When it comes to Iraq, there are two kinds of candidate. The disciplined ones, such as Hillary Clinton, carefully avoid acknowledging reality. The more candid, such as John McCain and Barack Obama, sometimes blurt out the truth, but then quickly apologise.
For many US presidential aspirants, the first unspeakable truth is simply that the war was a mistake. The current focus is on Mrs Clinton’s obstinate refusal to acknowledge that voting to give President George W. Bush the power to invade Iraq was the wrong thing to do. Although fellow Democratic candidates John Edwards and Christopher Dodd have managed to express that they erred in voting for the 2002 war resolution, Mrs Clinton, along with Joe Biden and the full roster of Republican candidates, refuses to disgorge the M-word. Perhaps most absurdly, the senator Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican presidential candidate, has called Bush’s 21,500-troop “surge” the biggest blunder since Vietnam, without ever stating that the war itself was the larger blunder and that he favoured it.
Reasons for failing to admit that the war itself was a mistake are surprisingly alike across party lines. It is seldom easy to admit you were wrong – so let me repeat that I am sorry to have given even qualified support to the war. But what is awkward for columnists is nearly impossible for self-justifying politicians, who resist facing up to their mistakes at a glandular level. Specific calculations help to explain their individual positions. Mrs Clinton, for instance, clearly worries that confessing her failure will make it easier for Mr Obama and other consistent opponents of the war to savage her in the primaries. But at bottom, the impulse is the same across party lines. Politicians are stubborn and fear that an admission of error will be cast as flip-flopping and inconsistency.
A second truth universally unacknowledged is that Americans returning in flag-draped coffins or grotesquely maimed, and then treated like whining freeloaders at military hospitals, are victims as much as “heroes”. John Kerry was the first to violate this taboo when he was still a potential candidate last year. Mr Kerry told a group of California college students that those who fail in school end up in Iraq. A variety of conservative goons instantly denounced Mr Kerry for disrespecting the troops. An advanced sufferer from senatorial infallibility syndrome, Mr Kerry resisted apologising for his comment, but eventually regretted what he called a “botched joke” about Mr Bush.
Lost in the debate about whether Mr Kerry meant what came out of his mouth was the fact that what he said was largely true. Americans who attend college and have good employment options after graduation are unlikely to sign up for tours of the Sunni Triangle. People join the military for a variety of reasons, of course, but since the Iraq war turned ugly, the all-volunteer army has been lowering educational standards, raising enlistment bonuses and looking past criminal records. The lack of better choices is a larger and larger factor in the choice of military service. Our troops in Iraq may not see themselves as victims of political misjudgments, but they are.
Reality number three, closely related to number two and following directly from number one, is that the American lives lost in Iraq have been wasted. Mr Obama transgressed this boundary when he declared at a rally: “We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorised and should have never been waged and . . . have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted.” Mr Obama immediately said he had misspoken and apologised to military families. Mr McCain, too, used the term “wasted” when he announced his candidacy on a television talk show last week and promptly ate his words. The patriotically correct term for dying or losing parts of your body in a pointless war in Mesopotamia is, of course, “sacrifice”.
A fourth and final near-certainty, which is in some ways the hardest for politicians to admit, is that America is losing or has already lost the Iraq war. The US is the strongest nation in the history of the world and does not think of itself as coming in second in any two-way contest. When it does so, it is slow to face up to being beaten. American political and military leaders were reluctant to acknowledge or utter that they had miscalculated and wasted tens of thousands of lives in Vietnam, many after failure was assured. Even today, American politicians tend not to describe Vietnam as a straightforward defeat (although they will often admit that it was a mistake). Something similar is happening in Iraq, where the most that our leaders will say is that we risk losing and must not do so.
Democrats avoid the truth about the tragedy in Iraq for fear of being labelled unpatriotic or unsupportive of the troops. Republicans avoid it for fear of being blamed for the disaster or losing their defence and patriotism cards to play against Democrats. Politicians on both sides believe that acknowledging the unpleasant truths will weaken them and undermine those still attempting to persevere on our behalf. But nations and individuals do not grow weaker by confronting the truth. They grow weaker by avoiding it and coming to believe their own evasions.
The writer is editor of Slate.com