Was it to protect our Republican version of "individual responsibility"? That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. "Bootstrapping" and "equality of opportunity, not outcomes" make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn't risen into my world simply hadn't worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed. But I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity. It turns out that it's more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series. Sure, some people do it, but they're the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.
The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in. Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal. For the first time, I found myself paying attention to broken eggs rather than making omelets. Up until then, I hadn't really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people. My values shifted—from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.
How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs
In order to learn more—and to secure my membership in what Karl Rove sneeringly called the "reality-based community"—I joined a social science research institute. There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt. Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception of US martial power—what it's for, how it's used—diverged from the reality of our wars.
Lots of Republicans grow up hawks. I certainly did. My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.
To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness. As a child, I couldn't get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines. We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den. Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.
As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory. (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.) I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that "war is hell," it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and—whatever those misinformed peaceniks said—we made the world a better place.
But then I went to a war zone.
I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues. My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington's terrorist list.
It got ugly fast. Just after my first meal on base, there was a rumble of explosions, and an alarm started screaming INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING! Two people were killed and dozens injured, right outside the chow hall where I had been standing minutes earlier.
This was the "surge" period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me. The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the "wire." Controlled detonations of insurgent duds. Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.
Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD. It turns out that it doesn't take much.
That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it. From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools. Millions displaced.
Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence. People were assigned the wrong roles—"Why am I building a radio station? This isn't what I do. I blow things up…"—and given no advance training or guidance. Outgoing leaders didn't overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again. Precious few contracts went to Iraqis. It was driving people out of our military.
This incompetence had profound human costs. Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds were innocent—wrong place, wrong time—or, poor and desperate, had worked with insurgent groups for cash, not out of an ideological commitment. Aware of this, the military wanted to release thousands of them, but they didn't know who was who; they only knew that being detained and interrogated made even the innocents dangerously angry. That anger trickled down to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. It was about as good an in-kind donation as the US could have made to insurgent recruitment—aside from invading in the first place.
So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds. I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment. But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.
Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn't aware of the United States ever doing anything that might demand an apology. Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there's no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name—calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage ("stuff happens")—or if you believe that American force is always applied righteously in a world that is justly divided into winners and losers.
A Painful Transition
An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion. I think I finally understand what it means. We see different realities, different worlds. If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are that we aren't talking about the same things. I think this explains much of modern American political dialogue.
My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality. To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their "just" desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn't actually work that way. I think this shows why Republicans put so much effort into "creat[ing] our own reality," into fostering distrust of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics, and why they won't let a campaign "be dictated by fact-checkers" (as a Romney pollster put it). It explains why study after study shows—examples here, here, and here—that avid consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than people who use other news sources or don't bother to follow the news at all.
Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful. I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned. I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer (because those weren't mentioned in the media we read or watched).
My transition has significantly strained my relationships with family, friends, and former colleagues. It is deeply upsetting to walk on thin ice where there used to be solid, common ground. I wish they, too, would come to see a fuller spectrum of reality, but I know from experience how hard that can be when your worldview won't let you.
No one wants to feel like a dupe. It is embarrassing to come out in public and admit that I was so miseducated when so much reality is out there in plain sight in neighborhoods I avoided, in journals I hadn't heard of, in books by authors I had refused to read. (So I take courage from the people who have done so before me like Andrew Bacevich.)
Many people see the wider spectrum of reality because they grew up on the receiving end. As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, "No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man."
Others do because they grew up in families that simply got it. I married a woman who grew up in such a family, for whom all of my hard-earned, painful "discoveries" are old news. Each time I pull another layer of wool off my eyes and feel another surge of anger, she gives me a predictable series of looks. The first one more or less says, "Duh, obviously." The second is sympathetic, a recognition of the pain that comes with dismantling my flawed worldview. The third is concerned: "Do people actually think that?"
Yes, they do.
Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture. His most recent work has been published in the American Prospect and Salon. He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the US Department of Justice. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is jeremiahgoulka.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Goulka discusses his political journey, click here or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.