Thinking Out Loud: “Knowing What We Know Now” | Vol. 2 / No. 30.3

"Emails From Iraq: October 13, 2006"; Photo: Jayel Aheram, CC BY 2.0
“Emails From Iraq: October 13, 2006”; Photo: Jayel Aheram, CC BY 2.0

It’s Saturday, and I had an extra thing to say this week, so here you are: an opinion piece on something I found annoying in the news this week. You’re completely welcome.


In the past week or so in the world of US politics, pretty much every would-be candidate for president in 2016 was asked something along the following lines: “knowing what we know now, would you have gone into Iraq?” It’s a terrible question.

Don’t get me wrong, “knowing what we know now” questions aren’t always terrible. The things they try to get at are sometimes important. What they’re asking, in a roundabout way, is “can we learn from our mistakes?” But they’d probably be better off just asking that question. When it comes to Iraq, it’s particularly unhelpful.

When we ask “knowing what we know now,” about Iraq, it’s just hoping that some idiot will double-down on what was obviously, in perfect 20:20 hindsight, a mistake. It asks the candidates to look to the past and either agree or disagree, but doesn’t produce anything useful.

And while we’re on the topic, just so we’re clear, saying “I wouldn’t, in retrospect, have gone to war,” isn’t “doing a disservice” to those who died fighting in it. They did what they were told and served their country as they pledged to do. No amount of retrospective analysis will change that.

That said, here’s a couple of better questions: “what led to us ending up in Iraq, and what will you do to prevent us from making the same mistakes in the future?”

Going into Iraq wasn’t so much “the wrong choice” as it was the result of a massive failure in the culture of government — a failure of “best practices.” When President George W. Bush took the country to war, I really do think that he believed there were weapons of mass destruction there. The evidence wasn’t conclusive, but based upon it, he and those around him were able to spin a case for it. Say what you will about “finishing daddy’s war” or whatever,  what it really came down to was that he — rightly or wrongly — believed the (cherry-picked) evidence that he was presented with, even though it was wrong.

The problem isn’t so much that he chose to go into Iraq, but that he was able to choose to believe the at-best ambiguous information that led to that decision. That it was presented in a way that said it was true.

“Knowing what we know now,” I find it hard to believe that any candidate, Democrat or Republican, would say “oh hell yes, let’s get into a decades-long morass to no productive purpose that will cost trillions and ruin the world’s opinion of the United States once again.” You might as well be asking, “knowing what we know now, would you let Adolf Hitler into art school?” Hell yes I’d let him in! Even if he had the painting skills of a two year old, I’d let him in just to give him something to spend his time on that wasn’t, you know, turning his bitterness about life into a world domination plot. But it doesn’t help us to know that.

So here’s what I want to know:

“What changes should we make, so that our intelligence agencies and government aides are able and empowered to speak truth to power?”

“Would economic sanctions have achieved a comparable result, and how applicable might they be in future conflicts?”

“Do you think we have a moral obligation to overturn dictatorial regimes, even when doing so would cost both countries lives and money?”

What I’m saying, what I’m trying to get at, is this: “knowing what we know now, would you repeat our mistakes?” isn’t a useful question.

“What can we do to prevent thins kind of thing from happening again?” That’s a much better question, and one I wish they were asking.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science and skepticism here at This Week In Tomorrow.