In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, an Iraq War veteran tells readers the answer he gives to people who ask whether that war “was worth it.”
Depending on who is asking, this question might be about the veteran’s own participation, but most often it is probably about American foreign policy. Was the war worth the cost in lives, national debt, and catastrophic unintended consequences?
But the op-ed writer, Brian M. Welke, hears the question as being about his own participation. Fair enough.
Was all that death and loss worth it for Brian M. Welke?
Yes, “It was worth it,” he writes. “In my heart and mind, the answer doesn’t matter whether Iraq stands on its own or collapses into a sea of blood and hate.”
A sea of blood and hate
As it happens, just as Welke’s op ed is published (in August 2014), Iraq is collapsing into a sea of blood and hate. ISIS advances at its leisure against our expensive Iraqi army, capturing our weapons, and brutalizing civilians and POWs. The Iraqi government seems paralyzed by succession rivalries and corruption (just like its neighbor, our friends in Afghanistan), and much of official Washington in a panic.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that ISIS poses an “imminent threat” to the United States. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke about ISIS as an apocalyptic, end-of-days existential threat to world civilization.
No wonder Brian Welke does not want to think in geopolitical terms about whether the war was worth it! No Republican does, and few veterans do.
I’m happy for Brian Welke personally that he is at peace with his involvement in this catastrophe. His answer is deeply disturbing, but it is not at all surprising.
Not just because Welke graduated from Pat Robertson’s Regent University and is thus steeped in both the Christian glorification of sacrifice and in neocon politics. And not just because he is employed by the Republican Party that started the wars. And not just because his op-ed was published by The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages support the GOP. Welke’s piece appeared above a Karl Rove piece.
“It’s not who wins or loses, but how you play the game”
Like many veterans of lost wars, Brian Welke chooses in his op ed to ignore catastrophic results in favor of a happy contentment based on good intentions, the nobility of sacrifice, and a perceived national noblesse oblige.
Veterans are always far more moralistic than soldiers
Soldiers, by training and by practical necessity when in the weeds, are mostly practical thinkers, problem-solving workers rather than philosophers. A soldier in a fire-fight lives “in the now” more completely than a Buddhist monk.
Why losing a war makes veterans moralistic
The primary solace for soldiers on the losing side is the idea that sacrifice for a worthy cause is inherently valuable, perhaps more important than mere military triumph. The quasi-religious nobility of “sacrifice” allows veterans to some extent to accept the immeasurable suffering of war, especially the suffering and deaths of our comrades.
A noble cause also lets veterans invoke to themselves the ends-justifying-the-means argument to rationalize away anything that they observed or did themselves that might have violated their own sense of morality, or violated international law.
Bravely insisting that (no matter what the outcome) a war “was worth it” allows us veterans to avoid or to at least better suppress those emotions we might feel too intensely and too painfully. If we say to ourselves that “it was worth it,” veterans can perhaps avoid some dangerous cocktail of grief, political anger, moral revulsion, survivor guilt, shame, alienation, and remorse.
The political subtext
Welke mentions his “sacrifice” three times, which seems a little beyond the manly modesty we expect from veterans. I have long felt that we veterans should let other people praise our virtues, not do it ourselves quite so often and openly. But despite its lofty abstractions and declaration of personal pride, Welke’s op ed turns out to be about party politics, not abstract virtues.
Here is a paean to American exceptionalism, support for interventionism, and an attempt to defuse the Iraq war chaos as a campaign issue.
Using a weak rhetorical device that Regent University should have warned him against, Welke rejects any discussion of the war’s costs, its delusional origins, its mostly incompetent civilian leadership, its cultural blindness, its hubris, and its role in inciting anti-Americanism — by simply dismissing the motives of anyone who differs with him: “There will always be naysayers, armchair generals, academics and talking heads who are quick to question everything.”
I hope that Brian Welke does not ridicule critics of President Obama with language like that. Actually, I am confident that he does not, as he should not.
President Bush said that the war was fought in part to “free the Iraqi people.” Instead, that war wasted trillions of borrowed dollars, inflicted thousands of casualties, exposed Iraq to deeper barbarism, immiserated countless civilians, and created far more people who are violently anti-American.
It does matter that Iraq is collapsing “into a sea of blood and hate,” and neither Brian Welke’s pride nor his political party loyalty should distract us from a truthful answer to “Was it worth it?” The answer is no.