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Opening Arguments

War wounds

Our continuing conflicted feelings about Iraq inform our thinking about Syria:

Our initial reaction was that if we were a member of Congress, we would be inclined to vote "no." We ultimately, and with some difficulty, changed our mind, as we shall detail below. Our resistance--and our continuing misgivings about the prospect of an attack on Syria--are informed by reflection on our errors during the 2002-03 debate that preceded the Iraq war, of which we were a strong supporter.

This is not going to be one of those columns in which we repudiate wholesale our position back then, as no small number of former Iraq war supporters have done. That posture has always struck us as pusillanimous (abandoning one popular position for another), pointless (for one cannot annul an already-fought war), and intellectually lazy.

No philosophical breakthroughs have occurred over the past decade to render the moral and legal justifications for the war untenable in retrospect. Thus the only test it can be said to have failed is an empirical one: that things turned out badly. To say so may seem obvious, but it begs the question: Badly compared with what?

It is ever thus. They say generals always fight the last war. I think it's equally true that the public reacts to a new war based on its feelings about the last war (or even earlier ones). My initial reaction to the prospect of invading Iraq was skepticism, and I didn't think President Bush ever successfully made the case for it. But once war engaged, my attitude changed to one of "always finish something you started -- never just walk away." That may or may not be the right way to think of it, but I'm reflective enough to understand that my thinking comes primarily from my reaction to what happened in Vietnam.

Different people took away different lessons from that war. Mine -- rightly or wrongly -- was that war should always be the last option, only reluctantly chosen. And once you engage, the most moral course is to win the war as quickly as possible with as few casualties as possible. War is never something to just fool around with.

Different people also have different opinions about what the most shaemful episode in American history is. For me, at least up there in the Top 5 is the day we bugged out of Vietnam and deserted the people who had trusted us: "So sorry, we didn't mean it, just deal with it. 'Bye now." Nearly 60,000Americans dead, and what for?