In the autumn of 2002, as a candidate for Congress in Idaho's first district, I spoke to a 7th grade class at Jennifer Junior High School in Lewiston. George W. Bush was president, and tensions between the U.S. and Iraq were escalating. Armed conflict with Iraq seemed inevitable.
The strutting figure in the White House, along with his sinister and scheming Veep, talked of a quick and decisive attack. They fostered the conventional wisdom that when war came, it would be over in the blink of an eye.
I asked the students these questions: Should we go to war or should we seek a diplomatic solution? Would they support a war if it lasted one week? One month? One year? Five years? Longer? The idea that the war would last more than a couple months was unthinkable to most – adults and school children alike. Dubya’s “shock and awe” slogan had not yet been announced, but there was a pervasive sense that the U.S. could make short work of a war with Iraq.
The students I addressed supported diplomacy first, but – like most adults – said they would support war, if it came to that. But when I asked whether their support would remain over extended periods of time, they hesitated.
Almost all supported a war lasting a week. Some supported a war lasting a year. Only a few supported a longer war. One astute student noted that, were the war to last five years, he and his classmates would be old enough to fight in it.
In the spring of 2003, George W. Bush told our country that we had no choice but to go to war with Iraq because of the imminent threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. He sent a man of impeccable character and well-established credibility, General Colin Powell, to the United Nations to make the case. Yet to date, no such weapons or ties have been found and the “down and dirty” invasion of Iraq turned into a decade long conflict, paid for at enormous cost with American blood and treasure. U.S. troops remain in Iraq to the present day.
The passage of time has laid ever more bare Colin Powell’s lies, inadvertent though they may have been. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of Staff wrote a confession of sorts:
“As I look back at our lock-step march toward war with Iraq, I realize that it didn’t seem to matter to us that we used shoddy or cherry-picked intelligence; that it was unrealistic to argue that the war would, pay for itself, rather than cost trillions of dollars; that we might be hopelessly naïve in thinking that the war would lead to democracy instead of pushing the region into a downward spiral.”
It has been a long time since I have reflected on my exchange with those junior high students 17 years ago. But now, in the aftermath of the Trump Administration’s assassination of Iranian general Soleimani, I am reminded of the student’s haunting observation that, were the Iraq war to last five years, he and his classmates would be old enough to serve, to fight, to die. And my thoughts go to the young men and women who would be fodder for Trump’s re-election war, a war he created, a war of distraction, a war not of necessity but of shameless choice.
Make no mistake. Trump desperately wants to be a “war president,” because he believes war presidents get re-elected. Thus, it is critical that we heed Colonel Wilkerson’s caution: “The sole purpose of our actions was to sell the American people on the case for war with Iraq. Polls show that we did. Mr. Trump and his team are trying to do it again. If we’re not careful, they’ll succeed.”
Many of the school children to whom I spoke likely have children of their own now. God forbid that those innocents be sent into harm’s way to salve a madman's ego. As it turns out, “shock and awe,” was neither quick nor decisive but simply the opening volley in a long national nightmare. A war with Iran would make the Iraqi war look like -- forgive the chilling reference - child's play.