I didn’t watch much TV as a kid (so that explains it…) and so I’m not sure if the stereotype of the TV cowboy hero who always aims for his opponents gun, and manages to subdue the six or seven bad guys with his fists and a handy lasso was really a television character or just a caricature of one.
But it appears that the stereotype lives, in more ways than one, as we try and judge the progress of the war.
Because not only is the war effort being judged against the schedule of a 115-minute Hollywood feature, but we seem to expect that it will be managed according to the precision of a script written in Los Feliz, not in any reality anyone lives in.
Norm Geras writes (once again) the post that’s been kicking around in my head for a few months.He says, in reading the Atlantic interview with Wolfowitz:
But reading this interview brought something home to me. It brought home to me that I have never seen, in all the voluminous discussion since the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s rule, anything from the anti-war camp (perhaps I just haven’t read widely enough) that made a distinction between mistakes and avoidable mistakes, or mistakes and culpable mistakes. Plainly what happened at Abu Ghraib was culpable and was worse than a mistake. But on the sundry other matters, unless you have a distinction between avoidable and culpable mistakes and other kinds of mistake, including for example mistakes understandable in the circumstances, unless you allow that some of the mistakes may have been due to the scope and nature of the undertaking itself, it suggests one of two things: either that the undertaking could have been carried out altogether smoothly and unproblematically; or that the criticism of mistakes is motivated more by an impulse to oppose than by a desire for the undertaking to succeed.
He doesn’t quote a key Wolfowitz quote from the article though:
“A fundamental flaw in the 9/11 report, absolutely fundamental, is that it assumes that if we had had perfect intelligence, we could have prevented the attacks. Therefore what we need is perfect intelligence. Instead of recognizing that you’ll never have perfect intelligence, which takes you down an entirely different policy route.”
On one of my email lists (which I don’t have enough time for either) a discussion devolved (as they tend to do) into 9/11 vs. Abu Ghraib. And one of those who wave prisoner brutality said:
I like the America where we’re the good guys. Not the America where we’re the not-as-bad-as-the-REALLY-bad guys. There’s a big difference.
To which I replied:
So that’s the fantasy America, then?
Because in the reality-based America where I live, we do bad things all the time. The good news is that we tend to do a far better job of self-correcting (note that the Abu Ghraib folks were already or about to be indicted when the story broke – the military justice folks had received the info, acted, and were busting the perps – one of whose lawyers released the imagery as a negotiating tactic) than, for example, the Greenpeace-killing French DSGE do.
I don’t know – Habeas Corpus and Andersonville in the Civil War, internment and slaughtered Dachau guards in World War II, I can think of lots of things that we’ve done in the past that I might wish – in a perfect world, with the benefit of the victory won and the luxury of hindsight – had not happened.
And it’s this: All actions and systems involve mistakes, are imperfect, have undesirable unforeseen consequences. We’re human, and fallible. We have imperfect information, we often act out of fear or prejudice or laziness or greed. This has been a part of the human condition as long as there has been a human condition to have. It is the root of tragedy, the most human of art forms.
The problem is that – at any level, from helping a child make a bed to making war – there are whole forests of bad outcomes along the trees of alternate future.
Are we more brutal to our prisoners than I wish we were? Absolutely. Are we too casual to collateral damage done in the pursuit of our military objectives? Assuredly. Do too many people die in freeway accidents? Of course. Do many people die because we have inadequate healthcare for poor people? yup.
I could go on.
The issue isn’t that litany of sad facts. It’s the basic question – as I once asked concerning Niall Ferguson’s silly column – Compared to what?
In an imaginary world in which we were omnipotent, yes, none of this would happen. We could identify our opponents with perfect accuracy, and disarm and restrain them without harming anyone. Once restrained, our procedures would be firm, gentle, and correct in every degree.
It’s funny, but I pretty much think that’s what we’re doing now, with a massively narrow span of error.
There have been what – 120 deaths of prisoners in Iraq? Out of perhaps 40,000 – 50,000 (I can’t find a hard number but this seems like the best I can assemble – if you have a source on this, leave it in the comments) who have been taken captive? So that’s a death rate of what – .3 percent?
1% of the German troops in Allied hands in World War II died. Some 1.3% of the Allied troops in German hands died, while 30% of the Allied troops in Japanese hands died.
Some 14.8% of the American troops held by the North Vietnamese died.
Am I happy about the .3% in Iraq? No. Not at all. Some folks on our side deserve to go to jail,and some will.
Am I happy when our troops make an error and brutalize, wound, or kill someone who doesn’t deserve it? No. But I’ll bet that we’re doing less of it than almost any army ever has in the past.
I’m happy that .3% are dying, rather than 1%. I want it to be 0%, but I recognize that we can’t achieve that level of perfection in our own jails.
No human social system can or is likely to achieve that level of perfection.
So what we have isn’t planning, it’s carping. And I use that belittling term deliberately; because they lack the courage to simply stand up and say the war is wrong, and because it’s wrong any outcome that flows from it is bad. Instead they take the very real .3% – the very real, ugly, brutal and wrong .3% – and say that “if only…”
If only doesn’t count.
What prisons would be if they were built in sound stages doesn’t count.
What war would be if John Milius and Oliver Stone wrote it doesn’t count.
Why do we take that fantasy into account? Because on some basic level, we assume that we’re the TV cowboy, and that the bad guys can fire all the bullets they want and the only thing that will happen is that our authentic Western sidekick will get a hole in his hat. They assume that we’re omnipotent and omnisicent.
We’re never good enough to be perfect.
But we are good enough to win, and to be worth winning for.