Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels

(This is a long post in three parts. It's part of a series on war, and a smaller set of posts for Armistice Day 2009.)

Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.

- Henry IV on his deathbed to Prince Henry, Henry IV, Part 2, 4.5, 212-215.

There was nothing macho about the war at all. We were a bunch of scared kids who had to do a job. People tell me I don't act like an ex-marine. How is an ex-marine supposed to act? They have some Hollywood stereotype in mind. No, I don't look like John Wayne. We were in it to get it over with, so we could go back home and do what we wanted to do with our lives.

- WWII vet E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge, author of With the Old Breed, to Studs Terkel.

A Failure of Memory

"War is hell." It's a truth so well known it's considered a cliché. It's virtually impossible to graduate from high school or go to the movies without at least getting exposed to the idea. Certainly many people never experience war and its horrors first-hand. But so many accounts exist that convey how terrible war not only can be, but usually is. There are countless histories, first-hand accounts, television documentaries, novels, films, plays and poems on the subject. Depending on where one lives, there are a number of veterans to talk to, or visiting speakers to hear. The enduring stature of All Quiet on the Western Front (both the novel and film) and the more recent acclaim for Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers suggest that this view of war resonates with many, and has for a long time.

"War is hell." It might be a commonplace phrase, but some people, particularly pundits and politicians, can mouth the words, and no wisdom goes with it. There's no weight there, no understanding. Somehow, it always seems there's someone eager to suggest that war is glorious. For these people, going to war is simply too easy, too exciting, an option of quick resort and hardly a matter of grim necessity. These giddy minds, prone to trash talk and bluster, tend to sell war as a big football game, where we'll defeat our enemies, and better yet, crush and humiliate them. For some of them, every threat, real or imagined, is a new Hitler. They'll insist that it's imperative that we take military action, for honor, for pride, to show that America is badass. The more obnoxious will insist that anyone who questions this is a coward or a traitor. They rarely mention that in this war they favor, human beings will die as a result. It's normally a sanitized version of war they're shilling, or one where only the other side will bleed, and battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder aren't epidemic (if they exist at all). To them, War is Glory.

"War is hell." It's not hard to find evidence of this. World War I was particularly horrific because so many of the nations involved wanted to go to war, and had little idea of what it would entail - early battles with cavalry charging machine guns, the use of mustard gas, endless waiting in trenches praying the latest whistling shell would miss. So many reckless command decisions were made, and despite a mounting, truly staggering body count, national leaders and a significant percentage of the public gave full-throated, occasionally ferocious endorsement to continuing the war. Britain and France each lost most of a generation, and the Treaty of Versailles helped sow World War II. World War II was considered "good" by comparison with WWI, although as Studs Terkel pointed out, "the adjective "good" mated to the noun "war" is so incongruous." American deaths in WWII were roughly 420,000, and other nations paid even more steeply (estimates of Soviet deaths approach 24 million). Some wars may be necessary, and there's definitely pride in service, camaraderie and heroism, but war itself should never be celebrated.

Delve into enough accounts of war, and you're liable to run into an attitude that can be described as "pro-soldier, anti-war." Most of the vets in Ken Burns' documentary The War express something like this, including Sam Hynes, who says:

I don't think there is such a thing a good war. There are sometimes necessary wars. And I think, one might say, just wars. And I never questioned the necessity of that war, and I still do not question it.

E.B. Sledge saw some of the ugliest fighting in World War II (hear him here). He also feels World War II was necessary, but has remarked:

People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I've had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?...

My parents taught me the value of history. Both my grandfathers were in the Confederate Army. They didn't talk about the glory of war. They talked about how terrible it was.

Being "pro-soldier, anti-war" normally means: given a war, the troops should be well equipped, the generals shouldn't be stupid with human lives, and the war should be fought to be won. However, the most obvious way to be "pro-soldier" is not to endanger any troopers unnecessarily. An unnecessary war, a fundamentally flawed mission, an assignment where the danger far outweighs the potential gains – none of these "supports" the troops. Being truly "pro-soldier" necessitates being "anti-war" in this sense. There are also times when it is sheer folly to continue a war. Heroism in war is to be honored, and the camaraderie between troopers in war is greatly prized, but this is because of helping one another through a horrible ordeal. There's nothing "good" about the ordeal itself. Surviving an atrocity does not somehow ennoble the atrocity. War is anything but glorious.

Honestly, I've never encountered or heard a combat veteran who hasn't had this basic attitude. Maybe there are others who feel differently. As an older post, "How to Hear a True War Story," examined, views in the military are not monolithic on any given conflict. Furthermore, "supporting the troops" is hardly the same as "supporting the generals' decisions" or "supporting the decisions of politicians ordering the generals." As an Army captain in Iraq pointed out, going to war, or staying, just isn't their call: "Soldiers don't make those decisions. They do what they're told. They bitch and moan, sure. But when the call comes, they pack their bags and go, knowing they may not come back." I certainly can't speak about war from personal experience. I can only go by what I've been told, or heard, or studied. I also never have considered myself particularly attuned to military culture, compared to vets and military history buffs I've known. Maybe growing up mostly in Arlington, Virginia simply meant I was exposed to a fair number of military families, veterans and speakers, and a decent amount of history. I don't know. Regardless, it sure as hell ain't first-hand experience. I just know that war, and going to war, are matters of great consequence, and not to be taken lightly. And being "pro-soldier, anti-war" has always seemed like pretty basic common sense. It also seems like basic human decency – I'm not going to advocate that someone else go and possibly die on my behalf in a war unless there's a pretty damn compelling reason. That definitely is the message of every Vietnam vet I've ever met (as well as vets from WWII). Moreover, committed pacifists understand these values, and reflect them, far more deeply than any chickenhawk. Advocating a war with no skin in the game takes no courage; it's easy, especially when war's in fashion. Actually fighting a war is often ugly. War is hell. I remained flabbergasted that so many pundits and politicians who lived through the Vietnam War were so gung-ho about invading Iraq - and still giddily espouse war with little to no change in attitude.

Obviously, opinions can and will differ on the necessity and wisdom of a specific war, specific strategy, specific battle plan, or specific mission. That's fine. But the people who claim to be pro-soldier and are clearly pro-war are not to be trusted.

A Failure of Decision-Making

Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who has worked closely with both and who has been an ideological ally of Wolfowitz but a close friend of [then Marine Brigadier General Anthony] Zinni, when asked to compare the two, said, "They have more similarities than differences." Both are smart and tenacious, and both have strong interests in the Muslim world, from the Mideast to Indonesia — the latter a country in which both have done some work. "The main difference," Armitage continued, "is that Tony Zinni has been to war, and he's been to war a lot. So he understands what it is to ask a man to lose a limb for his country."

Wolfowitz would later say that the "realists" such as Zinni did not understand that their policies were prodding the Mideast toward terrorism. If you liked 9/11, he would say after that event, just keep up policies such as the containment of Iraq. Zinni, for his part, would come to view Wolfowitz as a dangerous idealist who knew little about Iraq and had spent no real time on the ground there. Zinni would warn that Wolfowitz's advocacy of toppling Saddam Hussein through supporting Iraqi rebels was a dangerous and naive approach whose consequences hadn't been adequately considered. Largely unnoticed by most Americans during the 1990s, these contrasting views amounted to a prototype of the debate that would later occur over the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

- A discussion centering on the first Gulf War and its influence on the current Iraq War, from chapter 1 of Tom Ricks' book Fiasco. My emphasis.

Going to war is not something to be chosen lightly. Going to war, or not going to war, is not a neutral decision, like choosing a flavor of ice cream. You wouldn't know this from most pundit blather. The burden of proof should always rest with those advocating war, not those opposed to it. This shouldn't be remotely controversial. This is because war is hell, it is a radical course of action, and against any possible benefit or necessity it brings with it known and probable costs: human beings killed, maimed, disfigured, or otherwise injured and traumatized; property, infrastructure and economies destroyed; resources depleted and treasuries emptied; lasting resentments that might lead to more violence. War is a necessary evil at best, so going to war is a threshold decision – there must be a pressing, compelling case for it. Different people will have different perceptions of a situation, and different thresholds, and that's fine. But if someone insists we need a war, then it's up to that person: Make the case. Prove it.

In some conflicts, that case may be easy to make. But the case must be made first, and it's up to a nation's institutions and citizenry to insist that happens. The Iraq War is the most recent example here in the United States, but the only two things necessary to personally oppose an unnecessary conflict are a sufficient threshold for war and a decent bullshit detector. Actually preventing an unnecessary war further depends on a political system that responds to basic sanity, or can be forced to do so by its population (should they possess basic sanity). Even if one supports a given conflict, if one is honorable, it's essential that the case for war be made honestly and openly. Going to war should not be easy, and in a democracy it should be according to the will of the people versus a small cadre. A society should also recognize: it's much easier for the powerful to sell an unnecessary war in an atmosphere of fear and bullying, where questioning is discouraged or even punished. It's much easier to make bad decisions when vengeance is en vogue and a lynch mob mentality reigns. It's much easier to start an unnecessary war when the collective memory of past wars fades or fails, and a sanitized, bloodless version of war is allowed to dominate the national chatter.

All of these dynamics should be familiar to those who have studied past conflicts (perhaps WWI especially). And regardless of the specific cases for and against a given conflict, certain pundits will give warning signs, like droppings. Regardless of their specific blather, there are certain tones, attitudes, dynamics, and styles of argument that should be a giant red flag that a given figure has dropped a steaming pile of shit.

Foremost among these is if a pundit or politician wants to go to war.

War is hell. It's not a football game. No sane and honorable person would want one. This is why the basic framework of "pro-soldier, anti-war" is so essential, and so telling. Trash talk and tough guy bluster normally make for disastrous foreign policy. It's one thing if troopers who are actually going to be fighting talk up going to battle. They might not have seen combat, or they might need to psyche themselves up for what they're going to face; they're entitled to talk like this, they deserve some slack. In diplomacy, trash talk can even have its place on occasion. But when a pundit - or the President of the United States - says something like "Bring it on," to the enemy, it's completely reckless and irresponsible. In sports, this is called giving the other team "bulletin board material." In warfare, it means the other "team" will likely get riled up, and attack and kill more of the troopers the trash talker supposedly cares so much about. Anyone who wants to go to war, or revels in it – especially from a safe distance - is not to be trusted.

Apart from our trooper exception, anyone who wants a war is an idiot.

Let's rephrase that. Anyone who wants a war is a fucking idiot. Or a goddam scoundrel.

For most potential conflicts, there will be some honest war advocates, and these can be engaged on the merits. But in the run-up to the Iraq War, honesty was not that popular among the hawks, and many in the same crowd haven't changed their approach much since. Some of the powerful will favor a war to seize resources, or power of some other sort. Advocating war may also be personally profitable to their fortunes and reputations – it's good for business. To "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" can distract from domestic issues and deplete domestic funding. Traditionally, the Beltway is giddy for war, and blithe advocacy of war is considered the Height of Seriousness. Still, in addition to personal gain or sincere imperialism, the powerful seem to urge unnecessary wars for two key, related reasons: they have no skin in the game, and it's fashionable.

Some dishonest war cheerleaders will couch their rhetoric in the language of necessity. They need to be rooted out and pushed on the merits. But if a pundit or politician won't even take the trouble to do that – if he won't even try to lie about his feelings, to make the prudent disclaimers, and it's obvious he wants to go to war – that's a huge red flag he is an idiot, a scoundrel, or both. Regardless of which it is, why listen to such a person? It didn't take much to realize that Bush and the Cheney gang wanted to go to war. It's never taken great powers of perception to realize that Bill Kristol is a scoundrel and Richard Cohen is an idiot and a fool. (If there was any doubt before, their lack of repentance for their hawkdom, and their continued baiting of Iraq War opponents, should clinch it.)

The best metaphor for war is probably amputation. It's all the more appropriate given war's actual consequences. (I've seen a few others use this example.) Amputating a limb is a threshold decision. "Amputating" and "not amputating" are not equally valid choices. A surgeon might amputate a limb, but it's a measure of last resort. And while other doctors might admire a surgeon's skill at amputation, none of them would rush into the patient's room afterwards and throw a party over it. If a patient went to the doctor with a pain in her hand, she'd be rather shocked if he quickly suggested amputation. She'd naturally ask: Why? "Why not?" But why do we have to amputate my hand? "The real question is, can we afford not to amputate your hand?" But is it necessary? "Are you a coward? Only traitors are anti-amputation!"

If one really can't figure out whether a pro-war argument is mendacious or not, rewriting it with "amputation" should expose it. For example:

A Bush White House spokesman, January, 2003: "The President considers this nation to be at war, and, as such, considers any opposition to amputation to be no less than an act of treason."

Richard Cohen, February 2003: "Only a fool - or possibly a Frenchman - could be anti-amputation."

William Kristol, March 2003: "But amputation itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction... It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared by amputating limbs than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain."

Megan McArdle, February 2003: "I can't be mad at these little dweebs. I'm too busy laughing. And I think some in New York are going to laugh even harder when they try to unleash some civil disobedience, Lenin style, and some New Yorker who understands the horrors of amputation all too well picks up a machete and teaches them how very effective amputation can be when it's applied in a firm, pre-emptive manner."

Richard Cohen, November 2006: "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of amputation could be therapeutic."

Tony Snow, November 2006: "You can’t say, ‘I support the troops, but I hate amputation,’ because that’s why they signed up."

If a war is necessary, those who believe this must make the case. And even if war is necessary, bullying protesters is horrible for democracy. Conscientious objection, peaceful and vigorous protest, asking important questions, is patriotic, and no one who's taken a basic civics class should be so idiotic as to think otherwise. Given humanity's knack for folly, vanity, vengeance and hubris, and our history of unnecessary wars, anyone pitching a war should be treated with skepticism and pressed rigorously (Dan Froomkin has an excellent list of guidelines). These dynamics are why pacifists, who are not asking for others to die on their behalf, always deserve a seat at the table, because they represent basic sanity in a way that the rotating crop of chickenhawks simply don't. If the case for war isn't made honestly, it's probably because it can't be made honestly. If a war advocate is dishonest or disingenuous, that's a big warning sign. Vengeance, McCarthyism, or a lynch mob mentality also should be huge warning signs. Again: Anyone who wants war is a fool or scoundrel, and not to be trusted. Such a person is letting you know this, and you will be a fool, too, if you ignore this warning. For decision-makers, going to war should have more of a funeral tone than one of a party. It should be obvious, but the ass yelling "Wolverines!!!" during the somber part of the eulogy is not the guy you want to be following.

A Failure of Reflection

Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.
- Dick Cheney, August 26th, 2002.

We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.
Dick Cheney, March 16th, 2003.

I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.
- Dick Cheney, June 30th, 2005.

Jim Lehrer: You drew a lot of heat and ridicule when you said eight months ago, insurgency is in its last throes. You regret having said that?

Cheney: No. I think the way I think about it, as I just described. I think about when we look back and get some historical perspective on this period, I'll believe that the period we were in through 2005 was in fact a turning point, that putting in place a democratic government in Iraq was the, sort of the cornerstone, if you will, of victory against the insurgency.
- February 7th, 2006.

I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence that we've encountered.
- Dick Cheney, June 20th, 2005.

Why go over the decision to invade Iraq again? It's important because it was an unnecessary war, the case for war was dishonestly made, the results have been mostly disastrous, and many of those who pushed for war are still claiming they were right. Where is the reflection and learning? Those who showed some wisdom, and were pilloried for it, are still often pilloried, while the fools and scoundrels urging it are still often heeded. The same fatally flawed decision-making exists, and the Beltway culture still supports and even celebrates such an approach. Most importantly, American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This section will partially recap an older post, "Day of Shame," centering on the presentation by Colin Powell to the United Nations that played a crucial role in selling the Iraq War to the American public.

As I wrote then, I think average citizens deserve far more slack than politicians and journalists. It wasn't completely irrational to believe, back before the war started, that 'Surely the Vice President wouldn't lie about something so important. Surely Colin Powell, who knows the costs of war, wouldn't deceive us.' Average citizens often can't follow political arguments that closely, even if they would like to, and often substitute confidence in a trusted figure for a detailed evaluation. But journalists follow the arguments every day, and there's some professional expectation of fact-checking and skepticism. Meanwhile, politicians who must decide whether or not to go to war, pretty much the weightiest decision possible, should approach it accordingly. Average citizens should try to be informed, especially on an issue like war. But the level of responsibility grows significantly with power and influence.

Once again, about the only things necessary to oppose an unnecessary war are a sufficient threshold for war and a decent bullshit detector. I find it hard to believe that most journalists and politicians didn't know that Bush and his administration wanted to go to war. Bush officials and their pundit allies could often barely contain their excitement. That should have been the first, enormous red flag. The taunting of protestors and the McCarthyist rhetoric should have been warnings as well. It was obvious that many Americans were angry after 9/11, and it also should have been obvious that anger can be misdirected and exploited. Recognizing such a situation, cooler, wiser heads will become more vigilant about bad decision-making – and scoundrels will look to exploit it. Given a crisis, leaders typically respond to it according to their core nature – and Bush, Cheney, Addington and the rest did not have the vision, wisdom or restraint of a Lincoln, FDR, or JFK. The Bush administration did not say there was "nothing to fear but fear itself" - it stoked fear. 9/11 didn't change the members of the Bush administration as much as it unleashed them. Read Angler and The Dark Side especially, but the Bush-Cheney gang routinely lied to Congress when they told them anything at all, and ran roughshod over members of their own administration. It's not accidental that an administration makes bad decisions when it deliberately sabotages all the mechanisms that aid good decisions and curtail horrendous ones. Cheney especially held radical views, had horrible judgment, and was absolutely ruthless about getting his way. That was (and continues to be) a lethal combination. And Bush, bored with the actual duties of office, incurious about growing into the presidency, petulant and hating to make decisions, let Cheney have his run of the place until late into his second term.

Some of the specific abuses of the Bush administration, and their timeline, have only come out years later, and other details remain to be revealed. But their general approach, their character, their attitudes and the quality of their arguments were apparent early on. The Bush administration and their allies kept flinging out one reason after another to go to war, often being incoherent and illogical in the process. I know I wasn't the only one who heard Bush's 2003 State of the Union and thought, 'how is Iraq suddenly this horrible, imminent threat, virtually out of nowhere? Where's the proof? Why aren't they volunteering it? Bush seems like he wants to go to war.' Remember when Bush pointed out that Saddam Hussein was dangerous because he 'gassed his own people'? Didn't that occur all the way back in the late 80s, when Iraq was a United States ally, before Rumsfeld's photographed meeting with Hussein to reassure him, and before the first Gulf War with Iraq? Why was that suddenly pressing now? And what did it say about Bush's case for war that he would make such a cynical, disingenuous argument? It was extremely troubling.

As Mark Danner recently wrote:

In Iraq in 2003, there was an autocratic government but no genocide. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein’s army had engaged in mass killing — against the Kurds in 1989 and against the Shiites in 1991 — American officials, who had been supplying Saddam with critical intelligence in 1989 and who commanded a United States Army in Iraq in 1991, had stood aside and done and said nothing.

A dozen years later, many of the same officials who had looked on when tens of thousands of Iraqis were being killed had no compunction about pointing to those graves to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration’s “humanitarian argument” for the Iraq war was shameful and dishonest from the start. Sadly, many of those who well understood its dishonesty and cynicism, and who could have served the country — and done their jobs — by acting to expose it, for their own reasons stood and cheered America on to war.

Bush officials, Cheney most of all, were going around conflating 9/11 and Al Qaeda with one of bin Laden's regional enemies, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. While many of the pre-war assertions were noteworthy for their bullshit factor, one of the most amazing came from Dick Cheney on Meet the Press in September 2003, after the Iraq War had been going roughly six months:

"If we're successful in Iraq . . . then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."

Honestly, this is one of the most bigoted, fear-mongering, deceptive and unconscionable statements I've ever seen from a high-ranking official. I've covered it before, but note that not only does Cheney indirectly suggest that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, he uses “geographic base” to conflate all Middle Eastern countries (or at least our “enemies”) and all of their inhabitants. This would be like invading Australia because of David Hicks. Presumably Cheney's "geographic base" would include the country that produced most of the 9/11 terrorists - our erstwhile ally, Saudi Arabia. But really, who can really tell all those Middle Eastern people apart? Plus, they look and talk so funny. (It's often been quipped that invading Iraq after 9/11 was like attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbor.)

I understand that some people sincerely believed that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, and believed that Iraq was a threat, even an imminent one. All right. But it's harder for me to understand trusting Bush and the gang. I think many people in positions of influence knew Bush and the gang wanted to go to war – it's just that they didn't care, or actually approved. There were some war advocates, but not many, who said, 'Yes, Bush is a scoundrel, yes, he's lying, but I still think we need to go to war.' It's something, I suppose, but this wasn't a particularly wise position, given that Bush would be in charge of that resulting war. It's easy to forget some details of the Iraq War timeline and the run-up to war. Bush has still never explained when precisely he decided to go to war, or why, but by deduction it's been placed in the summer of 2002 – even though he was pretending to the public that war was not certain right up to the moment of invasion. If Bush had cared about WMD, he wouldn't have told the weapons inspectors, who were doing their job, to get out of Iraq, and then invaded. Perhaps most maddeningly, in July 2003, Bush chose to rewrite history, claiming: "The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Most members of media didn't call him on this outrageous lie. Perhaps some of them were still cowed, but I honestly think some of them just didn't care. Most of the Beltway crowd simply don't have a problem with war, whether unnecessary or not.

Then there is Bush himself. A wastrel like Henry V in his early days (Shakespeare's Henry, that is) but without Henry V's brains, talent or personal courage, Bush was very much intent on learning a lesson from his father about "giddy minds and foreign quarrels." However, in George W. Bush's case, he viewed his father not as a source of wisdom but as a cautionary tale:

“[Bush] was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and Houston Chronicle journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said, ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He went on, ‘If I have a chance to invade…, if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.‘”

In 2004, Bush was using language like "Kick ass!" and " We are going to wipe them out!" with his generals, and as late as 2008, he was speaking to American personnel in Afghanistan about being "a little envious" because what they were doing was "exciting" and "in some ways romantic." Obviously, these are not the words of someone who knows that War is Hell.

Two earlier posts looked at how psychological need can drive the push for war, its continuation, and war policies in general. But Bush fit right in with most of the Beltway crowd. From the book Hubris, here's a portrait of one the war's most eager shills:

On the eve of war in Washington, journalists and others gathered at a cocktail party at the home of Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times... Judy Miller was one of several Times reporters there, and she seemed excited. Another journalist present asked if she was planning to head over to Iraq to cover the invasion. Miller, according to the other guest, could barely contain herself. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "I've been waiting for this war for ten years. I wouldn't miss it for the world!"

These are scoundrels and fools. Our national discourse remains dominated by them.

All this is why I'm really sick of whining from unrepentant hawks, especially when they still insist on mischaracterizing opponents to the Iraq War. Honest, respectful proponents of the war who've acknowledged their mistakes candidly and fully are another matter. But it would be immoral to let committed scoundrels and fools off the hook, because they're still pulling the same crap. Opposing the Iraq War and "getting it right" was never "accidental" or the result of a lucky coin flip – opposing war as a general principle until convinced otherwise is the position of basic sanity and wisdom. This isn't about bragging rights or vindication - it's about stopping unnecessary human suffering. That should be fucking obvious. From "Day of Shame":

That expectation is that a halfway decent human being of average intelligence, who actually possessed the good will he claims to have had, would note his colossal error, not to mention the clusterfuck that is Iraq, bemoan the terrible devastation and loss of human life, feel horrible, and learn from it. [Michael] O'Hanlon, and more "liberal" hawks than I care to mention, haven't fulfilled their side of that gentleman's agreement...

The issue with the unrepentant hawks isn't that they advocated war. It's partially that they advocated this war, but even that isn't fully it. It's that their entire framework for thinking about war and deciding to go to war is fundamentally flawed, and it has not changed. They do not truly view war as hell. They do not treat it as an option of last and terrible resort. It is a failure of memory, of decision-making, of reflection. More bluntly: How in holy fuck can someone get that wrong?!? Especially if they lived through the Vietnam War? Liberal hawks who complain 'we're with you on everything else, so stop picking on us' simply don't get it – this is extremely important, but also in a sense, very basic stuff. Who gives a shit if war is in fashion at The New Republic? Did you learn nothing from your expensive education? (For god's sake, take in one of those classic war books or films again, at the very least, or better yet visit Walter Reed or a gathering of vets.) The imperialists will likely always be scoundrels; while they must be constantly confronted, too, I'm more concerned with the fools. The unrepentant hawks may lack the capacity to fully understand the framework of 'war as a bad thing,' but they also refuse to acknowledge that most Iraq war opponents were working from precisely this basic framework. Fools like Richard Cohen still claim, ludicrously, that he was wrong for the right reasons and war opponents were right for the wrong reasons. And Cohen initially supported the Vietnam War, too. As Hilzoy put it:

Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone makes mistakes as serious as this in the very field in which they have set themselves up as an expert. And not everyone makes essentially the same mistake twice -- failing to think hard enough about why one is advocating a war that will cost tens of thousands of people their lives. That Cohen is capable of making this mistake, failing to learn from it, and then making it again, shows that while he may have many talents, he doesn't have the knowledge and the judgment needed to responsibly hold the position he holds. The decent thing to do would be to resign.

Most unrepentant hawks are similar. From "Day of Shame" again: "The problem with O'Hanlon is, he'll keep on going, because he feels his reputation is at stake, which depends on him having been right, not on actually being right. It's nothing more than vanity, but more people could die as a result."

Vanity, vanity! All is vanity. And it is an obstinate, deadly vanity. It's the horrible message of Wilfred Owen's "Parable of the Young Man and the Old."

As for continuing an unnecessary war, and doubling down so that those who have died "will not have died in vain," we'll get into that in far more depth in a subsequent post. I've said it before as well, but briefly: regardless of the rightness or mendacity of a given mission, a trooper's service can be honorable or even heroic. But their virtue does not necessarily ennoble the mission itself, nor does any heroism they show transfer to those making the decisions, no matter how many times those bold, intuitively brilliant, God-touched Deciders don a flight suit and show off their genitals. Consider Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire" – clearly his service was honorable, but just as clearly, his death was unnecessary. His death was a tragedy, but it becomes a tragedy compounded if more people die by continuing an unnecessary war.

Nations can wage unnecessary wars because of internal political structure and power. But they also can do it because it's the fashion. Unnecessary wars become more likely when there's a failure of memory, a failure of rationality, and failures of decision-making, reflection, compassion and accountability. (We'll look at this more on the personal, individual level in that subsequent post.) But, to close, perhaps the issue of curbing 'giddy minds eager for foreign quarrels' can be made more starkly and simply.

Consider this story from former CIA analyst and member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity Ray McGovern in 2007:

Could it be that many Americans remain silent because we are unwilling to recognize the Iraq war as the first of the resource wars of the 21st century; because we continue to be comfortable hogging far more than our share of the world’s resources and will look the other way if our leaders tell us that aggressive war is necessary to protect that siren-call, “our way of life,” from attack by those who are just plain jealous?

Perhaps a clue can be found in the remarkable reaction I received after a lecture I gave two and a half years ago in a very affluent suburb of Milwaukee. I had devoted much of my talk to what I consider the most important factoid of this century: the world is running out of oil.

Afterwards some 20 folks lingered in a small circle to ask follow-up questions. A persistent, handsomely dressed man, who just would not let go, dominated the questioning:

"Surely you agree that we need the oil. Then what's your problem? Some 1,450 killed thus far are far fewer than the toll in Vietnam where we lost 58,000; it's a small price to pay... a sustainable rate to bear. What IS your problem?"

I asked the man if he would feel differently if one of those (then) 1,450 killed were his own son. Judging from his abrupt, incredulous reaction, the suggestion struck him as so farfetched as to be beyond his ken. “It wouldn’t be my son,” he said.

Now here's E. B. Sledge again:

There was nothing macho about the war at all. We were a bunch of scared kids who had to do a job. People tell me I don't act like an ex-marine. How is an ex-marine supposed to act? They have some Hollywood stereotype in mind. No, I don't look like John Wayne. We were in it to get it over with, so we could go back home and do what we wanted to do with our lives...

People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I've had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?...

My parents taught me the value of history. Both my grandfathers were in the Confederate Army. They didn't talk about the glory of war. They talked about how terrible it was.

Is either of these men a scoundrel or fool? Does either possess wisdom? Which one is better to heed? And which one sounds more like the pundit or politician currently talking on TV?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The decision to go to war with Iraq was three pronged. Bush/Cheney were sold on the idea that they could turn a two to three trillion dollar investment into fifteen trillion gross profits. It was supposed to be the richest robbery in world history. Iraq was weak militarily and they believed defeating Iraq would be quick and easy. Finally, a commonly held belief of influential individuals in our society is that war is an economic engine necessitated by the need to keep the military/technological complex profitable and sustainable.

A general's success is measured by how quickly he brings a war to an end. His mission is to create peace out of violent chaos, not to extend limited wars for a long as desired in an attempt to accomplish the unachievable.

A soldier's point of view of war is often too local to have significance to leaders, because his main concern is for him and his comrades' survival. World events have little bearing on decisions made by soldiers.

It is disingenuous for some to claim they put faith in the Bush/Cheney arguments for war, because it was plain to anyone who paid attention that Bush/Cheney were in a search of a justification for war that would sell to the American people. In the build up to the war government spokespersons were obviously coached while the message was a shotgun approach of multiple excuses for war that were in conflict with each other sometimes within the same news cycle.

In my mind and the minds of many friends Bush/Cheney's criminal consciousness announced itself in its dishonest propaganda and blatant attempts to incite hatred against any and all Arabs regardless of the difference in perspective held among power brokers within various tribes and cultures. Only continued conflict can galvanize Arabs under a unifying label such as Islam or Muslims.

In war the only real heroes are dead.

Preemption is belief in thought crimes that are usually based on paranoia and prejudice. "Because Arabs do not like U.S. policies in the Middle East sooner or later some of them will be involved in terrorist acts against the U.S."

If the U.S. did not have an enemy it would have to create one. The chaos that war creates provides too many opportunities to capitalize on it to resist the temptation.

A war in which the U.S. is the belligerent is also the victim of its corruption. If one reads the conditions under which military honors and awards may be given include the condition that the U.S. is not the belligerent.

War is the merciless slaughter of an enemy, civilian and military alike, until they believe the situation is hopeless and they lose the will to resist.