Who’s to Blame for the War Dead?

The answer seems simple but it isn't.

Deployed US Air Force (USAF) member salutes the American flag, posted at half-mast in observance of Patriot Day September 11. The base flag flew at half-mast the entire day in remembrance of the victims of September 11, 2001, in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania.

Yesterday was Memorial Day, when the nation commemorates those who died fighting our nation’s wars. Alas, when those wars come to be unpopular—or were otherwise obviously fought in vain—honoring the dead becomes mixed with recrimination. So it is with Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel who survived the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf only to lose his son, fourteen years ago, in a war he bitterly opposed before that tragedy. A cynical appeal to get him to join a lawsuit against Iran prompted him to reflect on “Who should I hold responsible for the death of my son in Iraq?

Ultimately, he excuses President Bush and “the various warmongers, armchair militarists, and hawkish pundits who willingly enlisted as cheerleaders for bloodletting and mayhem.” He reasons that, “Their sin was not malice but cluelessness — chanting for war while ignorant of its risks and oblivious to its costs, which, of course, they themselves would not pay.” That leaves him with but one option:

However reluctantly, I am obliged to conclude that ultimate responsibility for my son’s death rests with we the people. After all, the architects of the “forever wars” — the sequence of ill-advised, mismanaged, in some instances illegal, and arguably immoral interventions that began with the invasion of Iraq — acted with our explicit or tacit concurrence.

Even today, the electorate shows little inclination to rethink the core assumptions informing basic US national security policy. Supporting the troops means suppressing second thoughts, asking few questions, and shoveling more money to the Pentagon.

If the [aforementioned Iran] lawsuit is contemptible — as I believe it is — how should we characterize the unwillingness of the American people to confront head-on the causes and consequences of our recent wars? For members of my family, my son’s death was a tragedy. But our nation’s collective inattention to the follies that paved the way to his death and that of so many others is something far worse. It’s shameful.

On the surface, this is certainly right. The United States is, after all, a representative democracy and the people are ultimately accountable for the policies undertaken in our name and, especially, for sustained policies. Indeed, we take that stance even with authoritarian states, where the people have essentially no role in deciding policy, in that we’re willing to inflict great damage on them in the form of sanctions or even bombing in response to actions undertaken by their regime.

But it’s also too simple. Foreign policy is an elite enterprise. The average citizen—and, indeed, the average Member of Congress—knows very little, indeed, about its conduct. And wars are even more complicated. The four-star generals and admirals who comprise the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combatant Commanders are exceptionally talented folks with decades of experience and years or specialized education and training but even they can’t predict with much certainty the consequences of large-scale action. There are just too many variables. And the civilian policymakers who oversee them know less but have a broader range of interests and concerns to take into account. It’s simply absurd to expect Joe and Jane Public to know more than the professionals.

Beyond that, the citizenry have far less information—much of which is classified—than our leaders. So, when Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense tell us that Saddam Hussein is very close to possessing a functional nuclear weapons program, we’re rather forced to believe it. And, ultimately, the war was supported by a rather large and bipartisan consensus in both Houses of Congress. Indeed, every Democrat in Congress who would be a candidate for President in 2004 and 2008 voted Yes.

It’s true that by November 2004 it was pretty clear that the war was not going well. The Abu Ghraib scandal had broken earlier that year and the insurgency was in full bloom. And we were pretty sure by that point that the nuclear program was a dud. On the other hand, we’d handed sovereignty over to a seemingly-legitimate government that summer and elections were set to happen in January. So, Bush was elected by a 3 million vote margin and Republicans made gains in both the House and the Senate.

The public turned against the GOP and the war pretty big by 2006, putting Democrats in charge of both Houses of Congress. Bush fired Don Rumsfeld and the neocons, including Dick Cheney, were pretty much sidelined for the last two years of his administration.

Barack Obama, who’d won the 2008 Democratic nomination largely on the basis of being the only serious candidate in the field who had opposed the war, easily defeated John McCain in the general. And he did indeed wind down the war in 2011—albeit on the schedule Bush had already put into place.

Regardless, it’s hard for the public to force quick changes in war policy. Indeed, the Afghanistan War has been unpopular for more than a decade and is just now finally winding down.

Here, Bacevich may be right: despite polls showing most Americans wanting to end the conflict, it clearly wasn’t the most salient issue for most. Indeed, foreign policy has hardly been on the agenda during the last three presidential election cycles. We the people could likely have forced it to be there had we collectively insisted. But, like it or not, wars that kill a handful of volunteer soldiers a year just aren’t top of mind for most people.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Democracy, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    To this day I doubt 1 out of 5 Americans can find Afghanistan on a map. Or Iraq. Or Vietnam.

    It would be great if people educated themselves on foreign policy but it won’t happen. Americans are uniquely ignorant of the larger world, and defiantly so, proudly so. You might as well ask a Chihuahua to memorize the multiplication tables as ask an average American to have even a single coherent thought on foreign policy.

    Who is to blame? Of course the people in the end, that’s the chain of command. The only one above the president is the people. But that doesn’t reduce the blame that should rightly be applied to the various levels of leadership. After all, they know the people are ignorant, and they exploit that ignorance. Plenty of blame to go around.

  2. I Am says:

    My favorite thing about white people is how not having feelings of needing to invade others’ lands, rape their women and blow up their weddings in order to ‘save them’ is ‘too simple’ for y’all.

    It’s just so difficult to not believe a bunch of soulless monsters who keep on lying to you. ;(

  3. Argon says:

    This may not go over well but…

    The military has been exclusively voluntary since the Vietnam war. Those who choose to join and those who choose to go into battle are proximally responsible for what happens. We may have stupid leaders whose decisions lead to unnecessary and wasted deaths but the soldiers on the ground have free will and responsibility as well. I know there are many strong obligations one may experience to fight or participate but ultimately, is up to the soldier.

  4. Barry says:

    “He reasons that, “Their sin was not malice but cluelessness — chanting for war while ignorant of its risks and oblivious to its costs, which, of course, they themselves would not pay.””

    BTW, Andrew is now on Rod Deher’s ‘The American Conservative’, which says a lot about him, which his statement confirms. The man’s gone f*ckhead, deliberately excusing those with the power, influence and knowledge, and blaming those who were misled (as well as those were already eager).

  5. Barry says:

    James: “On the surface, this is certainly right”.

    Only if by ‘surface’ you mean ‘according to a 6th grader’s knowledge of the US, fed by a rah-rah textbook’.

    The minute one goes beyond a molecule deep, it’s clear that the very people Andrew is excusing are the ones who bear the majority of the guilt.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    The blame has to lie with the professionals and the politicians that cheer them on. Yes in a Republic (since we’re not a democracy), the voters are the ultimate arbiters, but are so distant and disinterested that concern is far down the list. After all, with a volunteer military, no person or child is placed at risk unless choosing to do so.

  7. Scott says:

    It is very difficult for the average citizen to go against the prevailing opinion. And by prevailing, I don’t necessarily mean majority opinion but rather the loudest, most insistent opinion. In our history, there have been many instances of the loud prevailing over the majority.

    In WWI, people were generally unenthusiastic about entering into a foreign war. About 40% of the population was German-American. Wilson, who wanted to get into the war, encouraged “patriotic” societies to tar and feather men who opposed the war and its draft.

    Vietnam, which was mischaracterized as a war against communism instead of an intervention into a civil war, saw dissenters likewise harassed by “patriots” and called chickens, told to “love it or leave it”.

    Same thing happened in the Gulf War.

    It takes a lot of courage to dissent. It is also a mistake to blame the people for not coming around faster when there are forces against them. We are not that brave nor involved.

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    A career military person is still angry over the fact that his child is dead because said child entered the family business and blames “we the people” for the tragedy. Meh… first world problems.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    I like Bacevich. I think it’s from him that I picked up the habit of referring to our army in the Civil War not as the Northern Army, or the Union Army, but as the United States Army. And I agree with @Barry: that joining TAC is questionable behavior, but he’s been something of a light of reason there, albeit flickering. But to refer to W. Bush as “By all accounts well intentioned” wrt/ Iraq is neither true in any sense nor insightful.

    We fought WWII, “the big one”, “the good war”, to save ourselves and the world from militant totalitarianism. Since then we’ve fought wars mostly for political reasons and by stumbling into them. The Pentagon Papers fiasco began with DoD charging Ellsberg and others to dig through the history of the Vietnam War to find some reason we were doing it. I suppose it makes some sort of sense to blame the electorate for things done for political reasons. But doesn’t leadership imply some responsibility? Especially in the current context of one party trying to remove majority rule from the equation?

    But we didn’t stumble into Iraq. Bush et al went in enthusiastically, following the lead of Dick Cheney and the Project for the New American Century, a group set up to lobby for war with Iraq long before 9-11. So we, and by we I mean the Bush Administration, started for no good reason a war that killed a few hundred thousand people. If Bush and the TAC guys are right and there is a Hell, W. Bush is going there.

  10. Kathy says:

    Wars are easy to start and very hard to stop, much like fires or pandemics.

    I admit I supported the war in Iraq. I was wrong. I take responsibility for that, but part of it goes to Bush, Cheney, Powell, et al, who did a good job of selling their bill of goods, and fan the flames of war.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @I Am:
    As I recall it was a Black man who sold the UN on the second Iraq war. And it was a Black president who ordered the hit on OBL in Pakistan, and joined France and the UK in the Libya attack.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: Once Bush and company lied and said Saddam had WMDs it would have been hard not to support the war. You’re in the very good company of Hillary, Biden, et al. And our collective memory has whitewashed that there was significant public opposition, including truly massive protests. FYI, I, in my very small way, opposed the war for the simple reason that going to war led by W Bush did not feel like a very good idea.

    And how the hell are “we the people”, as Bacevich asserts, responsible for W’s lies? And don’t tell me W believed it. Tony Blair’s government knew the truth, even as they chose to ignore it. Even on the off chance W did believe it, wasn’t it his job to know the truth before getting hundreds of thousands of people killed? People keep excusing W because “he meant well”. To mean well you have to have some idea what you’re doing. W was too dumb and ignorant to mean well.

  13. Slugger says:

    For some reason we allow ourselves to be led, no eagerly leap into war. We cheerfully march or send our sons into killing zones in causes where there is no chance of personal gain. We then glorify the process with solemn days and sincere speeches by politicians, i.e. oxymorons. I like the WW I poets like Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon; they got it right. Dying for your country is a lie. Achilles was right to withdraw to his tent; he should have stayed there.

  14. SKI says:
  15. JohnMcC says:

    @gVOR08: “Doesn’t leadership imply some responsibility?”

    I remember that world too. Long gone.

  16. Scott says:

    @gVOR08: We all tend to trust authorities even when they let us down in the past. It is something to relearn every generation.

    I clearly remember the lead up to the Iraq War. I remember conversations in the office (I work in DoD), at the group mailboxes with a neighbor, etc. To me it did make sense to invade Iraq. We had an air cap in the north; an air cap on the south, and Saddam was going nowhere. Yet the prevailing conversation among national leaders was that we had to do something, that something driven by the fact that people in charge were bored with status quo of containment.

    Colin Powell, who I liked and trusted as leader, stood up in public and put his reputation on the line for invasion. I distinctly remember thinking: This is a guy I trust. I hope it is not misplaced because I would never believe him in anything again. His reputation is now shot.

    The quiet conversation among us peons in the office was: Hmmm, this doesn’t sound like something we should do and may end badly. And it did.

  17. Barry says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I’ve seen this before, having been born in 1960.

    It’s the disgruntled right-wing Vietnam veteran, who can’t blame the people responsible for what he and his friends went through, because those people are the ones in charge, and the system supports that thinking.

    So he has to find ‘dirty hippies’ to blame.

  18. dazedandconfused says:

    But our nation’s collective inattention to the follies that paved the way to his death and that of so many others is something far worse. It’s shameful.

    Here Base is correct, it’s shameful for the citizens of a republic. And we have paid a terrible price for being gullible. Tom Jefferson wrote about the key to the grand experiment is an educated populace, and I doubt he would have bothered to write about that if he felt it was a given.

    We bear responsibility, especially for rendering ourselves ignorant and thereby gullible. Like Basevich, I include George Bush as one who fit that description.

    In the run up to Iraq II it seemed so damn obvious to me we were being BSed. That report of an AQ base in northwestern Iraq? I knew we could drop a s-load of air supported PIR on that in a couple weeks, no need to invade the whole county. Inspectors not allowed into some buildings? Fine. “You got 15 minutes to get your people out of there, Tomahawks in route.” No need to invade.

    Saddam in league with AQ? It was a simple matter of public record AQ hated the guy and Saddam hated and feared radical jihadis. Even Wahhabism was punishable by summary death of they sought to get evangelical about it. The whole idea of Baathism is to unite the people under nationalism, not Islamic sectarianism. All his life Saddam had sought to unite the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Certainly my participation of GW1 had educated me about the place to a greater degree than typical for the US, but it stunned me to discover in this way that the US public and press had not even bothered to educate themselves about the place during GW1. It was just a game to everybody here, I guess.

    In a Republic We The People must take responsibility for educating ourselves. There is no substitution for an informed engaged populace in the system. We do not get to blame it on a few politicians. For what We did to millions of Iraqis? WTP best hope there is no hell.

  19. As Michael says above Americans tend to be disinterested in foreign policy. However, I think there are lots of people who believe in a responsibility to protect, in spreading democracy from the barrel of a gun, or who profit directly or indirectly from war who keep pushing us into military conflicts in which we otherwise would not have engaged. That has happened quite a bit over the period of the last 30 years.

    It’s unclear to me how we get those people out of the business of making foreign policy.

  20. JohnMcC says:

    @dazedandconfused: And just to include all of the so-called-conservatives who BS’d the American nation, how about right-wing media. I never paid much attention to ’em but several family members were all over GHWBush because ‘he didn’t finish the job’.

  21. Ken_L says:

    For 55 years, the United States preached that waging aggressive war was a crime against humanity for which there could never be any justification. Right up until its leaders decided they wanted to wage aggressive war, whereupon they engaged in an atrocious exercise in sophistry and outright lies to pretend that’s not what they were doing.

    The Iraq invasion was a catastrophic moral failure on the part of every American who supported it; an act which showed up their most fundamental supposed value as a hollow sham. It marked a resort to cynical opportunism that has characterized the nation’s international relations ever since.

    In what was his finest moment as leader of the Labor Party, Simon Crean said this in a speech to the Australian troops departing for Iraq to join the aggression:

    “I do not want to mince my words because I don’t believe you should be going.

    “But that’s a political decision and that’s an argument that the prime minister and I will have no doubt, over coming weeks and months.

    “Having said that I do not support the deployment of our troops in these circumstances …

    Would that the leaders of the Democratic Party had had the balls to say something similar.

  22. Chris Marshall says:

    The blame for the huge Iraq War death toll (I count the Iraqi dead) lies squarely with the elites: both those who perpetrated the gigantic Big Lie campaign over WMD and those other elites who sat back and let them get away with it as well as the media elites who played along.