Monday, April 2, 2007

Bush's War: Notes on a Supreme Fiction

I live in a blue collar town. Immediately after the President declared war on terrorism, following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the flags began to appear. They went up on the porches of single family homes along tree-shaded streets; they were attached to the antennas of cars and trucks. Some enterprising people even taped small hand-held flags to telephone poles so that as you drove down certain streets you felt you were entering the gateway to an improbable Olympiad. About a week later the bumper stickers appeared: AMERICAN AND PROUD OF IT, UNITED WE STAND. Just about that time, I was nearly run off the road by a couple my own age with short gray hair, each of them wearing American flag T-shirts, driving a blood red pickup truck with unfurling flags on either side of the cab. Fiercely they bore down on me, as I gingerly backed out of my parking space at a local CVS. I didn’t know them, I’m certain they had no idea who I was; but the look on their faces was murderous.

I don’t own a flag. My response to the horrendous attacks of September 11, the senseless and useless deaths and their endlessly televised aftermath, was shock, shock and silence. It was followed by sadness, an immense sadness that came, I suspect, from a growing recognition of the tragic inevitability of those acts and, equally, of the predictability of the President’s belligerent reply, including the precipitous invasion of Afghanistan.

I’ve been around too long to feel otherwise. I lived through the war in Vietnam. After that debacle, followed by Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal, I’d had my fill of “credibility gaps” and government manipulation. Commentators spoke of an “end of innocence” for a nation so violated by the terrorists. My sense was that I’d long ago lost any innocence I had about my country’s intentions toward the world, our never ending crusade to bring freedom and democracy to those who lacked or didn’t want it. For I’d learned that such myths masked darker acts and intentions, both subtle and violent, the consequences of which we are only just beginning to experience in the destruction of September 11.

My first observation after the initial shock came as a note in my journal. “The chickens have come home to roost,” I wrote, followed by a quotation from a September 12 report in the New York Times on the Pentagon attack:

The crash was accompanied by a thunderous

explosion that virtually collapsed one side of

the gray structure, symbol of America's

military might for more than a half-century. It

is also the symbol to American enemies of

what they see as American imperialism.

I meant no jubilation in my private comments. The phrase—was it Malcolm X who first used it regarding the urban insurrections of the 1960s?--simply came to mind, floating up out of my unconscious. How could decades of American sponsored coups, terrorism and military dictatorships in Asia and the Middle East, in Central and South America, not go unanswered? How could there not be “blowback?”

I also realize that many who fly the flag will be among the first to lose their children in any war we start, just as they did in Vietnam. It’s the sons and daughters of working people who are usually called upon to give up their lives, and it is their parents who appear to be the most demonstrably patriotic. And the anger? Why the anger?

Perhaps if I had lost a child in the World Trade Center explosions, or a close friend or associate, I might have experienced some anger. I’m certainly affected by the events. I’m losing sleep, can’t focus on work. Clinicians tell us that we are all suffering from post traumatic stress. I understand the immensity of the disaster, the terrible loss of life, the disruption reverberating throughout the entire culture and economy. I can imagine what it must have been like for children whose fathers or mothers simply didn’t come home. I saw the footage of the thousands of New Yorkers streaming across the bridge to Brooklyn. I had family members living in Manhattan at the time and I was worried about their safety.

Yet when I hear neighbors speaking incredulously about how much we Americans “do” for everybody else—“Why do they hate us so much?”—I can only shake my head and remain silent. What would be the point in answering that the attacks had a lot to do with just that? After all, Osama bin Laden, who is considered to be a “prime suspect,” is in part our own creation, just as Saddam Hussein was, against whom we fought the Gulf War, killing 200,000 of his people, later causing the deaths of 500,000 children as a result of the economic embargo against Iraq.

And now the threats and conditions set for Afghanistan to produce and extradite bin Laden have erupted into war, a war of our own declaration. Like Vietnam, it is a war that should never have been fought. In fact, as I write, after three weeks of steady bombing and a little ground action, it is not going well. A once fiercely supportive public is now beginning to have second thoughts. Polls show people worried about our falling into a “quagmire.” Yes, the word has been resurrected from the vocabulary of Vietnam. Add to these concerns the emergence of anthrax spores, sent in letters to various locations—another form of terrorism, one suspects, although as yet there is little sense of its origin.

There is no question that some things have changed for this nation long accustomed to a certain isolated security from the world’s major events and disruptions, before the truck bomb explosion in Oklahoma, the first World Trade Center bombing, and perhaps even before the major protests and antiwar demonstrations of the Sixties that turned so bitterly violent. I suppose we can no longer wake up each day expecting to be safe, not from a mugging, perhaps, or a highway accident, but from some event approaching war or mass terror. Not even our mail is safe any longer, and what will come next—our food or water, our nuclear power plants?

As a person of habit, I for one am angrier about these changes than I am about the attacks themselves. For the terrorists will have achieved more than the killing of 3,000 of us if they can keep 300,000,000 of us constantly on edge. The British tell us they’ve lived this way during the past thirty years of the “troubles” in Ireland. Israelis welcome us to the club, noting that every time one leaves the house in Jerusalem they become the potential victim of a sniper or pizzeria suicide bomber. What, then, must it have been like to live in the former Yugoslavia in the era of “ethnic cleansing?”

From long custom or habit, a democratic society like ours has held out the expectation of safety, of an appreciable quality of life, for the relatively affluent anyway. And it is in this atmosphere of internalized security, that we do our work and raise our families, knowing that the police and firefighters are there to take care of us, that even our often mistrusted government can offer the help of last resort. Much of this will doubtless not change; our caretakers will probably become more vigilant in our defense or protection. What will change, has changed, is the way we will live our lives. For there will be a new urgency about those lives, though repressed. Life will become all the more valuable for the enhanced fear of losing it or those we most love.

But how many of us will allow ourselves to face that fear? In a society prone to denial, how many will wake up one morning determined to live the day as if it were one’s last. When I was in my early twenties I loved the intense, almost manicly realistic paintings of the artist John Bratby, who was part of what was then known as the Kitchen Sink School of British painting. It thrilled me to hear Bratby say that he painted his family’s breakfast as if it were the last meal he’d ever eat, or his wife, on the way out the door to shop, as if he would never see her again. It seemed to me then both a powerful and provocative way of demanding the validity of art. What I was unable to grasp in my youth, or to imagine myself thinking, was that I, too, would come so to love life that the fear of leaving it or losing those I loved, would compel me savor every moment, every image, indeed every meal, for fear of experiencing it as my last.

But can anyone live at this level of constant intensity? Perhaps if you are twenty, or, as Bratby seemed to be then, in the throes of your visionary obsession, completing a canvas a day, as was his habit, or creating a business from the ground up. Ultimately, one wears ones self out, grinding down the endurance of those closest to you. Marvelous things get made or done, but at what expense?

At a certain point—after a divorce in my mid-thirties—I pulled away from many of the outward intensities that defined my life. To tell the truth I was worn out. I welcomed the retreat to a quieter style of life. No more political rallies or raucous debates, no relationships that left me feeling hollowed out. I resolved to stay home when I wasn’t out working. I would read and think—and write, if I could. I would cultivate my own Emersonian garden, as I continue to do thirty-five years later. And the disruption of this routine by terrorist attacks, or threat of attacks, or by my government’s declaration of war, angers me no end.

Is this merely a narcissistic position? Was I not taught in school that these inalienable rights were not given without the responsibility of their recipients to secure them constantly, even if it meant fighting a war to protect them? And if this is so, should I not hail my government’s vigorous attempt to stem the tide of terrorist activity, bringing to justice, or at least punishing those who committed the acts or those who harbor their perpetrators? I suppose I can’t have it both ways. I can’t demand my freedom of peaceful enjoyment without supporting those agents who make it possible by keeping us all safe. That, I suspect, is or will be, the argument against opposing war in Afghanistan, as I do.

In Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy, a book I admire and have learned much from, though I differ with the author’s basically conservative philosophy, Kaplan warns that “true peace and security are, of course, impossible.” They are merely illusions, he writes. To believe that one can live in such an ideal state is to lose sight of the tragic view of life, Kaplan insists, a view that Americans, to our great disadvantage, generally refuse to acknowledge, as writers as early at Hawthorne and Melville have tried to make us understand. Now, perhaps, after 9/11 Americans might embrace the tragic, that sense that life is fragile, tenuous, and that its end is, if not knowable, always immanent; and no matter what we do, or how we live, suffering and death are inevitable. While we cannot avoid death, we can learn from suffering, as the fate of the tragic figures in Sophocles and Shakespeare teaches us.


“The truth is that next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It no longer lies within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome of events there. Iraqis will decide their own fate. We are spectators, witnesses, bystanders caught in a conflagration that we ourselves, in an act of monumental folly, touched off.”
---Andrew J. Bacevich

The war in Iraq is about to get worse-much worse. The Democrats' decision to let the war run its course, while they frantically wash their hands of responsibility, means that it will sputter and stagger forward until the mission collapses. This will be sudden. The security of the Green Zone, our imperial city, will be increasingly breached. Command and control will disintegrate. And we will back out of Iraq humiliated and defeated. But this will not be the end of the conflict. It will, in fact, signal a phase of the war far deadlier and more dangerous to American interests.
--Chris Hedges, August 6, 2007

I wrote the first part of this essay four years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, before the selling of this unnecessary and unwarranted war that has consumed billions of dollars and has, so far, caused the deaths of over 3,000 Americans, the wounding of more than 72,000 others, and the killing of approximately 600,000 Iraqis. Over a million Iraqis have left their own country as a consequence of our invasion, thousands continue to flee each month, and civil war has broken out. All this to “bring democracy” to a country that showed no aggression toward the US and harbored no weapons of mass destruction, as we were falsely led by the Bush Administration to believe. Meanwhile, after we redeployed our troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, Afghanistan is falling again into the hands of the Taliban, whom we attempted to depose from power, much of that country lives under anarchy and terror, and the Bush Administration has yet another failure of its misguided policy of “preemptive war” on its (and our) hands.

I have been thinking a lot about our complicity, as of “good Germans,” in the Bush Administration’s imperial adventure. Aside from those who have truly spent time and energy actively protesting the war, or writing in blogs and op ed columns against the President’s policies, debunking the lies and demanding answers and redress, the rest of us, even in our despair over the war and Bush’s authoritarian rule (plus his specious “war on terror”), have pretty much sat it out or kept our views to our emails, to signing a few petitions and voting for candidates who, until recently, haven’t shown much courage about investigating the Administration and its lackeys.

What’s wrong with us as a people? I thought about this while reading an interview recently with an Egyptian, who was grabbed off the streets by the CIA in Milan, flown back to Egypt where he was tortured, even though he had nothing to confess and had no connections with terrorists or Al Quaeda, as had been claimed. His case is one of hundreds in which we’ve abused international laws against torture, against the violation of human rights. Meanwhile, the majority of us have said or done little about the erosion of our civil liberties at home or the invasion of our privacy, even though 70% of Americans are now on record as being opposed to the war and in favor of withdrawal from Iraq, and a Democratically led Congress has finally had the courage to set a date.

What the President and his neo-conservative claque have imposed on us is unconscionable, not only in terms of the war, but also in the ill-conceived “Patriot” Act, which actually makes us less free while our government and its agencies spy on us. Yet the country has not risen against the President (aside from narrowly returning the Democrats to power in the last mid-term election), and there really are no plans to impeach him, aside from a few initiatives at the edges of Congress, which are quickly downplayed by the press. And the media is the biggest culprit of all. With the exception of the LA Times and the editorial pages of the New York Times, why were the major television news networks and many of the principal daily newspapers so complicitous in the selling of the war, so slow to criticize the corrupt underside of it—the billions of dollars siphoned off by war contractors, who were in bed with the Administration, the promised hospitals and schools left uncompleted, money simply disappearing into the streets of Baghdad or ending up in the pockets of corrupt Iraqi officials or returning exiles, in what appears to be a total lack of accountability?

It is a question that needs to be addressed if we are to maintain a free press and with it a continued open society. Were it not for the Internet and the amazing profusion of bloggers and public services like TruthOut and Common Dream (and the ever vigilant Nation), who collected news, commentary and analysis from all over the world, allowing American readers to experience significant alternative views to what the Administration and the established media were feeding us, we would really have been in the dark.

Of equal importance in opening the eyes of the world to the massive attempts at deception on the part of the Bush Administration, perhaps the greatest act of mendacity on the part of any president and his advisors, were Mark Danner’s powerful articles in the New York Review, published in book form as The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History, Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, which first appeared as articles in the New Yorker, James Risen’s State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, and, more recently, Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. Indeed, with the exception of intrepid columnists like Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and Robert Scheer, who were unsparing with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their lies, it could be said that books, along with a series of powerful, independent documentary films about the selling of the war and its consequences, rushed into print and immediately reviewed, have assumed the responsibility that the print and news media seem to have abdicated in speaking truth to power, though one wonders how many watched, listened—or read.

Furthermore, how does one account for why we are not more active as citizens, more involved and committed to learning the truth and practicing civic responsibility, as so many of us seemed to be in the 1960s, especially young people? What has happened to our ability to think critically, to analyze the spin and cant that come out of Washington? Have decades of sitting in front of the TV or mind-numbing consumerism made us passive, or are we so discouraged and dismayed, so utterly demoralized by our government’s calumny, as citizens were in the Soviet Union because they felt so powerless, that we’ve become fatalistic like the Russians, or simply indifferent to the suffering around us, the theft of our treasury, the squandering of billions on an illegal and pointless war, the murder and torture, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the secret CIA renditions, that have resulted from the arrogant and misguided policies of our government? Any one of these crimes should have gotten the President thrown out of office, and yet there he remains, lying daily while committing more troops to a war that was long ago lost. It’s enough to drive one to despair. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in opposing the war in Vietnam, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”


But the meta-narrative of Bush and his neoconservative allies is one of no apology, no surrender. They say and do what they must to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. Reality be damned. What matters is what they can get away with. In the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, they did escape retribution. In the larger case of the Iraq war, they are still hoping to.

--David Corn, The Nation, October 22, 2007

You don't have money to fund the war or children. But you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President's amusement.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) regarding Bush’s veto of child health act (October 19, 2007)

Ending the war is a really big issue. Most of us are sick of it and want it over with. Too many lives, too much money. A terrible, terrible waste. (66 year old Dracut, MA woman)

This war is a disgrace. (84-year-old Lowell, MA man)

On February 22, 2003, a month before the US invaded Iraq, before Congress had voted to allow Bush to do so, and before the UN Security Council had addressed the issue of Iraq’s purported WMD and the results of an ongoing inspection in the country, headed by Dr. Hans Blix—indeed, before Dr. Blix had finished his search for the weapons, which, it turned out, didn’t exist—Bush told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar that “the moment has come to get rid of Saddam.” According to a transcript of the conversation between the two leaders at Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, published by Mark Danner in the New York Review of November 8, 2007, Bush threatened with reprisals those nations who wouldn’t support him in his planned invasion of Iraq, and he claimed the war would cost $50 billion dollars (so far it has cost over $800 billion).

Following the “Downing Street Memo,” in which a British envoy in Washington for PM Tony Blair reports on July 23, 2002 that Bush will go to war with the “intelligence and facts [being] fixed around the policy,” this transcript of the Bush-Aznar meeting provides yet another “smoking gun” among many, making clear that Bush and his neo-conservative advisors always wanted war, though they had done little planning for its aftermath and had underestimated the number of troops it would take to occupy the country once they had toppled Saddam’s government. In fact, the term employed for Rumsfeld’s approach was “war on the cheap.”

Here is the relevant portion of the Downing Street Memo:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

Now, more than four years later, the situation in Iraq is described by retired General Ricardo Sanchez, who led the invasion, as “a nightmare with no end in sight.” The Democrats have neither the votes nor the collective party discipline or will to order Bush to pull the troops out, and the famous “surge” the President asked Congress for has failed. It appears that we will be in Iraq for years to come—indeed, we have constructed in Baghdad the largest US embassy in history, both as fortress and monument to the folly of the war. Meanwhile, the rest of the world hates us for what we’ve visited on the people of Iraq and for the arrogant, brutal way the Bush administration has conducted itself in the world.

I sit here on a mild October morning. The sun is emerging from the mist. The trees droop with dew. The leaves are turning, falling; and winter is not far off. I simply do not know what to say or do. I have completed a memoir in which the war in Vietnam and my anguish about it is a major theme, and I can’t help feeling again the sense of powerlessness and despair I felt forty years ago, as my country visited the same kind of destruction upon a people, who were no threat to us in any immediate or geopolitical way.

Just this week, Senator Paul Tsongas’ widow, attorney and college dean Nikki Tsongas, was elected to fill Rep. Marty Meehan’s vacated 5th Congressional district seat. Tsongas ran against the war, and the majority of her working class constituents in Lawrence and Lowell want the war to end, as shown by the two remarks I have quoted above from the Boston Globe of October 17, 2007. Echoing the American public at large, they feel that the cost in lives and treasure is too much. Yet the Democrats can’t stop Bush or even legislate a withdrawal date. The country is in a stalemate, the economy in tatters, and over a million families have lost their housing to mortgage defaults, while Bush’s tax initiatives have sustained the wealthy, creating, in fact, new wealth, a wealth that far outstrips the wealth of the Gilded Age. Many are calling this the New Gilded Age.

I’ve never felt such despair over the course our country is pursuing. At least during the Vietnam War there was a viable, broad-based peace movement. Today, while there is no shortage of opposition to Bush’s war, there is no concerted, well-organized antiwar initiative—and very little student opposition, largely, I suspect, because there is no draft and middle- and upper-class kids are not being called up to fight and die as they were during the Vietnam era. Even while registering disapproval of the war in the polls, the nation as a whole continues to turn a blind eye to the crimes the Bush administration continues to perpetuate against the people of Iraq and our own citizens. Through consumerism and other forms of hedonism, we appear to be escaping the “inconvenient truths” of economic decline, global warming, job flight and sky rocketing housing costs. Everyone is working to pay for a house (or two), for a boat and for summer and winter vacations, not to speak of college tuition, the kids’ iPods, cell phones and laptops. There is little sense of the common good and nearly no political awareness that would help people to understand the war as only part of a failed, ideologically-driven neo-conservative agenda that has bankrupted the nation fiscally and morally.

For my part, I filled hundreds of pages with thoughts about Vietnam during the 1960s and early 70s, including dozens of letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, while I have written next to nothing about Iraq or Bush’s phony “war on terrorism,” not to speak of our loss of essential freedoms, or of the torture and renditions the US is conducting in our names around the world. Just the other day a 90-year-old MIT physicist and former US chief interrogator during World War II said of his work with Nazi prisoners of war: “We never tortured. We never touched our prisoners. We learned more by playing chess and ping pong with them.” How soon we forget.

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