Reliving The Iraq War

A reader writes:

It’s less than a hour since your email alert and I’m already reading I Was Wrong. The first entriesandrew-sullivan-i-was-wrong-cover are scathing. It’s one thing for you to maintain an archive of your Iraq posts on the blog itself; it’s another to compile them for everyone to see. Given how raw and enraged your initial reaction was, it’s a typically ballsy thing for you to do. (For the record, I’m one of the liberal “fifth columnists” you line up in your sights in the early going.) I think your readers are as loyal to you as they are because you do this sort of thing all of the time, only not on this heroic scale. I wrote you once to push back a little on your regard for Hitch by reminding you that he did no such public penance for Iraq, and that his last, loud outburst against religion may have been fairly regarded on some level as a diversionary tactic to regain some street cred on the left. (It worked.) You did not duck when he did, and now you’re doing more than anyone could have been reasonably expected to do.

We now live in a world where what is said by both politicians and politicians is expected to be forgotten by the next news cycle. To jigger the old saying about the Bourbons, you learned everything and have forgotten nothing.

I want to say I’m not doing this to evince professions of admiration for my “courage.” I’m doing it because I severely regret – and in some cases, am ashamed of – many things that I wrote. Since it led to the actual deaths of tens of thousands of people, and the traumatization of countless more on both sides, it’s not courageous to revisit these more excruciating moments. It’s just basic accountability. That’s also why we accompanied this eBook with a podcast with a commander actually tasked with carrying this war out. I wanted to look the man in the eyes and listen.

And, look, I know my deep underlying flaw as a blogger – my passion, for good and, in this case, ill. I can’t help that, but I can learn to restrain it. The Dish has evolved out of this process. It’s because of these failures that I began regularly publishing prominent dissents; that I built a blog that had many checks and balances, not least from its readers, but also from new colleagues, who could push back and rein me in. The book’s initial and final edits were not mine. Chris and Patrick had that authority, and that does not simply apply to the book. Every day on the Dish, they correct for my impulses, and make the Dish something biased but balanced. I learned that separation of powers is not just a good idea in politics.

Another reader isn’t nearly as forgiving:

At first I was pleased at your running parts of your pieces to show how you’d changed your thinking. Though it was sort of late last night when I received your email, I clicked on it and started to read.  You know, I found it profoundly disturbing, even depressing, to read your posts written during the run-up to the Iraq war.  I don’t remember if I was a regular reader of your blog then, but to scan them for 20 minutes made me feel physically ill, at least a little bit.  I remember the kind of rage and hysteria that were in the air from the pro-war people, and they were all – to a man/woman – appalling in almost every way.

So cut to today, and I find myself, overall, less inclined to resubscribe next year than I was yesterday.  I find many things about you admirable, but the single most off-putting trait you have as a journalist and a man is your zealotry, your near-hysteria in putting forth your viewpoints. It’s great that you are admitting in depth that you were wrong.  It’s upsetting to me, though, to deal with it in detail.  I mean, if one doesn’t get going to war right, then what else matters?  On what subject, then, are you trustworthy? In your job as a journalist (and as a man), my advice to you would be to create “more light, less heat.”

I understand my reader’s point. I respect his decision not to re-subscribe, but would simply argue that that is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No writer is always right. What matters is how he or she grapples with being wrong.

And that is what I have tried to do in grappling with these errors.  Seeing them exposed again so baldly in a daily, hourly blog, is another unsentimental education in my own blind spots. And they were many: acceptance of a neoconservative consensus that I had been marinated in for years and never questioned enough; betrayal of my own conservative principles in neglecting the vital importance of culture and history in reforming the world; impossibly good intentions, fueled by overpowering grief at what had been done to my beloved country, the US; and hubris – because of such a long period of time in which military might had been more successful than not – from the end of the Cold War to Bosnia.

The silver lining is that I learned on the spot, and you can trace, with painful dramatic irony, the scales slowly falling from my eyes. And the point is not just personal. I was not alone. This process of learning from history is a core obligation of any writer who wants to be true to his calling. But it’s also something we need to do as a country as well. Too often, these lessons are buried in partisanship or “moving on” or are inchoately felt without ever being directly expressed. One more reaction:

I’m a subscriber and long-time reader, but not long enough to have read your blog during the run up to the war in Iraq.  I have to commend you for the ambitious project of the Deep Dish and your humility in creating the I Was Wrong piece in particular.  Who is this person, Andrew?  I recognize so little of you in these words, so much rage and vitriol.  As soon as you learned of the torture and abuse of detainees, you shook the cobwebs from your eyes and never looked back. It’s incredible to me how much you’ve changed. There is grace and mercy tempering you now, and it pains me to imagine you any other way.