The Self-Deceived Deceivers of War

In a 1971 essay written for The New York Review of Books, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt placed responsibility for the then-still-ongoing Vietnam War at the feet of “self-deceived deceivers.” These were the senior US officials who in selling the American people on war in Southeast Asia came to believe the untruths, half-truths, and evasions they themselves had contrived to justify a grotesquely needless conflict.

The deceivers thereby fell prey to their own duplicities, with the nation as a whole left to pay an exceedingly heavy price. Yet Vietnam is hardly unique as an example of self-deceived deceivers leading the nation on a march to folly. The Iraq War, its 20th anniversary now at hand, offers another example.

Why did the United States in 2003 embark upon this disastrous war of choice? The simple answer — “Bush lied, people died” — is misleading and unhelpful, the equivalent of holding Lyndon Johnson uniquely responsible for Vietnam.

While critics may find it gratifying to fix personal responsibility for the Iraq War on President George W. Bush, doing so is itself an evasion. Bush was himself an instrument of others and a prisoner of circumstance, as much as he was an instigator.

Read the full piece in The Boston Globe.