A country in the middle of a volatile region erupts in violence. Thousands of civilians are forced from their homes. Thousands more are butchered in cold blood as ideological militants seize power. Should we do something? American policymakers fret. Are we responsible?
But this isn't Iraq today. It's Cambodia, circa 1975.
We are too often fooled by our ability to recognize patterns. Granted, we're quite good at pattern recognition overall. It's one of the traits that has helped us survive throughout the millennia. But as physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson noted in an episode of the relaunched Cosmos, it was that penchant for patterns that led us to see in the stars the rhythms of Earth. Across civilizations thousands of miles apart, our ancestors saw pictures in the stars and used those to guide their daily decisions.
As I watch the events unfold in Iraq, I'm also reading Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell, finally. Given how closely I follow her in her current role as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it seems almost shameful that it's taken me this long to pick up the history of the U.S. response to genocide that set her apart as an activist and a writer. As I read the part of it that gets to the complete and utter lack of an American response to the horrific mass atrocities in 1970s Cambodia, my mind is instantly drawn to Iraq.
The Khmer Rouge, after taking power, forced civilians out of their homes, starved hundreds of thousands, and killed tens of thousands more. As the bodies began to stack up, and the refugees told their tales, nobody was willing to absorb what they were saying as true. Most outside observers were simply unwilling to believe the Cambodians who had made it to the Thai border.
This willful blindness came not only from the scale of the terror being sown across Cambodia, but also from the American people's all too recent experience in Vietnam. We had only just pulled out the last of the troops, and Southeast Asia was seen as a no-man's land by policymakers and activists alike. "They knew that drawing attention to the slaughter in Cambodia would have reminded America of its past sins, reopened wounds that had not yet healed at home, and invited questions about what the U.S. planned to do to curb the terror," Power writes of the hesitancy of even those convinced of the Khmer Rouge's brutality to sound the alarm.
As I read her words, and write my own, Iraq is on fire. Mosul, the second-largest city in the country, fell to the control of militants tied to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) this week. The same terrorists have been in control of Fallujah, where scores of Americans fought and died during wartime, since January. The Iraqi security forces have proved ineffectual at best, choosing to flee in the face of ISIL's insurgents rather than fight, despite years of American training and billions of dollars' worth of equipment.
Power's words seem to imply that we should reject our past and move forward to help save the Iraqi people — but Iraq is not Cambodia. The slaughter of civilians in Iraq is overshadowed by the number of deaths in Syria, just across the rapidly evaporating border. And though Americans seem as apathetic to intervention now as they did in the Vietnam era, the comparison is inexact.
Humans are very good at seeing patterns, but it can be said that we're almost too good at it. There is no Great Bear in the sky, and the appearance of a comet doesn't mean disaster is near at hand. These false patterns are pernicious, hard to spot, and even harder to convince yourself don't exist. Power herself noted, "Just as military strategists are apt to 'fight the last war' — to employ tactics tailored for prior battlefield foes — political leaders and ordinary citizens tend to overapply the 'lessons of history' to new and distinct challenges."
And so in the case of Iraq, there's a sense of standing at a crossroads, unable to trust our instincts. The feeling of impotence hurts. For all our military might, the idea that we haven't been able to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to welcome Sunnis into his government and bring the country together is a painful one. So too is the thought that we might be willing to throw ourselves back into the fire and conduct the airstrikes that al-Maliki has been calling for, hoping that the blood and treasure spent there will be less than the last time.
The situation in Iraq as it stands now is not Cambodia. The threat to civilians comes not from the government targeting its people, but from the government's inability to protect them. Likewise, there's no power struggle between allies and adversaries that the U.S. is carefully trying not to tip, as seen in the reluctance in the '70s to push recent ally China into criticizing the Khmer Rouge government.
And today's Iraq is not the Iraq of 2003-10. While the administration appears to be mulling airstrikes, there's no call for the more than 100,000 soldiers we had on the ground at the peak of the war effort. And if we do decide to move forward with force, it will be against a threat that the entire region recognizes — along with al Qaeda itself — as a threat.
Despite our desperate, primal urge to have something from our past to grasp, some moment in our history to draw from, the fact of the matter is that we're in a unique place in time. The challenge of U.S. policymakers will be to recognize that fact and decide on a path forward that manages to help both Iraqis and Americans alike, even if that decision is to do nothing.
As for what that path is, I wish I could say. Honestly, this is why I'm glad that they're them and I'm me, sitting at a computer, reading a book.