03/20/2007 09:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Collective Responsibility for War: Examining the Enablers

America needs an impeachment trial - not so much to punish George Bush's "high crimes and misdemeanors" but to absorb the lesson that we forgot so quickly after the Vietnam War: how easy it is for presidents to sweep us up in fear and jingoist excitement as they march our sons and daughters off to the slaughterhouse of war.

George Bush as a lot to answer for. But so do the rest of us. This is a democracy after all, and citizens bear a collective responsibility for what their government does. The American public was a passive enabler to the Iraq policy it now condemns. A majority voted for George Bush in 2004 and supported him in the polls well into 2005 in the face of clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and had nothing to do with 9/11. Sure, tens of forty-nine percent voted against him, but few aroused themselves to do more. Absent a draft, the young mostly shrugged, while their elders implicitly accepted Bush's vile proposition to "support the troops" by taking his tax cuts and marching off to the shopping mall.

Yes, the spectacle of finger-pointing, recrimination and the shredding of reputations that would surely accompany impeachment will be traumatic for the country. But such a riveting, unavoidable public drama is precisely what we need in order to etch into our national memory how our democratic institutions failed the people - and how the people failed themselves. We need, together, to relive the painful story of the Congress ducking its constitutional obligations, of generals like Colin Powell licking the boots of draft-dodgers Bush and Cheney, of the "free" press slavishly echoing W's contradictory and transparently false explanation for an unprovoked invasion of a country who was no threat to America.

Lyndon Johnson lied to get us into the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon lied to keep us there. But after the humiliating flight of American helicopters from Saigon, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress had much stomach to revisit the scene of a crime where both parties had left their fingerprints. Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon a blanket pardon, and with a sigh of relief, Washington moved on. A decade later, another president, Ronald Reagan, was caught selling arms to an avowed enemy of the United States in order to raise money for an illegal war in Central America. But Reagan was popular, so once again, the nation looked the other way. And the imperial presidency continued to expand.

Democracy depends not so much on what government officials learn from their mistakes, but on what citizens learn. History shows that we will not learn the costly moral of this Iraq disaster by leaving it to the historians, or to the report of some future blue-ribbon commission -- inevitably more concerned with bipartisan comity than with exposing Americans to some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

George Bush's defense in an impeachment trial would surely include the claim that the people were with him. So they were, cheering him on as he unleashed the dogs of war. And unless we acknowledge that complicity, and pass the lesson on to the next generation, a future president will almost certainly take us down this road again.