Wednesday, May 01, 2013

When it was Mayday in America

Today is May Day. "Mayday" is also an international distress signal among aviators. It derives from the French "m'aider," which translates to "help me."

All three of these facts are relevant to the events of 10 years ago, when Commander George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier outside of San Diego and declared "Mission Accomplished" in the Iraq War. 

A week later, I celebrated my 23rd birthday. My sister, then 13, drew a cake on my birthday card that stretched out really, really long (to show that I was old). That length and all the candles on her drawing made the cake look like a battleship. Which makes sense in retrospect, because by Bush's logic, I should have been celebrating a far-off birthday. Perhaps with an actual, ultra-long, battleship-shaped cake, and while wearing an exaggerated codpiece. 

I vehemently objected to the war in Iraq from day one. I thought it was a potentially disastrous diversion from our mission in Afghanistan, and based upon dubious evidence. Early 2003 was a lonely time to think that. I got in arguments with everybody, even liberal family members, over it. In hindsight, I'm not sure why I didn't get swept up in war fever when everyone else did. One factor might have been embodied in a professor I had who, following the Republican sweep in the 2002 midterm elections, placed a sign on his office door that read, "REGIME CHANGE!" My conservative friends (and many liberals, to be fair) were equally enthusiastic about the imminent war. Psyched, even. I thought that was inappropriate, especially given the circumstances. War, like self-defense, has always struck me as a last-resort action that should never be cause for jubilation. 

All I felt was sadness. Sadness and dread. The invasion of Iraq seemed wrong. Not just for political and logistical reasons — but for every reason. And I felt at times like the only person who felt this way. Could I be wrong? I hoped I was, but I couldn't think of a scenario in which I would be, no matter how hard I tried.

(Greg Mitchell has compiled some choice quotes that tap into the mood of the time. Wow. Even I didn't remember that much unabashed fawning.)

By May 1, 2003, the sadness and dread had yielded to numbness. The war felt like it been raging for years, and yet it was only a couple of months in. That day — and this was despite staying up to date on daily war developments — the ceremony took me by surprise. Was Bush really declaring "Mission Accomplished" simply because Saddam Hussein had been expelled? And was he really wearing a flight suit and strutting like a cowboy pilot millionaire?

(This image completely ruined what had been one of my favorite movies, Independence Day, where Bill Pullman's President Whitmore personally flies in the final mission to destroy the alien saucers. Suddenly the fantasy seemed too close to home — and terrible — to enjoy. I couldn't watch that film for years afterward.)

At that point, I wasn't even accounting for my political distaste — this just seemed like a woefully early time to declare the mission accomplished. The fact that the war was immoral, based on lies and a dire setback for U.S. foreign policy barely factored into it. And even if the war was totally kosher and the mission really had been accomplished, how tacky was that celebration? Again, last resort, not first act.

Ultimately, it turned out the Iraq war was every bit the shameful exercise that this feisty and mostly inconsequential college student thought it was. I've never been happy to be right about that. I don't even feel it was that intuitive to predict its bad ending. Maybe it's just that we wanted it so badly to be true. For the U.S., Iraq represented the perfect foe — a frenemy we knew we could beat, and had done just enough wrong to justify military action, so who better to be a scapegoat for 9/11? Details strictly optional.

Think about how people would have reacted if President Obama ordered the same invasion, with the same result. Critics would been in arms. They would have demanded concrete evidence. Congress would have stalled funding. Obama would get blasted not just for the reckless excursion into sovereign affairs, but for strutting around in a flight suit and for his insistence to be called "Commander Obama." When he declared "Mission Accomplished," he'd have gotten reamed by all sides for declaring that nearly a decade too early. And his critics would all be correct.

It's too bad the people who decry Obama simply for being on TV had no problem with the previous president entering into elective war and treating it like his own large-scale game of Call of Duty. They were the ones who insisted that critics of the war were un-American, and actively cheered on an endeavor that anyone without flag-colored glasses could see would do more harm than good.

Ten years ago, Bush shouldn't have declared "Mission Accomplished" — he should have been saying, "Mayday!" We all should have been.

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