Every spring, my US History classes learn about the Vietnam War. For most students, it’s a new experience to study Vietnam. Invariably, students have an important misconception about the war: they presume most Americans were opposed to fighting in Vietnam. When I share evidence that the war was incredibly popular for years and never became statistically unpopular, they often feel shock. The reason is simple. People lie about their support for the Vietnam War. It’s now the cultural norm to acknowledge it as a bad war. People want to be on the right side of history in their memory, if not in their actions.
We are already seeing a similar process unfold regarding the Iraq War. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly lied about opposing the Iraq War. Why? Again, it’s culturally preferred to acknowledge that Iraq was a bad war. That means average citizens rewrite their positions in much the same way Trump does. These kinds of lies have become both ubiquitous and casual. Unless you’re a public figure, who will take the time to go back and discern where you actually stood on Iraq more than a decade ago?
But, do you remember? Do you remember what you thought a year after the September 11 attacks when President George W. Bush insisted Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was part of an axis of evil? Do you remember Donald Rumsfeld telling us all that Iraq was intimately connected to al-Qaida? Do you remember whether you told your family, friends and co-workers that we needed to invade Iraq or that it would be a horrible mistake? I’m guessing you do. I’m guessing that sending Americans to fight, kill and die in Iraq mattered enough that you thought about it and made a choice.
Well, what about now? If someone asked you about Iraq, would you tell them the truth? Would you acknowledge the wisdom or folly of your choice?
You already know where I’m going with this, right?! 2016 features the clearest choice between Presidential candidates in modern times. We have major party candidates with stark differences in experience, temperament, perspective and vision. The hallowed middle ground for which presidential campaigns usually compete is a void this year. And at the ballot box, America will make a genuinely historic choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
A decade from now, there will be an established cultural norm about this election. And in the referendum of history, Americans will have a story to tell their friends and family about where they stood at this decisive moment. What story will you tell? Will that story be true?
In 2016, where do you stand?