It took seven years, but Britain’s inquiry into their involvement in the Iraq war recently concluded with a twelve-volume, 2.6 million-word report. As one might expect, the findings have not been kind to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his regime. Among the more damning aspects of Sir John Chilcot’s report was the conclusion that Saddam Hussein posed “no imminent threat” to the British people at the time of the war. While Chilcot noted that it might have eventually been necessary to remove Hussein from power, they had not yet reached the point where it was absolutely necessary to do so.
The report would go on to state that “the judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—WMD—were presented with a certainty that was not justified.” Moreover, “despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated.” Much of the report pertains to those consequences and the coalition’s inability to achieve a satisfactory end once Hussein was removed from power.
Despite these findings, Blair maintains that joining the U.S.-led attack on Iraq was warranted. He issued a lengthy and heartfelt apology for the lives lost in the conflict but reassured their family and friends that the deaths of their loved ones were not in vain—an accusation many of the bereaved have levied against Blair and others.
While many have been quick to offer their opinions on what the report means and how it should be used going forward, the future implications of Chilcot’s findings remain unclear. Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron told Members of Parliament that it was vital that Britain “really learn the lessons for the future” so that the same mistakes will not be made again. Others, such as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, appear more focused on casting blame and exacting punishment. Corbyn speaks for a growing contingent who believe that the UK should give the International Criminal Court “the power to prosecute those responsible for the crime of military aggression,” such as Blair.
So who is right? Should the report be used to learn lessons for the future or to punish those deemed to have acted wrongly? In truth, both of those purposes are likely inevitable and, to an extent, justified. The seven years and twelve million dollars spent on the report would be wasted if it did not help to prevent similar mistakes from occurring in the future. At the same time, some repercussions are likely necessary if courts declare Blair and/or others to be criminally liable for their actions—though the calls for international trials and some of the other drastic punishments seem more reactionary than warranted.
Ultimately, however, it seems likely that one of those ends will be prioritized over the other. The reason is that learning from the past requires living in the present with an eye to the future. If we dwell on our mistakes or feed our anger over the wrongs committed by others, then we never really move past them to understand and apply whatever lessons they may offer to our present and future circumstances. But if we can learn to accept what has happened, we can better recognize the past’s relevance for today. And while it is important to remember that such acceptance is neither tantamount to approval nor dismissive of consequences when warranted, if we focus on punishment, then we inhibit our learning.
It’s often said that the past repeats itself, and for good reason. It’s far easier to punish mistakes than to learn from them. As a result, we find that many of the same errors have haunted humanity from its earliest days. Pride, the kind that led Adam and Eve to believe they were entitled to be God’s equal (Genesis 3:5) to the kind that led Tony Blair and others to think they could act against UN advisement without consequence, is a perfect example of such an error. It continues on in our lives today not only because it, as C. S. Lewis said, “leads to every vice” and is “the complete anti-God state of mind,” but also because we have failed to heed the true lessons of those that have fallen prey to its enticements in the past.
We see how others have failed and strive to avoid their mistakes, but we never take the time to fully understand why they failed. As a result, though their errors may take on a new form, they remain fundamentally the same. If the mistakes of Blair and others are to be avoided, punishment cannot be the primary outcome of the report. In the same way, if we want to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, then we too must avoid the temptation to make judgment our ultimate end.
Jesus died, in part, so that our past would no longer have to define our present. Does yours?