U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Iraq War, Mather House, and Me (Guest Post by David Weinfeld)

[Editor’s note: The following guest post comes from longtime friend of the blog and S-USIH member David Weinfeld. Beginning his fall, he will be the visiting assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. David received his PhD in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and has taught at NYU, Temple University, Queens College, and the University of Toronto.]

During the United invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a sophomore at Harvard University, living in a dorm called Mather House. Named after Increase Mather, former president of the university who had been involved in the Salem Witch Trials, the dorm has some pretty views of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Mather is an ugly pair of buildings, crafted in the 1970s Soviet style, or as former resident Conan O’Brien quipped, “designed by the same firm that built Hitler’s bunker.”

I didn’t feel like I was in Hitler’s bunker, though. I felt intellectually alive, bombarded with information. The September 11 attacks were fresh on everyone’s minds, as America contemplated going to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I desperately tried to make sense of it all. A liberal Canadian, my gut told me to oppose it. I was never convinced Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and if he did, I didn’t think he’d use them. I did not believe he had any connection to Al Queda either. I hung up an anti-war sign in dorm room. But Mather House changed my mind.

More specifically, two academics affiliated with Mather House changed my mind. The first was professor and fellow Canadian Michael Ignatieff. A historian and journalist by training, Ignatieff taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was also a resident scholar at Mather House. Though a liberal (and later, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada), Ignatieff had become enamored of American Empire. He had written a long New York Times Magazine article advocating United States’ military power to enforce Pax Americana. Taking out Saddam Hussein would be the next step of this new post-9/11 world order.

Though he talked tough, Ignatieff made a moral argument for attacking Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. He used chemical weapons on his own people, persecuted Kurds and Shi’ites and anyone who dissented. I heard Ignatieff make the case for war in a talk at the Kennedy School, and then again over tea, with a few other classmates, in the Mather House dining hall. I found this case compelling.

More compelling was the case presented by Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident. A professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis, Makiya was married to the Senior Tutor at Mather House and lived in the dorm. Makiya’s case for war was more particular to Iraq. He had been a critic of Saddam Hussein for decades, and had a list of 397 Kurdish villages the Iraqi dictator had eliminated. I remember sitting in one of the small meeting rooms alongside the Mather dining hall, listening to Makiya explain that Saddam was evil, and needed to be taken out.

So I changed my mind. I took the sign down in my dorm room. I supported the invasion of Iraq. Not loudly, but proudly. I didn’t write about it, but when asked for my opinion, I endorsed it, and did my best to defend my position on moral grounds. It was the worst political blunder of my life, but it came out of a genuine desire to determine what was good and what was right.

Tracing my error led me down a familiar path. I was engaging in the same sort of micro-intellectual history I did in my dissertation about the two American philosophers who came up with term cultural pluralism, Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Kallen was Locke’s teaching assistant at Harvard in 1906-1907, and the two became friends at Oxford the following year. They came up with cultural pluralism—the precursor to multiculturalism—in conversations at these elite institutions.

Culture pluralism was a good idea. The war on Iraq was not. Both were discussed in the intellectually open atmosphere of the Harvard campus. In listening to and learning from Ignatieff and Makiya, I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was taking advantage of the university as a place for the exchange of ideas. But while many of my friends and peers continued to oppose the war, I made the wrong call. Since others got it right, that’s on me. But still I’m left with a conundrum.

In 1907, Harvard philosopher William James said the purpose of a college education was to be able to “know a good man when you see him.” When I began at Harvard in 2001, Dean Jeremy Knowles addressed our class with these words: “Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in life – save only this – that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.” But what do you when your teachers, though good, smart people, are the ones talking rot?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David, thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. As someone whose views on a variety of matters (including many that are central to my book) have shifted significantly since I was an undergrad, I appreciate your discussion and the fact that you’re willing to reflect publicly and invite public reflection.

    I don’t want to minimize the moral weight that you place on your earlier judgment. But I’m reminded of another passage from William James:

    Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

    Again, that may seem a ridiculously insouciant response to what you are pointing to as a serious failing in judgment. “Our errors” may be small, but the Iraq War was most certainly an awfully solemn thing. So I don’t want to suggest that the proper response is “don’t worry, be happy.”

    In fact, I’d suggest that this essay is the — or at least a — proper response, and much more useful, for you and your readers, than a conversion narrative a la Whittaker Chambers, swapping one proposition for another but never letting go of the through-line of absolute moral certainty. (An ironic example, but the one that immediately springs to mind as representative of the genre.)

    I don’t know an easy answer to your question about how to regard the role that your professors played in shaping your thought. I am working on my own answer to that problem in relation to the awful or not so awful errors, my own and others’, that have marked my own path through life. I don’t look back on such things with “lightness of heart” exactly — I think “tenderness of heart” comes closer. But it often doesn’t come first, and sometimes it takes a while.

    I guess I’m not much help. But I’m grateful for your essay.

    • LD, thank you for your kind words and your comment. And your invocation of James was also welcome. I think one thing I’ve learned, and studying pragmatism has helped, is to approach everything with a healthy skepticism and deep intellectual humility. I remain wary of those who profess certainty, left, right, or center. We’re all just muddling along, just some with more confidence than others.

  2. An interesting and heartfelt piece. I think I maybe find it a little easier to excuse Makiya, who is (I assume he’s still alive) an Iraqi, if I’m not mistaken, thus personally invested in a particular way in the whole thing. It’s hard — actually more like impossible — to find any excuse for Ignatieff.

    Your essay prompts the further thought that it’s too bad the late Stanley Hoffmann was not affiliated with Mather House. If he had been, you might have been listening to him in the dining hall, or in a common room, rather than Ignatieff. And in that scenario, you probably would not have made ‘the wrong call’ and you would not have this particular regret today.

    Cheney and those of like mind (Wolfowitz etc) were wanting to invade and depose Saddam basically from the moment they took power, or actually before that. 9/11 gave them the context and opportunity to do it. Only a completely different sequence of key events would have altered what happened. Mass demonstrations didn’t change the outcome, nor did any number of anti-war posters in dorm rooms. That’s probably no great consolation to you, but it’s the best I can come up with.

    • Thanks Louis for your comment. Perhaps more interaction with Hoffmann would have helped, though honestly I think I was particularly susceptible to Ignatieff and especially Makiya’s message, given certain aspects of my background. I heard other anti-war speakers, agreed with them at first, and I didn’t. But who knows?

      Initially I actually conceived of a post about the value of learning recent/contemporary history. In 2003, I had a solid background in European history, but it stopped in 1945, or maybe 1989. If I had known more about the first Persian Gulf War, and about the conflict in the Balkans, I might have been less susceptible to Ignatieff and Makiya and others, no matter how morally persuasive.

      • Yes, I agree on the value of contemporary history, esp. in this kind of situation.

  3. David, I appreciate your reflections on taking an intellectual position and then coming back to question yourself. I too was influenced by Ignatieff’s essay in the NYTM and basically wrote God and War to deal with my conflicting ideas about the new era of American wars and empire. It is a benefit of doing intellectual history that we get to deal with changes in our ideas while tracing changes in those who influence us. You raise an issue that is worth pursuing here a the blog through multiple posts: which intellectuals changed their minds about the most recent Americans wars and why. We know that the best biographical subjects are those who go through often quite dramatic transformations. It would be interesting to begin cataloguing the latest round of transformed intellectuals.

    • Thanks for the great comment Ray. In my particular subfield the transformation I know best is the (mostly) Jewish Trotskyite move to neoconservatism. But I’m sure there are other interesting ones and more recent ones as well that are worth pondering. Figures like Richard Posner, Diane Ravitch, Peter Beinart, and David Frum come to mind. Is that the kind of thing you are thinking of?

      • I know we have posts that often focus on a particular person but I don’t recall all that many that take transformation as a discrete subject. I’d like to see what kind of patterns emerge from the different narratives we might collectively contribute. For example, I am working on the evolution of Catholic intellectuals on the issue of nuclear weapons and wars in the post-Vietnam era and would have found interesting ways that the same events pushed some to become overtly opposed to Reagan administration policies while other were drawn toward the administration. I bet that many readers, especially grad students, would want to contribute to such conversations.

  4. Thanks for the great comment Ray. In my particular subfield the transformation I know best is the (mostly) Jewish Trotskyite move to neoconservatism. But I’m sure there are other interesting ones and more recent ones as well that are worth pondering. Figures like Richard Posner, Diane Ravitch, Peter Beinart, and David Frum come to mind. Is that the kind of thing you are thinking of?

  5. Thanks for writing this David, because it is such an good question. I’m afraid though that it can never find a satisfactory solution. For example, you said in the comment in reply to L.D., “I remain wary of those who profess certainty, left, right, or center.” That seems like solid enough wisdom. But what about the cases — let’s think the Civil Rights Movement for an easy example — of when moral certainty was kind of required for activists to keep going under the conditions they were under? What if Mandela, or Ghandi, had never had any moral certainty?, or at least such a strong faith that it came very close to it. But I don’t think those are the kind of figures that come to mind when we use the phrase “moral certainty,” which then begs the question, what is moral certainty?

    Anyway, my own response to the question you end with is do the best you can, and be open to the possibility that you are wrong. So unsatisfactory I know, but as are many such questions that yearn for answers that point to a universe of order when there is no such universe out there. My primary comfort, however, is that I have changed my mind several times in my life; I have been on the wrong side of political questions several times; so I know I have a record of being able to learn, and accept, that I was wrong. The fact that you’ve clearly done the same should be a similar comfort for you.

    • Thanks for this comment Robin. I agree with you that sometimes it seems “moral certainty,” or what was called at the time of the Iraq War “moral clarity” is needed. But then we’re only really able to label in moral in hindsight, right? Maybe we’re just talking about that other cliche, the “courage of our convictions.” Religion is helpful here, certainly was with abolitionists and civil rights activists a hundred years later.

      Though my Jewish identity is strong, I’m not a religious person, but I’m reminded of something a professor of Hebrew Bible once told me. We often think of faith and doubt as being mutually exclusive. That if you have absolute faith in something, it means you have no doubts at all. The example there was Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. But there’s another interpretation, that faith and doubt can coexist. You can believe something, even strongly, but also doubt its true. So maybe by the same token, in cases far more ambiguous than abolitionism or the civil rights movement, you can strongly believe that something is right, even if you simultaneously think you might be wrong, and even consider all the reasons why you might be wrong. Basically this is a long-winded way of saying I agree with you, and that we can live an intellectually honest existence with strong convictions and deep humility at the same time.

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