“I regret…” I hear these words whenever I think about the Iraq War. They’re in reference not to any failures of policy, intelligence or strategy, but to loss. They’re the words the First Captain used when I was a cadet at West Point to tell us another graduate had been killed. Speaking to the entire corps in the mess hall, the First Captain would say, “I regret to inform you” and then tell us who had died. It seemed at times, such as during the Surge, that this tragic ritual happened every week. I can still feel the silence that followed these announcements.
Though I did not serve in Iraq, the war shaped my experience at West Point and in the Army. When I transitioned out of the military, it also felt like the war had transformed our country — the civilian society I joined in 2013 was so different from the one I left in 2003. We were more divided and distrustful; the narrative of “with us or against us” had taken hold at home. In the years since, in much of the turmoil in our society, I have felt the presence of the Iraq War.
Twenty years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, new research from More in Common suggests most Americans think I’m wrong. Few Americans recognize any imprint from the Iraq War. Only 4 percent surveyed say they “often” think about the war and only 7 percent “strongly agree” that the war changed their life. When they do think about the war, the picture is hazy. Sixty-four percent of Americans, for example, say they are not familiar with the 2007 Surge. In so many ways, the data indicate most Americans feel the war neither was nor is a significant event in their lives.
Yet the picture is slightly more complex. Veterans and those with direct connections to the war feel its impacts deeply. Even among the broader population, while the war is largely forgotten, 77 percent of Americans say it is important to learn about the Iraq War. This is crucial. It is said that wars are fought twice — first in the actual fighting and again in how a nation chooses to remember the war. Whether we think the Iraq War looms large in our society or affects us hardly at all, if we share a common desire to learn about it, then we might better manage this second act. It is my fervent hope that by learning about the war we can honor the sacrifices made by thousands and draw from the conflict lessons that make us stronger, more resilient, and more united.
Our task, then, is to identify ways to learn about the war that don’t devolve into polarized fights about blame. Our research suggests there are both risks and opportunities in this endeavor.
First the risks: It’s easy to see how partisans might try to hijack efforts to learn about the war. Blame for elements of the war that went poorly varies significantly by ideology. Democrats overwhelmingly say President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld deserve most of the blame, whereas Republicans assign blame primarily to President Barack Obama, our research found.
To mitigate such an outcome, learning initiatives must be resilient to polarization. Our research suggests there are opportunities for states to take the lead in this work. One concept we tested — states adopting a “Military History Month,” during which schools are encouraged to dedicate time to study American military history — garnered support from 69 percent of Americans, including majorities across all demographics and political identification. This is just one idea; there are likely many others. The key is for learning to be led at the local level, to involve broad and diverse constituencies, including veterans and military families, and to be relentlessly nonpartisan.
There is no way to eliminate every risk of politicizing efforts to revisit the Iraq War, but the costs of not doing more to learn are far worse. Such costs will be borne disproportionately by service members on a future battlefield and by their families, but our society as a whole inevitably will suffer as well. We should take this opportunity to share stories about the war, to reflect on how it changed our country and the world, and to identify lessons we should take forward.
In the aftermath of learning about a graduate’s death, the first thing we did as cadets was to eat a meal together. This small act allowed us to process the loss as a group and reminded us that we were in the fight together; it helped us locate our duty in such moments, to observe that, as George Santayana wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” It is for the living to honor the fallen and learn from their sacrifice. Such is our collective civic duty today.