Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Have We All Forgotten About the Iraq War?

The Blowback podcast reaches deep into the memory hole and pulls the Iraq War back up into the sunlight. It’s vital listening for anyone who is hazy on the specifics of how the US ended up invading Iraq, killing at least half a million people, and sparking bloody, never-ending conflicts throughout the Middle East.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice meet in the President's Emergency Operations Center after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in Washington, DC. (David Bohrer / US National Archives via Getty Images)

For seven weeks in the spring of 2003, the number one song on the Billboard country music chart was Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?”

The music video began with footage of the antiwar protests that had broken out across the country and the world, over which Worley sang, “I hear people saying we don’t need this war / But I say there’s some things worth fighting for.” The camera cut to old photos of soldiers who’d fought in wars past. “What about our freedom and this piece of ground? / We didn’t get to keep ’em by backing down.”

And then the chorus: “Have you forgotten how it felt that day / To see your homeland under fire and her people blown away? / Have you forgotten when those towers fell? / We had neighbors still inside going through a living hell / And you say we shouldn’t worry about bin Laden / Have you forgotten?”

Worley claimed that it was not a pro-war song, only a pro-America and pro-military song, even though the second chorus affirmed that “we vowed to get the ones behind bin Laden,” and later in the song he sang, “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight / Well, after 9/11, man, I’d have to say that’s right.” The song was reported to have brought tears to Donald Rumsfeld’s eyes — perhaps tears of relief that Americans were such easy marks.

When this song was playing on country radio I was living in Texas, and maudlin nationalism of this sort was ubiquitous. I was ostensibly against the war, but being fourteen lacked the basic grounding in history or current affairs to be able to articulate my case. That year, a classmate overheard me saying something vaguely antiwar and confronted me in front of a crowd at a party. He accused me of being an apologist for terror in front of everybody, and I was intimidated into silence.

And truth be told, I never really learned how to make an informed and precise argument against the Iraq War, only a nebulous moral one. When it started, I was too young to follow and comprehend what was going on. Later on, I always felt I was entering in media res, the plot too thick and convoluted to latch onto. Over time, the position that the Iraq War was a horrendous mistake became more or less common sense, and the need to proactively make an antiwar case regarding Iraq dissipated. Hindsight now does the trick.

If you were older than me, you were able to construct a picture of the events as they unfolded. If you were younger, you were off the hook for events of which you were completely unconscious. But I’ve found that lots of Americans in their late twenties and early thirties feel the same way I do: hazy on the specifics of the lead-up to and rollout of the Iraq War, and troubled by that blind spot, guilty of incomplete understanding.

Blow by Blow

That’s why the forthcoming podcast series Blowback is so valuable. Blowback is a thoroughly contextualized, fully explained, blow-by-blow account of how and why the United States government ginned up a case for war in Iraq — all the junk intelligence, media manipulation, and diplomatic arm-twisting — and what happened when our military got there.

The ten-part podcast series reaches deep into the memory hole and pulls the Iraq War back up into the sunlight. And in the process it holds not just the Bush administration to account but also their erstwhile opposition. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden: Blowback gives them full credit for the positions they took.

Blowback is hosted by Noah Kulwin, a reporter who’s written for New York Magazine, VICE, and the Outline, and Brendan James, the former producer of the podcast Chapo Trap House. The podcast is both extensively researched, making heavy use of primary audio and accompanied by episode source lists, and entertaining, punched up with funny asides and movie dialogue.

But most importantly for my own purposes, it’s chronological. This is something I desperately needed: people who see the world roughly the way I do to tell me what the hell happened, in order, and offer some top-line analysis on why it did.

Below is an indicative excerpt from Blowback. It’s from Episode 3, which documents the shift from Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. This comes after two expository episodes establishing the historical backdrop of the US invasion of Iraq, starting with the 1958 Iraqi revolution and running through the Gulf War to all the way to the doorstep of 9/11. At the beginning of the third episode, the towers fall.

Brendan James: I think to most normal people 9/11 was a snuff film broadcast live and rerun on TV for months and months on end. But to some other people, it represented a lot of opportunities.

George W. Bush: This is a day when Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.

Brendan James: For the Bush administration and the cabinet, sometimes dubbed the Vulcans — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condi Rice — it was a chance to correct America’s Vietnam syndrome. You know we talked in Episode 2 about the end of history after the Cold War and how America was then going to be unopposed, and first among equals in a new neoliberal utopia. But you can tell for a lot of these people up top, particularly in the Bush administration, that whole idea was pretty boring. 9/11 got their blood flowing again. It gave them an adversary. It gave them a challenge. It gave them moral clarity. 

Richard Perle: Good and evil is about as effective a shorthand as I can imagine. It isn’t a war on terror, it’s a war on terrorists who want to impose an intolerant tyranny on all mankind. An Islamic universe in which we are all compelled to accept their beliefs and live by their lights. In that sense, this is a battle between good and evil.

Brendan James: And it gave them a foreign policy. It gave them an agenda.

George W. Bush: Our war is against networks, groups, people who coddle them, people who try to hide them, people who fund them. This is our calling.

Brendan James: It’s easy to forget that in 2000, when Bush was actually running for president, he didn’t really talk about terrorism. He actually said he was against America becoming world cop.

George W. Bush: Yeah, I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s gotta be. I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying we do it this way, so should you.

Brendan James: The neocons didn’t like him. They wanted John McCain to win. But after 9/11 he was reborn with a purpose.

George W. Bush: It is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight. [applause]

Brendan James: That was the ideological side of it. Beneath that, for the same people and of course many many others, it represented a new chance to plunder, a new chance to expand, a new chance for new markets. [music kicks in] What followed was a national psychosis.

Blowback is a necessary resource for anyone who feels they don’t have the full story, who has struggled to find a foothold in a storyline populated by characters who can’t be trusted. I suspect it’s also entertaining for people who are fully knowledgeable and want to hear two informed and funny journalists take a stab at telling the entire saga.

For my part, listening to Blowback is the closest I’ve come to understanding why Darryl Worley was brought on to sing “Have You Forgotten?” on the Today show. And why seventeen years later hundreds of thousands of people are dead.