The Useful Idiot

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's classic, The Idiot, Prince Myshkin represented something like a perfect soul. Amid the cultural backdrop of money-grubbing, backstabbing, conniving aristocrats, his trusting, honest, and principled heart made him seem like an idiot to everyone around him. The prince wasn't an idiot, of course. Dostoevsky's work was simply a commentary and critique on the society that surrounded the prince.

The phrase "useful idiot" is a political term. It's defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a naïve or credulous person who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agenda. Is a useful idiot an idiot? No, not always. Like Prince Myshkin, they are often well-meaning and honorable. Their primary character flaw may be that they're willing to trust in authority.

False Flags and False Hopes

It's not uncommon for those in seats of power to drum up support for their political agenda in order to get broad support from their constituencies. The Nazi party set the Reichstag ablaze and framed it on the communists. The Nazi propaganda outlets used the incident to convince the nation that communists plotted to overthrow the German government. Prominent communist leaders were jailed and Adolf Hitler ascended to the Chancellery just four weeks later. Anyone swept up in the anti-communist fervor was a useful idiot of the Nazi Party.

Exxon Mobil has spent millions spreading disinformation regarding climate change, relying on many of the same strategies, tactics, organizations, and personnel the tobacco industry used in its denials of the link between lung cancer and smoking. Anyone repeating this misinformation is a useful idiot of the oil and gas industry.

In 1962, amid the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. department of defense hatched a plan to help drum up public support for a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Operation Northwoods, a plan drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for, among other devious plans, the sinking of U.S. ships on the Cuban Coast, fabricating the hijacking and shooting down of passenger or military planes, burning crops, attacking U.S. civilians using alleged Cuban infiltrators, etc. Fortunately John F. Kennedy rejected the plan. The documents were only discovered due to a comprehensive search for records relating to JFK's assassination.

So all of this begs the question: If we historically know that plans like this have been hatched inside the White House, was the lead up to the war in Iraq similarly orchestrated and sold to the frightened and gullible public? Did well-intentioned young people serve as an administration's useful idiots when they volunteered for service knowing they could be sent to fight in Iraq? (Afghanistan is an entirely separate topic I won't be considering here.)

Linear thinkers that have never had cause to question the mainstream narrative might yell out, "but 9/11! And how dare you question our troops, you ungrateful communist!" First off, I'm a combat veteran, so sit down. The sacrifices were real, but what we're concerning ourselves with is whether they were necessary. And for anyone that does care about the troops, this should be of the utmost significance.

Propaganda and Patriotism

“Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.​” ― Henry Kissinger, U.S. National Security Advisor (1969-1975) and Secretary of State (1973-1977)    

Birds of a Feather: George Bush and Henry Kissinger

Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to dictatorships. Both systems require absolute control by the ruling class, but the democratic approach allows for the illusion of choice. Simple messaging or framing of issues is often subtle enough to influence public without their noticing. For example, should we invade Iraq or just sanction them? Notice how that proposition gives only two options out of an infinite field of possibility? Who is it that decides on how those questions are presented to the public?

In Edward Hermann and Noam Chomsky's classic, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the tricks of the trade are laid bare. And for the "fake news" crowd, the oft-hated Chomsky may seem an unlikely ally. But he's been a champion of reason and human rights his entire life.

For the uninitiated, this messaging can be effective. Those of us alive and aware at the time immediately following 9/11 remember the feeling. The war drums sounded, and path of revenge felt righteous. But somewhere in the chaos of that moment in history, Iraq suddenly got thrown into the global war on terror conversation. And the media repeated the framing and messaging coming from the White House without critique. Journalists that dissented, like Chris Hedges for example, were booted from mainstream media. They weren't behaving patriotically enough.

A study found that in the lead up to the Iraq War, most sources were overwhelmingly in favor of the invasion.

The Inside Scoop

So did the administration outright lie? Weapons of Mass Destruction wasn't necessarily a lie because we know that the Reagan administration sold Saddam nerve agents in the hope they would be used against Iran. They were used on the Kurds instead. But immediately following the first Gulf War, all known chemical weapon stockpiles in Iraq were destroyed.

While no one besides the decision-makers can know for certain, General Wesley Clark's confession alerts the public that there was more going on behind the scenes than being told to the public. From Joe Conason's 2007 review of General Clark's memoir:

In "A Time to Lead: For Duty, Honor and Country," published by Palgrave Macmillan last month, the former four-star general recalls two visits to the Pentagon following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. On the first visit, less than two weeks after Sept. 11, he writes, a "senior general" told him, "We're going to attack Iraq. The decision has basically been made."
Six weeks later, Clark returned to Washington to see the same general and inquired whether the plan to strike Iraq was still under consideration. The general's response was stunning:
"'Oh, it's worse than that,' he said, holding up a memo on his desk. 'Here's the paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defense [then Donald Rumsfeld] outlining the strategy. We're going to take out seven countries in five years.' And he named them, starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran."
While Clark doesn't name the other four countries, he has mentioned in televised interviews that the hit list included Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.

Pair this with Alan Greenspan's line in his memoir The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, where he writes:

I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil.

Or Dick Cheney's words:

Oil remains fundamentally a government business. While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East with two-thirds of the world's oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies, even though companies are anxious for greater access there, progress continues to be slow.

Suddenly an administration's regional ambitions begin to emerge. The regimes mentioned by General Wesley Clark were all potential allies to Russia. Could Russia seize control of the oil fields? Stability of the region is important for economic expansion. And, for 2-dimensional and amygdala-level thinkers, it's better if America controls that oil because the only alternative would cripple the U.S economy.

So, yeah. It's most likely the administration knowingly played an entire generation of war fighters. Anyone that believed in and acted on their false messaging on Iraq would, by definition and regardless of IQ, be a useful idiot for the Bush-Cheney neoconservative political agenda. It's a tragedy and a crime.

This take on it might require a glass of whiskey to process. If that's you, just do us all a favor and buy an American-made brand. - N.

This article was produced for the Veteran Artist Residencies non-profit. The non-profit mission is to provide paid artistic residencies for post 9/11 veterans pursuing careers in writing. To learn more, visit

N. B. Hankes

N. B. Hankes

Founder and best selling author of "Waking Up On the Appalachian Trail."
Humboldt County, California