Wikimedia Commons##Inspecting rubble after an attack on Iraqi targets in preparation for the 2003 invasion.
The moral sins of the past never excuse those of the present, but they sometimes haunt us. Vladimir Putin’s continued and ruthless invasion of Ukraine may bring us some moral clarity, but not necessarily our comfort.
It should open our eyes to the tangled web, woven over decades, in which we are now trapped. But untangling the Web first requires recognizing our own role in weaving it.
We read the enormous number of sorties and civilians killed in recent months in Ukraine with just indignation. Yet we flew more sorties and dropped more bombs on Iraq in the first 24 hours of our war in 2003 than Putin did in his first month in Ukraine.
How many Iraqi civilians have been displaced? How many died from concussion bombs? How many died in the months that followed when hospitals, sewage systems, water supply systems and other basic infrastructure were disrupted?
We say Putin is waging a war based on lies, but what about the lies that the George W. Bush administration used to justify America’s second war in Iraq?
The 9/11 attack was perpetrated by al-Qaeda, not by Iraq. Furthermore, the first Iraq War, fought under former George HW Bush, had left Saddam Hussein isolated and contained.
We based the 2003 invasion on false allegations about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program and 9/11 culpability. And that included the specious fixation of intelligence that Colin Powell presented to the United Nations in an effort to justify and build support for military action.
Joe Biden calls Putin a war criminal. Wouldn’t that make one of George W. Bush too?
We have long refused to sign the Rome Statute authorizing the International Criminal Court. Is it because we know that American leaders might behave in a way that would drag them down?
We are signatories to the United Nations Charter, which strictly prohibits wars of “unprovoked aggression”. This label clearly corresponds to our invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war that directly and indirectly claimed the lives of 900,000 people, according to relatively conservative estimates.
I am not trying to excuse Putin by highlighting the actions of young Bush. I think they both belong to the dock in The Hague.
However, our moral weight against Russia would now be stronger if we had not killed hundreds of thousands of people in a war based on lies – lies that exploited heightened American fears after 9/11 to support many long wars, enormous suffering and unnecessary draining of national resources. .
Why Western apathy? Why do US officials get a free pass when others don’t in similar circumstances? Deep-rooted Western racism is one of them.
The lives of Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans simply do not have the same importance as those of white Europeans. This is how Putin managed to destroy one of the world’s most beautiful and historic cities in Syria – Aleppo – without the West realizing what had been lost.
The West let Putin march on Aleppo because it has an ingrained cultural pattern of exempting the privileged from acts against the unprivileged. You face more consequences for driving 38 into a 25 zone than for illegally destroying a country of 25 million, as long as you choose the right country.
In fact, the 9/11 attack and our subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all stemmed from the first war in Iraq. This one was carried out largely out of fear of the control of fossil fuels in Kuwait – not so much our supply as that of our allies, and the impact its cutoff would inflict on Western economies.
The war broke out three years after I spent the miserably hot summer of 1988 in Boston reading about global warming for the first time. But we had already decided long before that that we were not going to take any significant action. The fix was already in place.
I remember when Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed in the White House.
In the midst of the oil crisis of the 1970s, we briefly concerned ourselves with energy conservation and security. But Carter was mocked for solar action, and in response, Ronald Reagan made overconsumption and environmental destruction the bulwarks of conservative identity.
The United States can produce all the oil it wants at home, but if other countries stop pumping, world prices will continue to rise. Because economies are now so interconnected, if one of them stops producing, prices go up.
Unfortunately, fossil fuels are a resource often controlled by bad actors, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia.
But sometimes the behavior of western producers is no better. All seem ready to sacrifice the future of our children on the altar of shareholder dividends.
Europeans also bear the responsibility of tapping into the poisoned wells of repressive fossil fuel states.
For all their supposed sophistication, how foolish is it to depend for your energy supply on a mobster whose inveterate brutality includes war, assassination and dictatorship? Don’t ask what the Germans were thinking, because clearly they weren’t.
American consumers help and encourage this by continuing to favor large, inefficient vehicles, even as they lament painfully high gas prices. Now, it seems, half of the American electorate has decided to get an equity card and join the bad actors guild.
Putin weighed in on Trump’s four-year run for president, as well as the ensuing insurgency on Jan. 6, which was excused if not applauded by much of the Republican Party. He concluded that American democracy was moribund, leaving Ukraine ripe for the picking.
And why not? Putin’s assessment of our republic’s malaise may not be so far off. Remember, Trump initially called Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “brilliant” and 30 GOP senators voted against a Ukraine aid package.
So here we are sitting, with a story like the ramblings of the guy at the end of the bar that should have been cut long ago. Two nuclear powers that are at odds for the foreseeable future because we don’t care enough about our children to find ways to divest, wrest, or lure nuclear weapons from thugs.
In the midst of it all, we have conservatives who speak inconsistently about non-issues like critical race theory and LGBTQ themes in books.
As a college student in the fall of 1988, alarmed by new climate reports, I remember expressing hope to my Greek teacher that we would take action. He replied cynically but presciently:
“We’re not going to do anything,” he said. “We’ll just stumble until the day we wake up and…”
That’s where he cut off, intentionally letting me fill in the rest of the story. I’m sorry to say, I just did.
Originally from Oregon, guest writer Steve Rutledge moved to the East Coast to earn degrees in Latin, Greek and history at the University of Massachusetts, then a doctorate in classics at Brown University. After 17 years in the classics department at the University of Maryland, he took early retirement in 2012 and returned home. He is now an adjunct professor at Linfield, specializing in history and ancient languages. He has published three books and numerous articles on ancient Roman history and literature.