I found myself tumbling through a time warp during the opening segment of Tuesday night’s debate in Iowa. I was sitting there attentively, listening to the six candidates discuss their various stances on the Iraq War … when all of a sudden, I flashed back to October 25, 2002.
I was in a car with fellow activists on the way to a massive antiwar protest in Washington D.C., when my very first cell phone burred in my pocket. I answered, and even through the poor connection I could hear the emotion-choked words of a friend telling me that Sen. Paul Wellstone, a true progressive champion and one of the few congressional voices raised against war, was dead in a plane crash.
When I returned to the present, I was trembling. I began listening to the candidates as they spoke, not just sifting for plumb bits to write about, but fully absorbing the strange, galling surreal truth of the moment. All these antiwar candidates! They all sound like Bernie Sanders, two decades late! Wellstone and Sanders were cut from the same bolt of cloth. They knew the Iraq War would be a disaster then, and alas, only one of the two remains with us today to speak the hard truth of it.
That phone call, and that protest, took place almost 18 years ago. It was in that long-ago October of 2002 when I joined so many others in gearing up opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The war was still months off, and it still seemed possible to derail it. I had spent the summer researching and writing a book arguing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and no damn reason to go to war there.
The book was published that month, there were boxes of them in the trunk of the car, and I went to that protest and so many others to give it away for free to as many people as would take it, because the war had to be stopped.
“The Gordian knot was broken with a sword,” I wrote in that book. “By using the sword to undo the knot of Iraq, the Bush administration will become ruler of nothing but chaos. The potential for global conflagration lies in the actions Bush and his people are presently undertaking.”
At about the same time, a page on the Bush administration’s White House website appeared. It claimed Iraq had 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard and nerve agents, 30,000 munitions for the stuff, mobile biological weapons labs, and uranium from Niger for an “advanced” nuclear weapons program. For the record, 500 tons is 1,000,000 pounds.
These were the lies they peddled that led us to war, disgrace and infamy, and that page remained on the White House’s official website until the day they left office. I still have it memorized.
Of course, not one bit of it was found, but George W. Bush managed to carve out some time to make a video in which he pretended to look for those weapons in the Oval Office. It was a joke for the Correspondent’s Dinner, and they laughed. They laughed. They laughed.
So there I sat on Tuesday night, almost two decades after that terrible October day when we learned that one of the most important voices against the war was gone. An ocean of blood has been shed since, trillions of dollars squandered. That war spawned more wars and still may yet lead us to war in Iran. And I sat there on Tuesday night listening to six candidates trying to outdo each other on who was more against it all. It was the apotheosis of closing the barn door 18 years after the horse went down the road.
Not one bit of this had to happen, and look where we are now. The opening topic for the most important debate so far was what a calamity that war was, and what the one candidate on that stage who voted for it and supported it had to say for himself.
Bernie Sanders was right all along, Pete Buttigieg was 20 years old when the Iraq war vote happened, the other three were not in Congress, and Joe Biden stood there with his bare face hanging out vigorously apologizing — while simultaneously trying to argue that his vote for war wasn’t really a vote for war. I wanted to scream, and would have if my daughter hadn’t been asleep down the hall.
We were right, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Biden, all of you who pushed for this war and prospered from it. The evidence against your belligerent lies was clear and unequivocal, and yet the war happened anyway, because war is capitalism and capitalism is war, and profit is all for the fortunate few.
The dead and the damaged from that ongoing and ever-growing war are all around us, and it did not have to happen. They poured our future into the sand, butchered untold thousands along the way, and got rich doing it. It’s nice that everyone’s against it now, and if we had ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had eggs.
Now, upon the precipice of yet another war, whoever is chosen to run against Donald Trump must have real plans to end them all — to truly prioritize that ending, now and in the future. Whoever is chosen must be committed to slashing the $700 billion Pentagon budget. Saying “end the endless wars” on a debate stage where such language has become politically advantageous is one thing, but 18 years later, Trump’s challenger must be more than merely not Trump, and must take definitive action against the rampant militarism that is the ruthless order of the day.
In the name of Paul Wellstone and everything we have lost, let us hope they do.