Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Dogs of War

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

– Mark Antony in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 3.1, 264–277.

Tragically, it's easier to start a war than to end one. And it's easier, in national "debates" on war, for the wiser voices to be drowned out by the foolish, the vain, the frightened, the posturing, the political ambitious, and the greedy. Earlier this year marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But with the exception of James Fallows and few other journalists and outlets, there wasn't much reflection, certainly not when it came to lessons learned. As many a blogger has noted over the years, those who were right on Iraq have rarely been lauded and have even been punished professionally, while those were wrong have suffered few consequences, and in some cases have even been rewarded. Sober voices are not heeded, but any dog or cur howling for war can earn a buck – and worse yet, can be held in seemingly perpetual esteem.

These dynamics must be addressed if wars of choice and convenience are ever to be stopped. Armistice Day, 11/11 (or Remembrance Day or Veterans Day), is about honoring both living veterans and the dead, but surely also for reflecting on the grave costs of war and striving to prevent unnecessary conflicts. It's not for ennobling transparently bad or self-serving decisions. It honors service; it does not absolve political sins.

James Fallows wrote a series of excellent articles reflecting on the Iraq War, notably "As We Near the 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War." (His 2006 book, Blind Into Baghdad, compiles several prescient prewar articles and later pieces on the Iraq War.) As Fallows notes, accountability for being wrong has been scant. Meanwhile, the supposedly wise men who urged war with Iraq have given similar advice on Syria. In "Invading Iraq: What We Were Told at the Time," Fallows revisits the absurdly low prewar estimates (such as 1.7 billion) from the Bush administration and its supporters on the costs of invading Iraq. (It's hard to believe grotesquely bad faith or self-delusion wasn't involved.)

In the end, what did it really cost? Matthew Duss and Peter Juul of CAP have a summary. Among the elements: the direct cost of the war was about $800 billion, compared with the "shocking" estimate by Lawrence Lindsay of $100 billion to $200 billion. The cost of veterans' care and disabilities would be another $400 billion to $700 billion. And Iraqi reconstruction, which [Andrew] Natsios and [Paul] Wolfowitz had said would be essentially self-financing? This is how it compared not simply with Natsios's "one-point-seven billion dollars" but also, in inflation-adjusted dollars, with outlays for the Marshall Plan and other recovery efforts after World War II.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, Feith, Tenet, Blair, their "conservative hawk" and "liberal hawk" allies in the press, and the rest: these are the costs they incurred. There is no undoing that decision. At least we can recognize what took place.

And of course this cost, as Duss and Juul note:

Those costs don't include the massive lost opportunities for other budget expenditures or the price the Iraq War incurred on American prestige and the resulting harm to international dealings. (Back in 2008, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes predicted the Iraq War could eventually cost three trillion dollars; Bilmes now thinks the ultimate figure will be closer to four trillion.) War always inflicts a cost, and it's dishonest to downplay that.

As early as 2005, a slight majority of Americans thought invading Iraq was a mistake and that withdrawal was the right course of action. By 2007, that was a solid majority (despite some variation in the precise questions asked). Yet somehow, withdrawal was rarely seriously discussed on the national level, and the voices in favor of it still tended to be marginalized. It was less uncommon for a war supporter to give lip service to the idea of withdrawal, but at some unspecified future date, under unspecified future conditions. It was a rhetorical stalling device, not a serious policy option. In theory, Congress declares war and reflects the will of the people, but the democratic principle doesn't appear to work when it comes to ending wars. The ruling class and their courtiers are habitually much more pro-war than the country as a whole.

It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).

To be clear, I'm not targeting everyone who supported the Iraq War, especially members of the general public who understandably (but unwisely) trusted that those in power would not grossly misrepresent such a serious matter as war in selling it. But I'm greatly concerned that important and obvious lessons continue to be ignored. Meanwhile, a fair accounting of the more fervent and belligerent war supporters must necessarily be less forgiving.

This list will be far from exhaustive, but it's worth revisiting the quality of the arguments and people supporting war. Let's start with then-President George W. Bush himself.

Back in 2008, Bush described fighting in a war (in Afghanistan) as romantic:

In a videoconference, Bush heard from U.S. military and civilian personnel [in Afghanistan] about the challenges ranging from fighting local government and police corruption to persuading farmers to abandon a lucrative poppy drug trade for other crops...

“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”

“It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.

Steve Benen remarked at the time:

It’s likely that Bush thinks these kinds of remarks are good for troop morale. If the commander in chief wishes he could fight on the front lines personally, they must be part of a worthwhile mission.

But seeing these remarks, more than once, simply reminds me that when Bush had a chance to serve, he chose not to do his duty.

Back in 2004, Bush was full of even more macho bluster, according to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez' book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story:

"'Kick ass!' [Bush] said, echoing Colin Powell's tough talk. 'If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal.

"There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!'"

As Tom Engelhardt commented:

Keep in mind that the bloodlusty rhetoric of this "pep talk" wasn't meant to rev up Marines heading into battle. These were the President's well-embunkered top advisors in a strategy session on the eve of major military offensives in Iraq. Evidently, however, the President was intent on imitating George C. Scott playing General George Patton – or perhaps even inadvertently channeling one of the evil villains of his onscreen childhood.

(Also see Jon Schwarz' piece, "George W. Bush's Ass-Based Foreign Policy.")

It would be nice to believe that America's leaders would not be so childish and immature as to treat something as solemn as war as a game, but sadly, reality has proven otherwise. Nor has Bush ever been alone in his deficiencies; unfortunately, he has plenty of company, even if the failings come in different flavors.

Anonymous Liberal rounded up some choice passages from conservative Bill Kristol, who's never met a war he didn't like, and rarely misses a chance to be smug. From March 17th, 2003:

We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

From April 1st, 2003, on NPR's Fresh Air:

There's been a certain amount of, frankly, Terry, a kind of pop sociology in America that somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni, and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular.

It's worth listening to the audio of this one (it comes around 9:15 in); Al Franken used to play it all the time on his radio program. It's not just that Kristol was spectacularly, disastrously wrong, it's that he was (and remains) so smug and dismissive.

Let's move on to rich and supposedly liberal columnist Tom Friedman. In 2011, Belén Fernández documented Friedman's attempt to deny Friedman's long support for the Iraq War and his many contradictory statements:

In April 2003 Friedman said that Arab journalists who talked about the US ‘occupation’ of Iraq were guilty of ‘Saddamism’. In August 2003 Friedman wrote: ‘This is an occupation.’

In 2007 he surmised that Iraqis ‘hate each other more than they love their own kids’. In 2009 he hoped that they’d learned from America’s ‘million acts of kindness’ and ‘profound example of how much people of different backgrounds can accomplish when they work together’.

In 2005 Friedman argued: ‘We have to have a proper election in Iraq so we can have a proper civil war there.’ Earlier this year, he wrote: ‘For all of the murderous efforts by al-Qaida to trigger a full-scale civil war in Iraq, it never happened.’ Never mind that in 2006 he said: ‘It is now obvious that we are not midwifing democracy in Iraq. We are baby-sitting a civil war.’

This comes via Atrios, who's written much more on Friedman, and helped bring attention to Friedman's childish, idiotic declaration of manhood-by-proxy, "Suck. On. This."

Next up, we have Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, two establishment political analysts who pushed for war initially, continued to push for it (plus escalation) later, yet misrepresented their early support when it became unfashionable. Somehow, they and many more of their ilk have never truly been called to account, nor have they been quietly dropped from the pundit circuit. They're still considered respectable, even when they peddle the same crap as always. As John Cole remarked back in 2009:

I have nothing but bad feelings about the addition of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Watching Michael O’Hanlon on the evening news was like a punch to the gut – we’ve been down this road before.

At what point are O’Hanlon and Pollack every going to be discredited enough that their expert advice is no longer solicited? Why are they even on TV anymore? How long before they have an op-ed in the NY Times pushing for more troops, more money, more of their favorite wars?

It's not as if they ever change their positions. In August 2013, Pollack was shamelessly pushing for a re-invasion of Iraq as a good idea – one that the U.S. was too scared to implement:

In an alternative universe, the United States might re-intervene in Iraq, redeploying tens of thousands of soldiers to restore everyone’s sense of safety and allowing the political process to heal again. In this universe, the United States is never going to intervene in Iraq again, nor will the Maliki government ever request that we do so.

I suspect Pollack isn't merely an idiot or soulless, he's trying to rehabilitate his past positions. (I don't know why he bothers except for pride, since being repeatedly, disastrously wrong hasn't hurt his job prospects much.) Pollack would likely claim any eventual "success" in Iraq, no matter how far down the road or tenuous, as retroactive vindication of his horrendous judgment. A passage I wrote about his buddy Michael O'Hanlon in a 2008 piece, "Day of Shame," applies to Pollack as well (emphasis added):

Let me spell it out, using O'Hanlon as an example. Had he been wise, he never would have held the views he did in the first place. Had he any intellectual integrity, he would have acknowledged his colossal error long ago. Had he any empathy, he would have had many sleepless nights, thinking of all those people dead, displaced or otherwise made miserable by his policies and positions. Had he any shame, he'd have left the public stage long ago, or at least shut up about how he's being picked on for getting such a clear moral issue as a war of choice so monumentally wrong (more on this in a later post). Sometimes it takes an awfully expensive education to make a man such a fucking moron. But I guarantee most Iraqi civilians, even before the invasion, wouldn't make O'Hanlon's mistake, not with the memory of the devastating Iran-Iraq war so fresh. I'm pretty sure more than a few junior high school students who have never experienced war directly wouldn't make the same mistake, either. 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.

Lastly, there's Richard Cohen, a supposedly liberal columnist for The Washington Post. (He's more accurately an establishment pundit, given his atrocious record.) In 2003, when Colin Powell presented the Bush administration's shoddy case for war at the United Nations, Cohen responded to reputation and the mood of his social crowd, not substance. This lead to his infamous, braying, smug pronouncement:

This is where Colin Powell brought us all yesterday. The evidence he presented to the United Nations – some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail – had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman – could conclude otherwise.

When Cohen looked back in 2006 on the invasion on Iraq, not only was he largely unchastened, he actually wrote that "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic."

. . . In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. . . .

Every time I read that line – despite having read it more times than I can count – it stops me cold. His statement captures an immature, fearful spite, a soullessness, a selfishness that is just transfixing. A few points for honesty, I guess, but the full monstrousness of Cohen's statement didn't seem to occur to him then and hasn't since. By the standards of his morally syphilitic circle, he has done nothing terribly wrong, being blithe about unnecessary death and destruction passes for sophistication, and no deeper reflection – let alone atonement – is required.

(If you'd like to add some female warmongers, Megan McArdle and Ann Coulter round out the pack.)

Some of these people have offered half-assed apologies, but for the most part, they've just sought to further justify themselves, and have insisted that they were right for the wrong reasons while those who opposed the war were right for the wrong reasons. Both contentions are utter bullshit, infuriatingly counterfactual, and self-serving. They ignore that a general opposition to war – having a high threshold for it – is not an accidentally moral viewpoint, but the position of basic sanity.

For the sake of argument, let's suppose that all these people have some redeeming quality elsewhere in their lives. Regardless, when it comes to their pronouncements on the Iraq War and armed conflict in general, they have demonstrated terrible, deadly judgment. Whether that judgement was fueled by foolishness, vanity, fear, posturing, political ambition, or greed, it's resulted in completely preventable suffering and the unnecessary loss of human life. Surely Kenneth Pollack does not think of himself as a horrible human being, nor do any of the others (so are they all, honourable men and women), but in this field, they are indeed horrible human beings.

Hilzoy's polite, restrained admonition to Richard Cohen after his monstrous "therapeutic" remark in 2006 applies to the entire unrepentant warmonger set:

Richard Cohen: resign. Resign right now. You may, for all I know, have a talent for laying pipe or landscaping that might yet allow you to make a contribution to the world. Admittedly, no amount of carefully laid pipe or expertly transplanted salvias could come close to compensating for your part in enabling this administration and its ill-considered wars, but frankly, you're in no position to be picky. Moreover, I would think that someone who had assumed a public position as a Wise Person Worth Listening To without, apparently, any sense of the responsibilities that that entails might benefit from the attempt to make tiny, concrete, unpublicized improvements to the world, of the sort monks strove for when they tried to perform the most mundane and inglorious daily tasks in such a way that they could be offered up to God without shame. Laying pipe very carefully and very well would do, as would trying very hard to keep the root balls of shrubs intact during transplantation. Even if you don't have any such talent, taking up a new career flipping burgers at McDonalds would at least minimize the damage you can inflict on the world, while allowing you ample time to reflect on those personal failings that allowed you to think of war as therapy, and to try to think of some small and unknown contribution that you might yet make to the world.

But don't take my word for it. Go visit the families of soldiers who have fallen in the interests of what you considered "therapeutic", or the families of any of the of thousands of people who have been kidnapped off the streets of Iraq for no reason, tortured with electric drills, and then found dead behind some abandoned building or floating in the Tigris. Ask them whether they think that the war in Iraq has been "therapeutic". Then ask yourself whether you shouldn't just turn in your license to practice national psychotherapy, and go off and lay pipe instead.

Needless to say, Richard Cohen has not resigned in the seven years since he offered his "deep" thought, and has gone on to write many other appalling columns. (Once in rare while he'll pen a decent or genuinely good one. Perhaps his latest dreadful columns on race will finally force his retirement.)

And here's the thing. The national discourse will never be lacking in Richard Cohens and Megan McArdles eager to sacrifice other people's lives because they feel scared. It will never be lacking Tom Friedmans hungry to have others fight in a war to prove their own toughness. It will never lack Ann Coulters filled with rage and driven to prove their dominance, or George Bushes and Bill Kristols enthusiastic to taunt their political foes and live out macho fantasies. It will never lack highly pedigreed but foolish pundits such as Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon, who try to sell (to themselves and others) blithe imperialism as sober-minded realism. That leaves it to the rest of us to oppose these fuckers and build mechanisms so they can't start more unnecessary wars, not so easily. And that will be the work of sustained effort over many years.

If there's any hope, it's that people who don't peddle bullshit for a living are capable of acknowledging reality, reflecting, feeling regret, and changing their minds. Some Iraq mea culpas have been sincere, mature, and even soul-searching. The one I respect and admire most comes from John Cole in 2008 (and since rerun):

Lot of Iraq War retrospectives going on this week as we enter the tenth anniversary of the start of hostilities. I’ve just been laying low, for obvious reasons, and figure I will just repost what I wrote for the 5 year anniversary, because it will always be relevant:

I see that Andrew Sullivan was asked to list what he got wrong about Iraq for the five year anniversary of the invasion, and since I was as big a war booster as anyone, I thought I would list what I got wrong:


And I don’t say that to provide people with an easy way to beat up on me, but I do sort of have to face facts. I was wrong about everything.

I was wrong about the Doctrine of Pre-emptive warfare.
I was wrong about Iraq possessing WMD.
I was wrong about Scott Ritter and the inspections.
I was wrong about the UN involvement in weapons inspections.
I was wrong about the containment sanctions.
I was wrong about the broader impact of the war on the Middle East.
I was wrong about this making us more safe.
I was wrong about the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq.
I was wrong when I stated this administration had a clear plan for the aftermath.
I was wrong about securing the ammunition dumps.
I was wrong about the ease of bringing democracy to the Middle East.
I was wrong about dissolving the Iraqi army.
I was wrong about the looting being unimportant.
I was wrong that Bush/Cheney were competent.
I was wrong that we would be greeted as liberators.
I was wrong to make fun of the anti-war protestors.
I was wrong not to trust the dirty smelly hippies.

I mean, I could go down the list and continue on, but you get the point. I was wrong about EVERY. GOD. DAMNED. THING. It is amazing I could tie my shoes in 2001–2004. If you took all the wrongness I generated, put it together and compacted it and processed it, there would be enough concentrated stupid to fuel three hundred years of Weekly Standard journals. I am not sure how I snapped out of it, but I think Abu Ghraib and the negative impact of the insurgency did sober me up a bit.

War should always be an absolute last resort, not just another option. I will never make the same mistakes again. . . .

My gut instinct from now on regarding the use of force will be to say no. NO. You can tell me I’m just as doctrinaire as when I was a wingnut, just on the other side, but I don’t care. I’ll need to see CNN copy of Chinese troops on the coast of California before I ever support another war.

To date, none of the dogs or curs of war featured above have shown even a quarter of John Cole's humility, regret, and reflection. If there's hope and wisdom to be found, it's in trusting those with a sense of humanity over the inhumane posturing as wise.

(This was intended for 11/11, but posting was delayed by an Internet connection outage.)


D. said...

I have linked. This is sooo good! We will always have vainglorious asshats to promote war (and they will never, ever, have to go) but maybe someday the alpha baboons can shout them down.

(As for the asshats, maybe we can find an island where they can mud-wrestle. They'd never agree to it, of course.)

Syrbal/Labrys said...

I was so against the war with Iraq and barely enthused with the earlier Afghan effort since the entire 'death from above' is a shitty way to find and kill ONE man, and that was our alleged objective.

I keep waiting for the anger to do more than boil against the sides of my mind….but I'm failing miserably in "letting it go" and want to see people in jail for lies that cost lives, livelihoods, and oh so much more.