Admitting a mistake can be tough.
Presidential candidates approaching another Memorial Day have discovered this wrestling with hot potato questions about whether it was right to invade Iraq in 2003 and unleash a protracted, bloody war.
Given the results, it’s hard to conclude it was a success. We found no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s original premise for going to war. The intelligence used to justify the invasion was exposed long ago as dubious at best, if not outright bogus.
While our ground forces claimed battle victories and provided civilian aid, the often-bungled occupation never achieved the goal of a rebuilt nation. Today, after tens of thousands of Iraqis died over more than a decade of fighting, Islamic extremists are sweeping aside the native forces we trained and left in control.
For the candidates, even with 20/20 hindsight, the mistake issue is a minefield. Nobody wants to imply that Americans died for a lost cause.
But that’s a political dilemma. Philosophically, it’s a different matter.
All wars are mistakes.
They’re our collective screw-ups, our truly epic fails.
Over and again, they stem from our basest emotions and wishes — hatred, greed, revenge, domination. Stoking the fires, national leaders make flawed decisions and wrong conclusions when drafting foreign policy responses.
Even the seeds of World War II — the “good war” when we joined the Allies to defeat global aggression and tyranny after being attacked — were sowed by a series of geopolitical missteps back to the Treaty of Versailles after the first world war.
Once the guns start firing, the fog of war ensures the mistakes continue.
Shells and bombs fall short. Planes and helicopters collide. Friends appear to be foes. Weariness leads to carelessness. Many times, the only fault is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Good people then pay.
That’s what we’re commemorating Sunday and Monday with our solemn ceremonies.
Our men and women in uniform who died during wartime did so honorably while fulfilling their duties, regardless of whose mistakes put them in harm’s way. They did not “give” their lives — each was taken — but they gave their courage and fortitude to carry out what was asked of them, right or wrong.
This has always been the lot of militaries, as in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s eternal poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and the “six hundred” riding “into the valley of Death.”
“Someone had blunder’d/Theirs not to make reply,” goes the poem. “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.”
So, yes, Iraq was a mistake. You can acknowledge that without diminishing our armed forces’ service and sacrifice.
When directed by the government and people they serve, our rank and file military personnel did their jobs the best they could, often under hideous circumstances. They trained for it, and many died for it serving their country, maybe trying to make a difference or maybe just trying to stay alive.
Whether it was in vain isn’t the point now. They may have died because of a political mistake, or not, but they died representing us. We owe them our remembrance, as we do for our casualties from Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I, the Civil War and any of humanity’s colossal blunders that have spilled our blood.
If you have a chance this holiday weekend, stop by a flag-marked grave, take a quiet moment and pay your respects. Say a prayer for the soul who may have suffered from the last bad decision in a chain of them.
Make no mistake: It’s the right thing to do.