[Edited for clarity.]
I’ve always admired Greg Djerejian, over at Belgravia Dispatch. He’s intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful – qualities that are wider-spread than most of us fear but are still rare in the visible world of blogs and the media.
I’ve watched his change of heart about Iraq and worried, more than a little, over my own heart’s unwillingness to budge. I worry about that solidity, and about the fact that the events which drive him into what – for him – passes as vein straining paroxysms of rage only elicit a sad shake of the head when I read about them.
I’ve been amused at his attacks on the ‘six monthers‘ – those who think the next six months will see all as well. But then again, I’ve always been more of a ‘six yearer‘ myself. I do think, with some confidence, that the next six years will determine the outcome of this conflict.
In a way, I believe this because I think that the comic novels of George McDonald Frasier – the Flashman books – are closer to the truth of history than the neatly packaged, inevitable histories we all learned from and hang so much of our understanding – of ourselves and of others – upon. In the Flashman universe, incompetence, cowardice, and ignorance contest regularly with courage, skill and luck to decide the outcome of things. Frasier highlights the mess underneath the events we think we know, and in so doing renders them more real I’ll argue, than the historians who manage to edit it out.My professor Page Smith (famous for his book on chickens) wrote what is to me the best work of history that I know – his ‘People’s history ‘ of the Revolutionary War “A New Age Now Begins” (I sent my copy to the ITM brothers). What I love the most about this history is reading the contemporaneous accounts of the people who lived through the events and the sense of confusion, fear, and doubt that they felt and the overwhelming sense of contingency – of uncertainty about outcome – that they experienced.
Djerejian’s core position on Iraq today is best summed up, I think, by this paragraph from this post:
But, if you are like me, and you believe Baghdad is the strategic epicenter of Iraq, and that a Baghdad descending into Beirut like civil war means that the country will likely mostly disintegrate, then I’m afraid I am less optimistic than West. And so, again, on this Memorial Day, when we thank and remember the sacrifice of our troops over the decades, we must also ask, painful as it is, what precisely they are accomplishing at the present hour in Iraq? Yes, here and there they are making progress. Yes, they are staving off total anarchy. But, if you fear it’s a slow grind that we are losing, rather than winning, particularly given the continued lack of credible leadership at the Pentagon, the continued incorrectly placed concerns on ‘dependency’ theory, the continued dearth of troops, you must, at least to some extent if you are honest with yourself ponder, would it be worth my life (or the life of my son or daughter)? And the answer, it seems to me, is a very, very, very close call indeed.
We’re not clearly winning, so we must be losing. Boy, I’ve got to believe that sentiment would have made sense in the taverns of New England back in the day – but they pressed on regardless.
Why is the response to this uncertainty so different today? In no small part, I’ll suggest that it’s because of three things.
First, our sense of invulnerability. This was a war of choice, a war of revenge. We have nothing at stake, people would argue. We can’t really be harmed by our enemies. At worst, there is a kind of simple arithmetic (Greg again):
The bottom line is that more U.S. and Iraqi Army/Police forces (I’m not counting civilians, many of whom have died via generalized civil strife more than the insurgency, per se) have died since Cheney’s comment than perished on 9/11.
What’s really at stake there?
The image of the United States is in something close to a free fall.
There are lots of reasons, beginning with the fact that any elephant this big bestriding the world’s stage is going to irk people, especially when George W. Bush is riding it. But I suspect a basic cause is that in the 65-year period of 1941-2006, the United States has been at war in some form or another for all but 14 years.
There was World War II and then, after a two-year break, the Cold War, which ran until 1989, and then, after an interlude of a dozen years, the war on terror. These were different sorts of wars, of course, and among them were Korea and Vietnam. But somewhere along the way, most acutely in the past few years, people got tired.
They got tired of America’s insatiable need for an enemy; suspicious of the talk of freedom and democracy and morality in which every struggle was cast; forgetful of the liberty preserved by such might; alarmed at the American fear that appeared to fire American aggression; and disdainful of the distance between declarations and deeds.
In short they stopped buying the American narrative.
What’s missing from this, of course, is any sense of context at all for that narrative, any sense that – for example – there was an expansionist and brutal Soviet Union who would have gladly conquered all of Europe – and kept it conquered had we not opposed them. Or that there was a brutal China led my the mad, bad, and dangerous Mao Tse Tung who would have gladly enslaved all of Asia had we not opposed them. I’m more than a little puzzled by Greg’s failure to point out that gaping hole in Cohen’s logic.
So in that view, why is there war? Because America fights, of course.
I mentioned this in an email to neo-neocon:
I’ve thought for a while that this was a form (forgive me for stepping on your turf) of narcissism – they think that we (our culture, the West) are so powerful that we are, in effect, omnipotent. So of course we can get the bad guys without hurting them; of course we need rules to contain our strength. Because we’re so strong that everything that happens anywhere in the world is a reflection of something we do or have done.
And I do think it’s the strongest influence on our behavior and attitude toward this war. And, I believe that once it is gone – once the delusion of invulnerability slips away – we will be more brutal and bestial than the worst opponents of the wars today imagine us to be in their fevered dreams.
I’m reminded of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles – when my devoutly liberal friends suddenly spouted a core of racist invective and anger, and when they were enraged that I wouldn’t lend them guns because I thought they were unhinged with fear and rage.
Second, because we have no direct experience of loss. I’ve wondered how it is, isolated from the blood and meat of death, that we have become so fascinated with a pornography of violence in our arts. Things which were everyday to a farmer in the 18th century – privation, disease, death – the crushing hand of Necessity – are strangers to us. But not to most of the people in the world.
That means that we are shocked by it when we see it; we don’t accept it as a part of the natural context of life.
My father (as I’ve written) built high-rise buildings. Construction work – particularly heavy construction work – is dangerous. Height, tools, heavy steel, cranes lifting buckets of concrete all combine to make up a hostile environment to the unlucky or careless. I think there were seven or eight deaths on his jobs in his career. The days that happened were the lowest I ever saw him. Was it worth it? To build an apartment building for rich people or an office building for lawyers?
Would it be different if they’d fallen of a barn roof? Or been maimed by a thresher and bled to death in a field?
Bad things happen all the time as an inevitable part of the human condition; of society. Somewhere today in Iraq, a U.S. soldier is abusing an Iraqi. Somewhere in Iraq this month, a U.S. soldier is murdering an Iraqi (I’ll write about Haditha soon).
Do I forgive them and consider what they did understandable? No, of course not. They are vile criminals, and worse for being criminals in the uniform of our country. I think that our greatness as a society is that we self-correct better than any society that there has ever been.
Should we do it better? Of course we should.
Will we ever be perfect? Will we ever be able to point to anything we do, whether go to war, go to the moon, build a building, or cure a disease without waste, death, and folly? I know we won’t and I’ve got to believe that Greg does as well. Does that make those things not worth doing?
Which brings me to the final point, and to me the most frightening. It’s an adjunct to the first two, and simply put, it suggests that everything that happens isn’t really about the thing itself – the war in Iraq as an example – but it’s about us; how we feel about ourselves, who has political advantage, who profits and who loses in the courts of power, prestige and wealth.
I’m genuinely afraid that the ruling cohort, and those who enable it by participating in the political process, have so much lost touch with the realities that we face that they are incapable of looking at an issue like Iraq, or 9/11, or the economic straits we have spent and borrowed ourselves into as a nation except as a foothold in climbing over the person in front of them. I imagine a small table of gentlemen and -women, playing whist on a train as it heads out over a broken bridge. The game, of course maters more than anything, and the external events – they’re just an effort to distract they players from their hands.