That simple statement recently got caught in the flypaper in my head, and I can’t get it out. In trying to exorcise myself, I’ve succeeded in only adding an additional phrase.

Great nations do not start wars-but failing empires do (Modify with the adjective that best describes our situation from your own viewpoint: flailing empires? arrogant empires? expansionistic? morally bankrupt? fearful? ruthless? successful? dominant?)

I’ve often marveled at post-war
Germany and its ability to face the truth of its citizenry’s participation in the horrors of Nazi Germany. I wonder how many other peoples could look at their national shame so directly. Japan severely censors its history books, especially regarding the atrocities leading up to WWII.

Do we spend much time or trouble reviewing the continental double genocide that kick-started our nation and all of the
Americas, North and South? Slavery kidnapped a percentage of Africans and subjected them to generations of servitude and utterly destroyed many societies as people fled homelands, broke relations, or turned in others. Native Americans’ choices careered between death by disease, assimilation, land usurpation, forced moves to reservations, and fighting a more numerous and powerful enemy. 

It is not easy facing up to the ugly side of one’s national history and actions. And I fear we will not do any better this time. The truth of our misadventure in the swirling sands of
Iraq is ugly-and shameful, and infuriating. A large majority of Americans now agree that we’ve made a complete and utter bollix of the situation. But are we willing to face up to our own role?

We are all at fault. The stain is on all of us. Do you think an Iraqi citizen suffering through the sixth year of electricity blackouts that cover most of each 24 hours cares whether I voted for Gore? Whether you canvassed for Kerry? Do you believe that the many innocents whisked off to
Guantanamo and tortured just because someone claimed they were somehow connected to terrorists care that you disagree with presidential signing statements? We are all Americans. We are all at fault.

Those who protested the war didn’t do it loud enough. Those few who asked tough questions of Rumsfeld weren’t persistent enough. Those who wrote letters, or blogs, or columns, or graffiti, weren’t persuasive enough. Military and intelligence professionals who spoke truths about strategic or planning errors were moved out.

Remember General Eric Shinseki? A professional soldier whose expert opinion on the proper number of soldiers required to secure peace was outmaneuvered by a rank amateur like Paul Wolfowitz. General Shinseki, you share our shame. Mr. Armitage and General Powell, as our two highest ranking officials to have actually served the military in wars, you didn’t fight hard enough against the neo-con deceivers and a disconnected president before the war and during its myriad disastrous decisions made ever since. You let our nation down.

Others who acted like cheerleaders in the corporate media or in private can take an extra dollop of guilt, but their added shame doesn’t relieve our culpability.

And what about folks like me? I sat by angrily but idly, impotent and immobilized by people determined to wage war in ways that kept us firmly on the sidelines. No draft, no pictures of coffins, no public appearances by the President to anyone except hand-picked crowds, usage of the largest number of non-military contractors to fulfill military functions in our history-everything done to drug us into complacence. But I am still culpable.

You’ve seen pictures from Abu Ghraib, but have you seen footage of American private security personnel killing Iraqis while driving
Baghdad‘s streets like Wild West heehaws shooting buffalo from trains? Americans torturing, maiming and killing. In our name. With our complicity. We all share the sin; we are all guilty. We allowed priceless treasures to be looted, irreplaceable manuscripts to be torched, ministries and hospitals needed by Iraqis to be stripped bare. 

Can you imagine the fates of our leaders should some national calamity befall us and we were conquered by a foreign power? I would have to think certain leaders whose orders led to death by torture would share the sentences of other nations’ leaders who lost wars and committed atrocities.

Even in the world we inhabit, I think certain high-ranking officials must take care in their travels once they leave government employ. I can well imagine Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld facing charges in a court in
Europe regarding deaths that occurred during extraordinary rendition or other sorts of “intelligence gathering,” if there is anyone of standing to bring such a case.

There are a spate of books coming out on our torture chambers in
Guantanamo and in Iraq. There are numerous documentaries on various aspects of our failed attempt to bring democracy and peace to Iraq in particular and the Middle East in general. Do yourself a favor and watch a few of the films-No End in Sight or Body of War, for example-and fully read at least one of the books. And then cry, and pray, and repent.

And vow to never let anyone do this in your name again.

Great nations do not start wars. Great peoples do not give in to fear, nor lash out in blind anger. The wise know that strength demands an equal measure of compassion, and the just understand that certitude must be leavened with humility.

We have let our might dictate that we are right. We have lost our way. May God forgive us, and may we earn back our place among the honorable nations of the world. We are all at fault, and we all share the shame.       

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