Was That So Hard?

I haven’t written about Iraq for a while, largely because I came to the conclusion that there were no remaining contingent pathways left: things were going to turn out however they were going to turn out. I especially came to feel that critics of the war itself might as well retreat from the public debate. Those who advocated the war are now and should remain wholly responsible for what happens next. Of course, they also should get some credit for good consequences of the war. At this juncture of the conflict, I think there is reason to hope that Iraq will eventually achieve some measure of stability and freedom. The signs are not all gloomy, far from it. And if Iraq tomorrow looks better by far than Iraq yesterday, that will be a good thing. It is important not to minimize or sneer at that good if it manifests. It is important to hope for the best.

What I still have to say as a matter of advocacy has to do with the collateral damage of the conflict, with the deeply unnecessary and unprincipled uses of the war to consolidate dangerous forms of federal power and political hysteria within the United States and foolhardy, counterproductive expressions of American power abroad. I still reel at the fact that the leaders of my government are waging a serious political effort to retain an official, sanctioned, legalized capacity to authorize torture. Please, don’t bother splitting hairs here about whether mock-drowning people or forcing them to stand without sitting for eight hours is torture or not. That’s a non-debate where the slippery slope doesn’t loom mistily up ahead somewhere, but instead appears beneath our feet as the wind whistles through our hair. As with so much else of the ancillary activities that surround the war, my problem doesn’t even come from a nose-in-the-air moral pulpit as much as it comes from the conviction that advocacy of the right to “mild” torture is a gigantic practical and geopolitical mistake. Before we even need to talk about whether it’s wrong or not (and it is), it’s wrong in the sense of being a profoundly bad strategy.

This becomes all the clearer now that the President is speaking with the faintest hint of an adult, responsible and subtle conception of the global struggle. We can talk about America’s war dead and their sacrifice, about our men and women in harm’s way, but we owe the Iraqi people (and the world) even more honor, and some straight talk about their sacrifice. They’re the ones who were committed to this battle without anything resembling a representative or consultative moment before the war commenced. Even if this all turns out in some sense “for the best”, none of the dead or living there had a moment where they faced that future possibility squarely, took a deep breath, and consented to become the “central front” in a global war.

Where was the sense of gravity and weariness about any of that up until now? Where was the seriousness of purpose, the haunted consciences, the sense of responsibility? Instead we got puppet-show patriotism and flag-waving done so instrumentally that it dishonors that symbol’s heritage far more than somebody chucking it in a bonfire. I don’t believe that this President and this Administration has suddenly developed that seriousness, but even the rhetorical simulation of it shows just how much it matters, how much it would have done to make this war unfold differently to date in its feel, in the way it has played and will play at home and abroad.

It’s not just the President: the same shallowness has been a staple feature of ardent pro-war (and yes, some equally ardent anti-war) public speakers from the outset. Slogans instead of ideas, meanness of spirit instead of a deepening and maturation of conscience. If war or crisis is a forge, then the leadership of this war has proven brittle metal. And that, I really think, was not inevitable. I can imagine a very different leadership and a very different mobilized public and even a different mobilized world (or at least parts of it) for almost the same war, and even if it played out on the ground in Iraq just as it has, the meaning of the war would have been very different, and its larger consequences as well. Maybe that too can still be avoided, but only if there is some house-cleaning over the next three years. That’s what it means to “take responsibility”, if the President is even remotely serious about that phrase. There are people and policies that need to be booted out of this White House if the Administration actually wants to lead this war rather than use it as a backdrop to domestic politics and as a justification for scarily out-of-control securocrat follies.

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5 Responses to Was That So Hard?

  1. hestal says:

    I agree that the outcome is unknown and inevitable.

    In a just world the President and his Administration would bear the fruits of their policies when all is said and done. But that won’t happen. One-half of the nation will always think of him as a hero, a man who fought to protect America.

    Critics of the war have never been noticed, much less taken seriously, by Mr. Bush and his associates. The only thing that can have any real impact on the Bush administration is the 2006 election. He does want to hold power and he will give the electorate just enough winks and nods to keep them under control – and they will oblige. Iraq may turn out for the good, I hope so, too.

    On torture and the murder of innocents, there is nothing to say. Mr. Bush was and is willing to take the lives of others for his own personal purposes. He will not budge an inch. Immolation without representation means something to most of us, but not to all.

    Mr. Bush’s recent faint hints of an “an adult, responsible and subtle conception of the global struggle,” are really feints. He is testing the electorate’s reaction. Everything is being analyzed in terms of holding power. That is all. And it will be effective. He has nearly 50% of the electorate sewed up, and there is an amazing penchant of the left to forgive and forget. If he gives them just enough hint of change to enable the leftists to read remorse in his face or timbre he will win. When he wins, he will revert to type.

    As for “gravity and weariness,” Mr. Bush is anti-gravitas personified, and he is weary of being criticized. Remember he said, approximately, “Things would be a lot easier if I was a dictator.” You are right, the Bush crowd has not developed gravitas. They cannot. It is not part of their natures.

    Different leadership would have definitely produced a different war in all its facets. Remember H. Ross Perot. He is from Texas, he is rich, and he is entirely different from Bush. He is a patriot, collects cherished documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta, tried to deliver Christmas presents to Americans imprisoned abroad, rescued imprisoned employees of his while putting himself in direct danger of sharing their fate instead of freeing them, funded a memorial to the soldiers of the Vietnam War. He is a man who favors reason and fiscal responsibility. He would never have sent troops to an optional war without proper armor and other equipment. He would have listened to the generals with respect. He would have brought in international allies, and his force of personality would have made it impossible for them to resist. But I don’t think that he would have gone to war. He is the serious adult with a depth of conscience that you can’t find in the person of George Bush.

    And finally there may still be something for critics to do. They could try to see how things will unfold and try to influence those future events. Edward L. Ayers, in What Caused the Civil War, has a chapter on Reconstruction. To his very great credit, at least in my eyes, he lists ten lessons that our Reconstruction taught us, and which should apply to other Reconstructions – such as Iraq. When I read them, they sound familiar and current. And they may help a true historical thinker foretell events.

    But, on the other hand, I could be wrong about all of the foregoing.

  2. dkane says:

    You claim that “none of the dead or living there [Iraq] had a moment where they faced that future possibility squarely, took a deep breath, and consented to become the “central front” in a global war.”

    That may be true, but hasn’t it always been true? Did the South Vietnamese, the South Koreans, the Belgians, anyone other than the leading nations (and often even them), ever have a chance to take “a deep breath.” Indeed, of the dozens of major conflicts in the 20th century, how many featured such deep breathing? Very few. And how many of those deep breaths occured in non-democracies? None.

    So, it is fine to wish that the Euphrates ran with honey and that the Iraqis (while living under a dictatorship!) might have a chance for breathtaking, but both wishes seem completely divorced from any objective reality.

    By the way, your first paragraph is easily the most open-minded and sensitive piece that I have seen from a war-opponent. Who would have thought, in 2003, that the Iraqis would be having an election with higher participation throughout the country than we have in the US?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not saying that there should have been such a moment; I’m saying that because there was not, this is precisely why a kind of gravitas about the lack of that moment should always have been a fundamental part of the Administration’s public posture. We should always have been as concerned or more concerned about Iraqi casualties as American ones, and far more aggressively apologetic when those casualties have come as a result of American error, miscalculation or misconduct. This is the first time that the President has acceded to an even remotely straightforward accounting of Iraqi casualties: until now, his Administration has largely sought to minimize, spin, deny, conceal or ignore those figures. That’s the issue, not that we somehow should have conducted a plebicite of Iraqis before invading them: because they could not speak for themselves, we’re obligated to bear their sacrifices as a heavy and guilty weight.

  4. dkane says:

    You claim that “This is the first time that the President has acceded to an even remotely straightforward accounting of Iraqi casualties: until now, his Administration has largely sought to minimize, spin, deny, conceal or ignore those figures.”

    You’ll get no defense of concealment out of me, but it sure would be useful to provide a sense of historical comparison. You act as if “this Administration” is particularly guilty of these sins. Is it? Which administration (US or European or Anywhere) has not been at least as guilty of these sins? Clinton during Kosovo? Johnson during Vietnam? Truman during Korea? Where there are sorts of press releases and news conferences about the thousands (tens of thousands?) of French, Belgian, et al civilians killed while being liberated — I assume that you don’t want me to put liberated into quotes — during World War II.

    Again, my claim is not that this Administration is perfect, but I see no evidence that it is any worse than any other government. It is perfectly reasonable for you to argue that it should do better — I agree! — but you would be a lot more persuasive if you supplied accurate historical context.

  5. hestal says:

    Dkane raises an interesting argument – an argument from history. That argument seems to say that because Herr Burke did not remind us of the sins of previous administrations, then his point is less persuasive than it otherwise might have been.

    That argument was advanced again this morning when the network talk shows were talking about President Bush’s illegal spying on U.S. citizens. Someone reminded the panel that Mr. Lincoln had once suspended habeas corpus during the 19th century. I don’t understand this argument. It seems that it enables today’s sinner to simply say that others have done it in the past and so I am free to sin today. It seems like an argument that third-graders sometimes invoke during morning recess.

    But this argument bothers me because it gives evidence of what I think is a grave weakness of the code of professional historians. They seem to think that the lessons of history are to be gleaned by the reader from the report by the historian. I think that history and humankind would be far better served if historians would include a closing chapter in all of their books in which they recite the lessons that they think the general reader should take from their essay. In this way those who reported on Lincoln’s act would probably have said, in this hypothetical final chapter, that such acts were unconstitutional. Furthermore, as historians, they would have then the opportunity to determine if Lincoln’s acts caused any harm to anyone or saved anyone from harm at the hands of others. This investigation would, in my view, prove helpful. So rather than the present-day talk show panelist offering a historical tidbit which says, “Everybody does it,” they might say, “Lincoln did something like this long ago. It was unconstitutional then and it remains so today.”

    So, in my view, Herr Burke’s point about gravitas is persuasive for all the reasons he originally stated.

    But, as long as I brought it up, the problem of illegal spying is troublesome. It seems to have no legal standing; it defies our common understanding of the relationship between citizens and the government; it is another in a series of attempts by the administration to ignore treaties, international law, domestic law, and the Bill of Rights. Furthermore when this Administration was in power in Texas, my state of residence, a similar pattern held force. “The law was okay so long as it agrees with me,” was the clear rule of thumb then, and it still is.

    The combative speech Mr. Bush gave on Saturday, the railing of the Senate Republican leadership and Mr. Bush when they failed to pass the Patriot Act, followed closely by their childish determination not to renew it for three months while compromise is negotiated, are symptomatic of a narcissistic personality disorder (DSM-IV code 301.81). Among the diagnostic criteria listed there is number “(5) has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).” There are other criteria and Mr. Bush is a multiple winner. In my book he is a prime example of homo tyrannus.

    When one considers the paranoia of Nixon, the – I don’t know what, excess – of Johnson, the failings of Clinton, the Alzheimer’s of Reagan, and now the defiance of the law by G.W. Bush, then the senior Bush and Jimmy Carter look better – and Eisenhower, Truman, and Roosevelt look like giants. When the mental condition and behavior of a president are disordered and nothing is done, institutionally, to stop it, then we need to take a practical look at our current branches of government. A little reorganization is needed.

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