Monday, March 22, 2021

Mission Accomplished: The Lie of War; book reviews

By Weldon D. Nisly 

(12 March 2021)

Robert Draper, To Start A War: How the Bush Administration Took America into War (Penguin Press, New York: 2020) 

Daniel A Sjursen, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War
(Heydey, Berkeley, CA: 2020)

The lie of war is the tragic truth of America’s post-9/11 endless war. Two recent books confront the endless lies of endless war waged by the United States. Robert Draper and Danny Sjursen independently critique arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history.

To Start A War is Draper’s account of How the Bush Administration Took America into War, using 9/11 to justify invading Iraq, who was not involved in the attacks. An “Author’s Note” opens his treatise: “This is a story bracketed by two defining tragedies of the twenty-first century. The first was an unprovoked attack on America’s homeland…. The second, eighteen months later, was an act of war by America against a sovereign nation that had neither harmed the United States nor threatened to do so.” Draper masterfully unravels the Bush Administration’s endless litany of lies from 9/11 to war in Iraq.

It is essential to note a third tragedy in addition to the two that bracket his story. Draper begins his treatise by calling the 9/11 attack “unprovoked.” With that one word, the author tragically joins the Bush Administration perpetuating the lie that the United States has done nothing to “provoke” attack. Documenting the lie of 9/11 being an “unprovoked attack” should not be necessary and is beyond the purview of this review.  

Draper rightly follows the labyrinthine road to war from the White House to Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon and Congress, through national security and Intelligence agencies, the diplomatic corps, and military ops. The reader becomes privy to real people and conversations. Every page stirs outrage.

A tragic figure in this tragic story is a person who was a central manipulator of the road to war in Iraq. Neo-con ideologue intellectual, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld, was arguably the chief proponent for invading Iraq. He had long pressed for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, with undeterred belief that Saddam had WMDs and was a major threat to the U.S., therefore, must be removed from power. Draper’s first chapter, “Idee Fixe,” (French: fixed idea] features Wolfowitz’ Iraq obsession lived out in the 9/11 aftermath. Draper sums Wolfowitz’ fixation: “Of course, Wolfowitz brought his fervor for Iraqi regime change into the Bush administration” (14). He immediately blamed Saddam for 9/11 and issued a demand to the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence office: “From Dep Sec Def, Hot!!! Tasking: Providing information, history and assessment of Iraqi involvement in terrorism since the Gulf War.” Two Defense Intelligence Agency experts read the message; one asked, “What the hell does it mean?” The other replied, “It means we’re going to war with Iraq” (17).     

Wolfowitz, the first- and last-person Draper names in To Start A War, was convinced that, thanks to U.S. military might, Iraqis would be the grateful recipients of American benevolence installing democracy and instilling peace in Iraq. Both would ripple across the Middle East ushering in a new era of America-centric stability and freedom. “That, in his imagination, had always been the point of war. Peace.” (1, 407). That is Draper’s last word and Wolfowitz’s undying conviction. That, too, is the lie of war.   

Barely six weeks into war, on May 1, 2003, President Bush, in full combat gear, swaggered across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, flashed thumbs up and pronounced, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” Overhead proudly flew a red, white, and blue “Mission Accomplished” banner. Draper concludes, “The slogan accurately reflected the Bush Administration’s wishful thinking and grandiose sense that history had already been made” (363). His hubris fueled the lies of war.

Four presidents and two decades later, “Mission Accomplished” is more endless war.

In Patriotic Dissent: America In the Age of Endless War, Danny Sjursen is blunt: “The Bush team fabricated, twisted, misinterpreted, and tactically leaked intelligence in order to manufacture and sell an outright invasion to the American people. Then they lied about the whole thing – blatantly, repeatedly, and routinely.” (115).

Most citizens of the U.S. willfully believe the lies of war. Sjursen admits that he also initially believed the repeated lies. Then Bush’s 2006 surge sent Sjursen to Baghdad as a soldier where his eyes were opened. “The horror, the futility, the farce of war in Iraq,” he confesses, “was the turning point of my life…I knew that war was built on lies, ill-advised, unwinnable, illegal, immoral” (5).   

Sjursen brilliantly weaves personal memoir, professional analysis, and peace activism in a long overdue challenge to false patriotism rooted in American exceptionalism and entitlement. He rightly identifies three patriotisms, the first two being false, the second being co-dependent, the third being true patriotism. “Pageantry Patriotism” is blind devotion to country symbolized in “flags, parades, anthems, pledges of allegiance, yellow ribbons” (27) and “vapid adulation of soldiers” (xiv). “Passively Principled Patriotism” is more subdued loyalty that willfully falls in line to “support America and its troops” for every war (29). Both are blinded by the lie that America can do no wrong.

In contrast, Sjursen poses a third way: “Participatory Principled Patriotism” is the way of “Patriotic Dissent.” This “higher loyalty,” declares Sjursen, “to which I unapologetically subscribe,” at times demands our “Patriotic Dissent.” Rooted in national history yet largely ignored, “It is a patriotism grounded in….Webster’s 1828 definition, placing maintenance of America’s aspirational values – ‘laws,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘institutions’….to ‘support and defend’ the Constitution” above blind allegiance. Any serious attention to U.S. history bears witness to the patriotic dissenters who “risked careers, reputations, and personal safety to defend the dream of the United States” (30-31). Sjursen documents numerous dissenting patriots in U.S. history, who invariably are ignored or scorned at the time.

I am deeply grateful that Danny Sjursen has the wisdom to articulate and the audacity to join the lustrous tradition of patriotic dissent to America’s endless lie of war. 

This slender volume should be required reading in every school and by every person in the United States of America. We owe him a debt of gratitude for articulating authentic patriotism.


An abbreviated version of this review article by Weldon Nisly was published in Sojourners (March 2021 issue, p. 43) as “American Farce.” 

Weldon Nisly grew up on a farm near Kalona, Iowa, studied economics and political science at the University of Iowa, and did political organizing in Iowa from 1968-73. He served in Mennonite ministry from 1973-2013, including 5 years with Mennonite Central Committee in Philadelphia, 11 years as pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, and 19 years as pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church. His "retirement" ministry is with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq and Palestine, as well as writing and speaking about a paradigm shift from Just War to Just Peace rooted in the politics of Jesus.

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