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John Kerry's 'Iraq Hangover' on 60 Minutes

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On 60 Minutes Sunday night, John Kerry said that we are living through "an enormous Iraq hangover." The American people felt betrayed; the evidence (for WMD) in Iraq was not there. Having "learned this lesson," he and President Obama "bent over backwards" to make a case that "could not be punctured," regarding Syrian responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.

"Iraq hangover" is an odd term to use. A hangover makes you groggy, headachy, unable to see straight. You feel out of it, like a film is covering your eyes, maybe you're even still listing a bit. Did the American people get drunk on manufactured evidence? On being lied to? Now Kerry probably meant to say that we'd had enough and, having become sufficiently awake enough to know it, we would have no more of it, nary a drop. But it's still an odd metaphor. It reminds me how, in another recent interview, Kerry repeated several times that in deciding to "punish" Assad for his immoral chemical weapons attacks, Kerry was "not" being influenced by his experience in Vietnam. Each time he repeated "not," each time he referred, voice trembling, to the hundreds of innocent women and children, I heard the opposite: his old Vietnam trauma had indeed come to life, and it was driving his current experience, perspective and choices. His use of the word "hangover" may well have been an unconscious communication about feeling drunk all over again, as in triggered, perhaps just a bit less so than in the original trauma, like experiencing a smaller but nonetheless potent aftershock that often follows a big earthquake.

During the upwelling of anti-war sentiment that followed Obama and Kerry's decision to "punish "Assad, media pundits commented endlessly about how we had become "blinded" by Iraq and "war weary." The implication was that we were living in the past, so tired of war that we could not see straight in the here and now, potentially unable to protect our own security interests, and act on our native moral outrage. Bill Clinton spoke of the need to learn lessons from the past "without becoming a general who fights the last war, because," he said, "every new encounter will be shaped by different forces." Don't get caught up in and replay past traumas, unable or unwilling to respond afresh in the here and now to new challenges. Fair enough, and a tip of the hat to those who can do it.

But I heard scant references, save Chris Matthews on Hardball and a few others, to the necessity of actually learning reliable lessons from the past so that we do not repeat them, over and over again. We know the famous saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But in our collective attention deficit disorder, our short-term memory is shot. Most of us don't know that the philosopher Santayana also said, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." The "repetition compulsion" was Freud's term for how we tend to repeat unsatisfying and maladaptive emotional and relational patterns. But it could describe equally well our collective penchant for amnesia when it comes to waging war. How quickly we forget war's multidimensional and devastating costs. How thoughtlessly we label the crucial act of remembering as "blindness," and judge ourselves and others for our understandable weariness. Buck up, such shame inducing implies, the past is past, get over it. When someone observed about Vietnam that the war was over, a veteran replied: "Yeah, over and over and over."

War weariness is a state, it comes and goes, just like our passing understanding of the costs of war. Life continues, we move on, we forget. War wariness, however, is a trait, a vital awareness we can reliably access when we need it, to keep us focused in the here and now, to help us protect our country, our world, and all its creatures from the ignorant knee jerk tendency to believe that the next war will be better than the last one. It is an antidote to hangovers and drunken stupors alike. We are certainly weary of the anguish of needless wars. But we could be more wary.