and UN inspectors were being kicked out, while at the time between November 2002 and mid-March 2003, like until days before the first bombs started falling, the IAEA and the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission conducted more than 750 inspections at over 550 sites in Iraq, and the AP itself reported on March 17, 2003, this quote, “In the clearest sign yet that war with Iraq is imminent, the United States has advised UN weapons inspectors to begin pulling out of Baghdad, the UN nuclear agency chief said Monday.” Everyone knew that this was happening, and yet, the narrative for ’98, for 2003, and now still 20 years on is like, well, you know, if Saddam hadn’t just stonewalled the IAEA and the UN, then you know.
Adam: But it doesn’t even make any sense once you acknowledge they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Because again, he knew that he could not disprove a negative, right?
Adam: So they were going to keep inspecting until they inspected every single square inch of Iraq, which they of course can never do, and they would never have said, the only way they would have ever said, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s no weapons of mass destruction,’ is if they invaded and occupied the country, and they could have said, ‘Well, okay, you have five years to find it,’ they couldn’t find it. I mean, if anything, the lesson to learn from Iraq is never have pretext for war be something that can be disproven. Keep it super vague.
Nima: Yeah. Or it doesn’t actually matter, because it didn’t change anything.
Adam: Yeah. And this is why, Jon, I’m glad we’re talking to you, because I really think to really discuss this, you have to have someone who remembers all this happening in real time at the time. Because I do think, you know, earlier I mentioned link rot. I do think to use a hacky metaphor, I do think there’s a kind of intellectual link rot that occurs over time where these tropes get repeated over and over again, to the extent to which you can’t even remember where they came from, like Max Fisher is one of the most deeply incurious people in the world, right? He sort of absolutely has no interest in any kind of broader systemic critique or understanding how power works at all. It’s just kind of, again, just a series of characters on an HBO prestige show kind of bumbling through the world. He probably genuinely believed that he kicked out inspectors because he never really thought to critique that trope. Again, he doesn’t really dig deep. He doesn’t question the assumptions. It’s just something you heard at like the Aspen Institute Festival, right? And that’s just what it is and that kind of link right for what occurred in 2000 to 2003, I think is gone. I mean, the fact that you are sitting there doing these corrections in real time and not many people were doing that with these 20-year anniversary pieces, it really does show you that the momentum is towards covering their ass.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah, that is true for sure. The one thing that I would say, that I think we have to keep in mind, is that link rot is real, literal link rot and metaphorical link rot are both very, very real phenomenons, but without the internet the 20th anniversary would have been a million times worse, I guarantee you.
Adam: Oh, sure. Absolutely.
Jon Schwarz: And just like these articles that I wrote, I could only do because the ability to do instant research on the internet and find all these things, and all the times The New York Times had said it before, and it’s the only reason why like I was able to get The New York Times to correct what Max Fisher had written. Although the funny thing is that their correction was also incorrect. And they corrected the thing about him ejecting international weapons inspectors, they said, in 1998, and then said they changed it to he ejected international weapons inspectors in 1997, and in fact, Iraq did eject the American members of UNSCOM in 1997 for like a week.
Nima: Right, under suspicion that they were spies or assassins.
Jon Schwarz: Right, exactly which some of them were.
Adam: Right. And it’s like, okay, this is why you have to neutral, third party, you know, inspectors.
Jon Schwarz: Yeah. And so that went unsaid in the correction. So their correction was essentially just wrong and another instance of misleading readers. But so I think we should keep in mind that, as bad as this is, it actually could be much worse, and we should be grateful to what we have: the internet. This is going to sound perhaps somewhat extreme, I don’t know, dramatic, but it is 100 percent the truth. If I were someone like David Frum or Jeffrey Goldberg, or any of these people who are involved in making the Iraq War happen, and I had somehow begun with somehow, a sense of my own good faith in this and, you know, we have to protect America from Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons programs and his connection with Al Qaeda and so on, to have then learned that I was absolutely completely wrong about all of this, and that I had supported this gigantic war that killed well, we’ll never know how many people were killed, we’ll never know whether the Syrian civil war happened because the Iraq War, I would say it almost certainly did. We’ll never know, if the Russian invasion of Ukraine wouldn’t have happened without the invasion of Iraq, I think the chances are very good that it would not have happened, that the United States does set the terms of international politics and sort of demonstrates to other terrible countries what’s possible and what’s allowable. But anyway, we’ll never know how many people died because of this, but it was a lot, it was just an enormous amount of horrendous human suffering, and I could not live with myself, if I were one of these people, I wouldn’t be the editor in chief of The Atlantic, I absolutely mean this, I could not live with that inside my head, and I would have gone and bought a shotgun and blown my head off. At the very least, I would have given all of my money away and spent my time, you know, volunteering at Walter Reed and the fact that this means nothing to them, that really demonstrates who they are, and what the sort of the US elite media class, elite political class is like, our lives have absolutely zero significance from their perspective. You know, one reason why not that many people died in Iraq compared to Vietnam, for instance, not as many American soldiers, one of the reasons for that is that we figured out how to keep people alive who would have died otherwise, like people who are just physically completely dismantled IEDs, stuff like that. I couldn’t get up every day and be like, well, you know, out there in America, there are hundreds, thousands of people whose lives have been forever ruined by my decisions and just going to get up and go to Whole Foods in Bethesda. I could not do that, but these people can, and I think that is the real lesson of today that we should take that that’s who these people are. We should never for a minute think that they care whether we live or die, because they don’t.
Adam: Well, that was uplifting. Very true. It’s our brand. Not uplifting but true, right?
Nima: Yeah, Jon, I mean, I think, we could not possibly put it better than that. It is so wonderful to always have you on the show. It has been way too long, thrilled that you came back on for this one especially. So just want to say thank you so much for joining us for this look back at our history, and of course, our present. Of course, we’ve been joined by Jon Schwarz, senior writer at The Intercept and longtime friend of the pod. Jon, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Jon Schwarz: Well, thank you. I wanted to end on that note, because I thought, you know, the rest of the show was just too happy and energizing for people. I just wanted to bring down the energy a little bit.
Adam: Yeah, so it’s like, because again, as one gets further out from the initial invasion of Iraq, I think there’s a tendency and to some extent I understand it, where it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, who cares it was so long ago, stop talking about it.’ Because it was so definitive and shaping to the politics of our generation, such as we’re in the same generation. Nima’s a little older than me. I’m legally required to point that out.
Nima: That’s true.
Adam: And then say what it’s like, well, we wouldn’t bring it up if like, the same people who did it weren’t literally running major think tanks, publications, you know, still at The Atlantic, still at The New Yorker, still at The New York Times, still running The New Yorker, are still running The Atlantic, still the president of the United States, and there was zero accountability. And so, you can’t just run out the clock on accountability, theoretically speaking, right? You can’t say like, ‘Oh, well, there’s this, you know, statute limitations. It’s been 20 years. So basically, it’s like your credit score, after seven years, it kind of gets wiped off,’ and it’s like, I don’t know, isn’t the whole point that justice is supposed to be eternal? It’s supposed to be something that we’re supposed to talk about. You can’t just run out the clock on it because it’s not about the Iraq War. It’s about the next Iraq War.
Nima: No, we can’t learn the lesson that we should not do this ever again, we should be prevented from exerting this kind of power, this kind of aggression, this kind of violence. No. Instead, we need to learn the lesson that we need to be smarter next time, that we shouldn’t learn the lesson too hard, but only that we have to learn to do the next one better.
Adam: Totally, yeah.
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.