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The Portland Phoenix
November 28 - December 5, 2002

[Features]

Thoughts on going to war

It's no longer a question of if, it seems, but when. When we broaden our war on terrorism from Afghanistan to Iraq, that is. With that in mind, the Phoenix asked staffers and freelancers to give their thoughts on expanding the war.

By Phoenix staff

Democrawhat?

The year was 1917, and progressives were faced with a historic decision: whether to support fellow liberal Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” In a series of articles, John Dewey, who as a founder of the bracing new philosophy of pragmatism and leader of the progressive-education movement had inspired the next generation of young Americans with fresh democratic promise, had finally weighed in: yes. And with that, Randolph Bourne, one of Dewey’s most fervent young admirers, penned a series of antiwar essays — most notably “Twilight of Idols” and “War and the Intellectuals” — that not only expressed his generation’s sense of betrayal by their elders, but marked out the hawk-dove divide that has haunted American liberalism ever since.

Bourne did not speak as a theological pacifist, however; he spoke as a pragmatic democrat, which is why his essays cast valuable light on George W. Bush’s preparations to plunge us into war with Iraq. Eighty-five years ago, Bourne watched in dismay as liberals placed their democratic hopes in a “doubtful League of Nations” while tolerating the “suppression” of radical democratic labor unions at home. “I search in vain for clues as to the specific working-out of our democratic desires, either nationally or internationally, either in the present or in the reconstruction after the war,” he wrote. “No programme is suggested, nor is there feeling for present vague popular movements and revolts. Rather are the latter chided, for their own vagueness and impracticalities.” As far as Bourne could see, “democracy remains an unanalyzed term, useful as a call to battle, but not as an intellectual tool, turning up fresh sod for the changing future.”

Applying these observations to our current state of affairs does nothing to detract from Saddam Hussein’s status as tyrant and mad man. But they do remind us that it is as a democratic people — not as dogs cowering in fear — that we should measure George W. Bush, who is, after all, the most powerful man in all human history. And by Bourne’s standard, Bush — his war and his leadership — is a menace to democracy of vast historical proportions.

How much more evidence do we need? The excesses of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s crackdown on civil liberties come to mind. Far more disturbing along these lines are Iran-Contra mastermind John Poindexter’s plans for a super Pentagon database on all US citizens. More disturbing yet are the innumerable ways Bush has put the war on terror in the service of his ultra-conservative domestic agenda, and done so even at risk to national security. Consider, for example, how he used the Homeland Security bill as a union-busting tool, thereby upending decades of policy debate about the place of organized labor in the good society. Still not satisfied, upon passage of the bill by the House, he announced the privatization of 850,000 federal jobs. Then there came the news a week later that the Army discharged nine highly trained linguists, six of them specializing in Arabic, for being gay. This, at a time when there is a critical shortage of translators available for intelligence work.

But one of the greatest casualties of Bush’s authoritarianism — for that is what it is — is the corrosion of democratic argument itself. This deterioration concerns more than Bush’s malapropisms and tortured prose or the question of whether he is an “idiot.” He may very well be. But articulate or intelligent or not, the most chilling truth is that he doesn’t speak democratically — in a way that is respectful of the moral intelligence of the American people, keen to persuade while recognizing the integrity of the opposition. In their appalling incoherence, his shifting explanations for invading Iraq have been deeply insulting to democratic sensibilities.

Bush’s adversarial method owes more to the world of corporate raiders than to the rhetoric of public persuasion or even the law. Making matters worse, he betrays the dull brutality that comes with a casual sense of aristocratic inheritance. No, worse. It’s as though this son of privilege’s unexamined sense of entitlement has been morally reinforced by the disciplinary emotivism of the recovery movement. The result is the same arrogant yet righteous tone he and his people brought to the 2000 election debacle.

The effects are remarkably infectious. For all of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s many fine qualities, for example, his public justification for supporting Bush’s war-powers resolution was not his finest hour. He may have been assured by Bush and Powell that war would be multilateral and only pursued as a last resort, but what about the rest of us? As a leader of the loyal opposition, Kerry had an obligation — to democracy — to explain to the public what the president didn’t feel obliged to, and to upbraid him for such a show of contempt.

As democracy circles down the drain, we need fewer gentlemen’s agreements, and more “malcontents,” as Bourne had it in 1917. “They will be harsh and often bad-tempered,” he said, “and they will feel that the break-up of things is no time for mellowness.” We must insist on accountability from our “leeeaders,” call authoritarianism by its proper name (while not confusing it with respect for legitimate authority), and re-examine, honestly and personally, what we mean when we say we are committed to the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. Short of that, in these imperiled times, what sort of future will we be fighting for?

— Catherine Tumber

 

The case for war with Saddam Hussein

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Saddam Hussein is a menace to world security, and he must be removed from power.

I’ve been a close observer of Iraqi politics since the first Gulf War. But my support for President Bush’s plans to go to war with Iraq stems from a conversation I had with Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman last March. Lieberman, who has wanted to rid the world of Saddam since 1991, when he called for “total victory” against the Baathist dictator, describes Hussein as a “ticking time bomb” and offers a three-part test to demonstrate the rationale for removing him from power. First, we must ask if Hussein is working to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Second, we must determine if he has demonstrated a propensity to use these weapons. And third, we must assess whether Hussein has a motive to use these weapons against America and our allies in the Middle East. The answer to each and every one of these questions is yes. And the evidence is there for anyone unwilling to be confused by reflexive antiwar rhetoric.

Is Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction? Hussein has tried at least once to build a nuclear facility. In 1981, it was bombed by the Israeli Air Force and destroyed. Two high-ranking Iraqi defectors — including Khidhir Hamza, who worked on Hussein’s nuclear program throughout the 1980s and 1990s and authored Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda (Scribner, 2000) — confirm that Hussein is desperate to develop his own nuclear-weapons program.

Is he willing to use such weapons? In 1988, Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people — the Kurds of Halabja and Goktapa. Thousands died. The effects of the nerve gas linger today among the survivors in the form of high rates of infertility, birth defects, and cancer. (To truly grasp this horror, read Jeffrey Goldberg’s March 25 New Yorker‚piece on Hussein’s nerve-gas attack against the Kurds. It’s available online at www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?020325fa_FACT1.)

Is Hussein willing to attack the United States or its allies? In 1990, he invaded neighboring Kuwait. In 1991, he launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel. In 1993, he plotted to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush. His rhetoric repeatedly denounces America, Israel, and, often, the other Arab states.

One thing antiwar activists don’t seem to realize is that it’s been the official policy of the US government to work for Hussein’s demise since 1998, when President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which mandates that America work with the Iraqi opposition to remove the dictator. The act also authorized funding of $97.5 million for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), the main Iraqi opposition group. Since then, however, a combination of bureaucratic bungling, quasi-official opposition from the CIA and the State Department, and inertia resulted in the government’s failure to send those funds to the INC. My suspicion — developed through numerous interviews with INC head Ahmad Chalabi — is that factions within the US government, perhaps under pressure from other Arab regimes, would prefer to deal with Hussein in Iraq than with the unknown possibility of a relatively democratic opposition movement. Count this as yet another in a long line of devastating foreign-policy mistakes our government has made.

Opponents of the war with Iraq may believe that they occupy the moral high ground because they advocate nonviolence. But there is such a thing as making a just and moral case for war. President Bush may not be communicating it as effectively as he could, but such a case exists. If, five years from now, Hussein successfully arranges for a terrorist cell to detonate a nuclear bomb, killing 100,000 innocents, we will be guilty for not having stopped him when we could have. Didn’t we learn anything from World War II? There is a special place in hell reserved for those whose willful blindness permits evildoers to do harm.

— Seth Gitell

Practiced target

Tell you what, us Arabs are all the same. Uncivilized, America-hating, constantly ticking suicide bombers. I carry a stick of dynamite in my handbag just . . . in . . . case. Best get rid of us all before we can cause any more trouble. You had the right idea with Afghanistan — I mean, look how well that went. Amazing how a few carefully planned massacres (and some not so carefully — we all make mistakes) can bring a nation to its knees. So what if Osama’s still out there, making threats, making plans? You messed those people up good, that’s what counts. And with Iraq, it’ll be a piece of cake. First of all, the country’s barely picked itself up from the Gulf War. And then the Iraqis are already beaten down, living under a leader who rules by fear and sanctions that keep them in poverty. Easy prey. Almost too easy, really. But imagine the satisfaction. Show ’em who’s boss.

And don’t let anyone say you don’t know how it feels. Because you do, don’t you? You remember how sick you felt watching those buildings fall. You still feel the tightening in your throat when you think of all the dead, the horror, the grief. But the Iraqis are used to it. Hell, Arabs are always running around killing each other anyway. What difference does another war make? All those potential terrorists, hugging their nukes and hatching anti-democratic schemes. They’re asking for it.

Sure, you could destroy thousands of lives and still come up empty-handed. But better safe than sorry. True, America might lose more of its own fighting a threat that may not exist. But just because other Arab nations aren’t worried about Iraq doesn’t mean there’s no danger (all Arabs are in cahoots, y’know). And yeah, this kind of knee-jerk reaction could alienate other leaders, making them reconsider their allegiance to a trigger-happy USA. But who needs friends when you’ve got guns and money? Besides, you’ve got to set an example. As an added bonus, you could get some pictures of dead Iraqis printed on T-shirts in time for the next election. They know it’s nothing personal. Because it’s not. Right?

— Jumana Farouky

 

Bush’s naive — and scary — idealism

Call it the Bush Corollary to the Wherry Doctrine. In 1940, Senator Kenneth Wherry, a Republican from Nebraska, cast an eye toward China and declared, “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” Sixty-two years later, George W. Bush seeks to bring peace, justice, and democracy to another troubled part of the world — the Middle East — through the alchemy of military force and benevolent imperialism. The president proposes to lift Baghdad up and up, ever up, until it is just like . . . Dallas.

Bush can be a cynical operator when it comes to little things, like (not) counting votes and pushing through tax cuts for his wealthy campaign contributors. But on the stuff that really matters — war, peace, and the future of humanity — he is an idealist through and through. And that should scare the hell out of us.

Everyone has a spin on why Bush is so eager to go to war against Iraq. Most of these theories, at least from some elements of the antiwar left, are cynical indeed, ranging from the president’s alleged lust for Iraqi oil to his desire to change the subject from the shaky economy just before the fall elections. And I don’t doubt that oil has something to do with why Bush is more interested in Iraq than, say, North Korea, or that he prefers to talk about weapons of mass destruction rather than corporate greed and corruption.

But what’s at the root of Bush’s war fever is that he believes he can make the world a better place by toppling Saddam Hussein. The president has reportedly been enraptured by a vision put forth by his most hawkish advisers — principally Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, aided and abetted by Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice — that we can transform Iraq into an Arab-Muslim version of a liberal democracy, much as we reconstructed Germany and Japan after World War II. Show the way in Iraq, so this theory goes, and corrupt dictatorships such as those in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt will fall in line (or fall). Radical, America-hating Islamists will be transformed into moderate, America-loving Muslims, the Palestinians and the Israelis will finally agree to live in harmony, and we will all reap the benefits of a new era of wonderfulness.

It’s a theory of which Kenneth Wherry would have approved. But it’s not worthy of consideration as an operating principle for a mature and realistic superpower. More than anything, the Bush Corollary fails utterly to recognize the limits of American power. It’s tiresome and not always relevant to dredge up the lessons of Vietnam, but there were lessons from that misguided and tragic episode. The first and most important: We cannot remake in our own image cultures that are very different from ours.

Yes, Iraq will fall if we invade. The gravest danger American troops may face is getting trampled by surrendering Iraqi soldiers. But after that, Iraq is ours, for a generation, if not longer. As a recent Atlantic Monthly cover story put it, Iraq will become, in effect, “the 51st state.” Is that what we want? Can we really transform Iraq into another Japan or Germany? Or are we going to make the entire country — as opposed to just Saddam and his henchmen — despise us, and seek revenge for our arrogance and hubris?

Despite the war fever that has infected the White House, if not the rest of the country, I’m not entirely pessimistic. Secretary of State Colin Powell and British prime minister Tony Blair reportedly urged Bush to cease his threats of unilateral war and “regime change” and, instead, to work with the United Nations and our allies. Their entreaties had the intended effect, at least for the moment. The UN Security Council voted unanimously to enforce tough new inspections in Iraq aimed at depriving Saddam of his chemical- and biological-weapons capabilities, and of whatever nascent nuclear-bomb program he may have. If Saddam impedes the UN’s weapons inspectors, the US and Britain will invade — but presumably with the backing of the UN, which makes all the difference.

Moreover, the weapons inspections could well mean no war at all. Saddam is evil, and he sometimes acts irrationally. But he doesn’t want to die. No doubt he’ll play some cat-and-mouse games with the inspectors, but there’s reason to hope he’ll be just forthcoming enough to avoid an invasion.

Of course, the UN has to live up to its responsibilities, too. After a certain point, the UN’s desire for peace morphs into appeasement. But the greater danger is that Bush — to use the cliché of the moment — won’t take “yes” for an answer. He’s playing the internationalist card for the time being, but every day there are new stories about his administration’s preparations for war. The air war already may have begun, and the White House was charging that Iraq had committed a “material breach” of the Security Council resolution before chief weapons inspector Hans Blix could even begin his work. It would be a tragedy if Bush views the weapons inspections as nothing more than a speed bump on the road to Baghdad.

The Wherry Doctrine and its Bush Corollary speak to the typically American, usually wrong belief that all problems can be solved. Unfortunately, in international politics problems often can’t be solved; they can only be managed. The British have a long tradition of pursuing a less high-minded but more sensible strategy. It’s called muddling through.

Thanks to Powell and Blair, we have a chance to muddle through — to keep Saddam tied up and contained indefinitely, to wait for him to die or be overthrown, at which point new opportunities will present themselves. Obviously, the greatest obstacle to that strategy is Saddam, who may have already decided to go out in a blaze of glory. But the next-greatest threat is the naive idealist in the Oval Office, utterly convinced of how much better the world would be if only we could invade Iraq — and teach all those Arabs to be more like Americans.

— Dan Kennedy

 

Pre-emptive right

The current Danse Macabre preceding the second Gulf War would be amusing, in Saturday Night Live fashion, were it not grim. This is a “we know that Saddam knows we know he knows we’re going to war but it’s just a matter of when” affair, composed of equal parts mock concern about the sensibilities of the rest of the world, preference that at least that part of it we like to call friendly will be on board, and anxiety over whether, having won the war, we’ll also win the peace. No one needs a primer on what’s wrong with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or why defanging it would be a beneficial act for humanity.

As always, the “antiwar movement” is a congeries, as in the last greatly disputed war, Vietnam. One faction can’t abide the prospect of the USA going to war for any reason: the Unabridged Pacifist Coterie. Another isn’t really antiwar, it’s anti-US involvement in any war we might win: the Jane Fonda Redivivus Cabal. A third is unique to this situation: the Arab Street Will Be Pissed Off Sodality, nowadays an auxiliary of the old State Department Arabists. A fourth faction is the one anxious to make life as miserable as possible for Israel, erroneously believing that our upcoming war against Iraq will be catnip for Israel. Harvard president Lawrence Summers is loath to say outright that if it walks like an anti-Semite, talks like an anti-Semite, and smells like an anti-Semite, it’s an anti-Semite, so I’ll say it for him: this faction speaks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. This faction hates Israel and the Jews and doesn’t want the US to do anything that might help either. In fact, our war against Iraq may well bring, initially, terrible destruction to Israel, but the Jew-haters don’t know that.

Finally, there’s the faction that thinks this would be the wrong war, certainly at the wrong time, maybe at any time. Its proponents make their case in today’s Phoenix. They err in assuming that a pre-emptive war is inherently un-American and likely to set us on the fast track to many such wars. They assume that attacking, conquering, and “regime changing” Iraq would be a brand-new war rather than the continuation, after an 11-year lull, of the first Gulf War. They assume also that since we don’t have authenticated photographs of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein lolling cozily in a hot tub setting Old Glory on fire, we can’t reasonably assume these bad actors act in concert.

But we can, and must. Islamist terrorism is hydra-headed; recently, most of it has operated along Osama-inspired lines, a brainchild of the Wahhabist belief that everyone must be an ultra-orthodox Muslim or be slaughtered. But a part of this generalized terrorism is its secularist Baathist tentacle, headquartered in Baghdad and with a satellite branch in Damascus. Nazi Germany managed to make common cause with Fascist Italy and to incorporate the Japanese into its Axis as “little Aryans.” So, too, the only rhetorically Muslim Saddam Hussein and the Islamist fanatic Osama bin Laden are twin pillars in the Middle Eastern terrorist war on civilization. For both, the enemy of their enemy is their friend.

Forgotten also in the ritual condemnation of pre-emptive wars is that they are often supremely just. Two examples: in 1967, Israel, recognizing what was in store for it were it to wait for Egypt, which was massing troops in the Sinai to tighten the noose, struck first, urging the Jordanians not to get into it; Jordan, as usual, stupidly paid no heed and lost Judea, Samaria, and Old Jerusalem for its pains. And in 1981, as France, the world’s great model of lightning-quick surrender and 21st-century anti-Semitism, was assisting Iraq in building a nuclear reactor that could soon have been converted to weapons-making purposes, Israel struck and destroyed the facility. The whole world bellowed — although much of the civilized world was privately, quietly relieved — and today all but the “antiwar movement” is grateful for what Israel did.

Our upcoming “pre-emptive” war against Iraq will be criticized by much of the world, although a subset of the world secretly will be filled with joy. History will show that the US (and any nations that have the common sense to join us) rescued the world from those dreaded weapons of mass destruction. If the European Union is cranky about that, well, as they say in the EU salons, or at least in the French part of Brussels, tant pis.

— David Brudnoy

 

Inaccurate emergency measure

In the end, a lot of it was a lie — or at least an exaggeration. But throughout the Cold War, American and Soviet citizens lived under the constant threat of nuclear attack. The two nations’ respective bogeymen, our governments relentlessly reminded us, had their fingers on Big Red Buttons that could fire missiles capable of hitting New York, Moscow, Pittsburgh, Minsk, Detroit, Leningrad, Los Angeles, Irkutsk, Washington, and everything in between — precipitating, of course, the End of the World. It was never presented as an issue of “if”; just as a question of “when.” The atmosphere was dreadfully unpleasant on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Like many of us, I lost sleep.

Today, the Bushies are determined to provoke a war over the possible presence of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq, a remote nation so militarily advanced that if it wanted to deliver an atomic bomb to Detroit, it would have to buy it a train ticket. Never mind that any war is an atrocity that no moral person can favor. Never mind that we’d be aiming our proverbial elephant gun at the proverbial mosquito. Never mind that we’d be taking the lives of Iraqi civilians who don’t possess a sack of garbanzos, let alone a weapon of mass destruction. Never mind that the war would put American lives in harm’s way and expose 18-year-olds to the science of killing. Just consider President Bush’s alleged justification for assaulting Iraq in light of the fact that the United States survived, occasionally prospered, and generally muddled on for decades while the Soviets sat with their Big Red Fingers poised over their Big Red Button.

Where’s the emergency here? Okay, bogeyman du jour Saddam Hussein (granted, a petty dictator of comical proportions and fully capable of ungentlemanly behavior) could aim those WMDs at a target closer to Baghdad. But the Cold War Soviets could have taken out Finland or West Germany in an eye-blink, and (aside from a lack of will and a soupçon of decency) what stopped them? The mere threat of all-out hell-from-the-sky retaliation from the West, that’s what. And the protection the US afforded our less-armed-to-the-teeth allies gave America a reason to demand gratitude and cooperation from everyone we shielded. It was idiotic, but, given the tenor of the times, the arrangement saved face and probably lives.

Not that the balance-of-terror deterrent is something I care to revisit. It was a dead-end bluff the last time we tried it. Weapons of mass destruction in anybody’s hands are a bad idea, and gun-to-the-head diplomacy isn’t exactly an enlightened approach to international relations. There are humane and civilized alternatives to sanctions and bullying that the oil-thirsty thugs in Bush’s State Department haven’t fully explored, and I’d prefer that creative avenues to peace were the focus of the current debate. “When do you think we should bomb Iraq?” isn’t any more of a policy choice than what the Democrats gave us in the midterm elections.

— Clif Garboden

 

Nightmares of war

I’ve been having nightmares lately. I was going to write something more detached about my objections to this foregone conclusion of war, something about oil and sanctions and the plight of the Iraqi people — about propaganda and imperialism and depleted uranium. That would be the high-minded thing to do. But I’ve decided instead to write about these nightmares of mine, because, ultimately, I’m a small-minded American.

There have been many. I’ll relate one in particular. As most dreams go, it began innocently, and in a completely unrelated venue. But by the various twists and turns of my subconscious, I found myself riding in the front seat of a military jeep, sandwiched between two Inuit men who were, in fact, taking me on this trip through sheer will of their own memory — as if the entire thing was being projected onto a screen in front of us: a dirt road strewn with bodies in fatigues; an open field to one side, a deciduous forest to the other.

The men were tearfully recalling a massive accident, upon whose scene we were now arriving to rescue their compatriots. But we hit a rock, and the jeep pitched up on two wheels, and as we teetered I was scared, equally, of two things: that we were going to die, and that if we didn’t die, I was going to land on a body already dead and bloodied.

We did neither. We flipped, we landed, and we were thrown in various directions. I pulled out my cell phone to call 911, and with some urgent, almost absurd sense of leadership that I can’t say I’ve ever felt in waking life, I ordered the Inuit (there seemed, now, to be more than two of them) to turn off their own cell phones to save the batteries. In case we needed them later.

When my call connected, it was an answering machine. I remember wondering, panicked, if there was anybody else I could call. A second 911 provider. But there’s pretty much a monopoly on emergency-rescue service, isn’t there?

As I hung up, two men in fatigues with machine guns approached. I believe they wore berets. I believe they had mustaches. In any event, they were not there to protect me. They were the other side. And I was stricken because I knew they were approaching to ask me to come care for their wounded (who were no longer, apparently, the comrades of the Inuit), and though I was terrified of 1) being taken by the enemy, and 2) having to touch dead and dying bodies, I knew they would kill me if I refused.

So I ran. I don’t remember running, I just remember that next, I was crouched between the bed and the wall in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. I was staring out the window, which was cracked open four or five inches. And in the street in front of the house, in a suburban neighborhood south of Boston, an entire army was lined up, guns aimed at my window. Yes, they all wore berets. Yes, they all had mustaches. Yes, they all looked remarkably like Saddam Hussein.

They fired. I ducked down as hard as I could, my forehead against the planks of the hardwood floor.

That’s all I remember. I think I woke up, or else I died and moved on to another, less memorable dream.

There are more of these dark fictions, and they are similar, but I want to make sure I save the space to say this: I am not afraid we will be attacked if we don’t attack first. I am afraid that if we do attack, my worst nightmares will come true. We will unleash global retribution for the ruthless tactics of our leaders, and then we will all be living in a war zone.

— Jess Kilby

 

War games

It’s difficult to imagine that it was once honorable to wage war; that the English and the French would stop fighting at sunset and sort out their dead and wounded peaceably. Of course, that’s nostalgic hooey. They were probably just limited by their technology. If they’d had night-vision goggles during the Hundred Years’ War, I’m sure they would have kept fighting through the night. Now, thanks to that same technology, war has become a video game. There isn’t much honor in winning a video game. Most of us just hit reset until we win.

And when aren’t we playing that video game? Are we at war with Afghanistan? In Afghanistan? Reset. With Colombia? In Colombia? Reset. Did we win the war against Bosnia? Against Iraq the first time? I’m not sure, but the game’s over. I know we won World War II because I’ve played Medal of Honor. And they don’t make video games about the wars we’ve lost. There’s no game about Somalia, right?

In the video games, we become the people — soldiers and civilians (are we all soldiers in the war against terrorism?) — who are fighting for their lives. That makes sense. If somebody’s about to kill you, you try to stop them. You kill them. Isn’t that Bush’s central argument for Gulf War II? Saddam is trying to kill us, so we’re trying to stop him? Or is it that Saddam is trying to kill someone else (his own people, the Kurds, those poor Kuwaitis), so we’re trying to stop him? Or maybe we know (or think) that Saddam has the power to kill lots of people (maybe us, maybe not, maybe Israel), so we’re trying to stop him from doing that (assuming he can do it and wants to do it, which he obviously does because he’s evil, obviously).

North Korea is much the same — you know, it’s evil, it has bad weapons, it wants to kill people — but we don’t want to play that game.

Even a bad video game gives you a set of clear objectives. Mission: go into Iraq. Mission: assassinate Saddam Hussein. Mission: install your own puppet regime. They may be blunt, but they’re easy to follow. Bush would win points with me if he were at least clear about what he wanted.

No self-respecting video game would ever come up with something like: Go tell your citizens and the world that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction even though you, yourself, are not actually sure; then, without confirmation one way or the other, start amassing troops on its border until you just get impatient for an actual excuse and make one up about Al Qaeda or some other secret intelligence source so that you can start dropping bombs and controlling its oil. Warning: If Saddam really does have chemical and biological weapons, like you say he does, then you’re totally fucked because he’ll use them against your troops — your own CIA says so — and the casualties will be criminal.

No one would play that game. I don’t want to play that game.

— Sam Pfeifle

 

Singing out

The endless blah-blah of idiots North of the Border on this subject is, of course, fuel for mockery South of the Border. Folks down here in Latin America feel like, “Hey, we’ve seen this movie before.”

“Gulf War I” did not accomplish any of its stated goals, so why the sequel? I don’t know how to talk to my countrymen anymore on this subject. They clearly don’t respond to logic or reason. Between the “disaster groupies” (as a 13-year-old New Yorker friend described the post-9/11 mood in my hometown) and the macho little fucks who transparently seem to think, “Wow, we finally get our war!” (fucking morons), I am at a loss for words.

And so, I submit . . . a song.

 

War

You believed in God the Father

You believed in Allah, too

You believed in a Goddess,

The Mother of you all

She made God and Allah, too

 

And you believed in love

You believed in love?

Said it was what you were fighting for

You once knew when

And how to fight

Now you just believe in war

 

You believed in Jesus Christ

You believed in Holy Ghosts

You believed in Mary Magdalene

She’s the one who loved the most

 

Saint Maria, Sweet Maria

With her shamanistic chants

Her incense and her ointments

And her sacramental plants

Yes, you believed her heresy

Her prophesy and more

Now you just believe in war

 

You believed in MTV

You believed in rock and roll

You believed in Oscar, Emmy, Grammy,

Heisman, Nobel, Pulitzer

You believed in Super Bowl

 

And you believed the salesman

When he knocked upon your door

Put a beeper on your belt

And a screen upon your floor

Told you God was on your team

But he would not tell you the score

And now you just believe in war

 

You believed in Pentagon

You believed in World Trade

Now, look up in the sky, baby

Tell me what you see

Behold all that you have made

 

The problem wasn’t terrorists

The problem wasn’t thieves

The problem wasn’t which God

But the way that you believed

Your wife went off to work today

She ain’t comin’ home no more

And now you just believe in war

 

You used to shout,

“Out, demons, out!”

Now you’ve become such a bore

Now you just believe in war.

— Al Giordano

 

No blood for oil

These are ugly times, the kind I hoped that, as an American, I would not experience.

Never before have we had a president who was so obviously owned by corporate interests. Don’t believe the hick act, if you still do. George Bush is a slick, manipulative liar whose primary objective in attacking Iraq is establishing a military base there to protect Big Oil’s interests in the Persian Gulf. This became important to Bush and his owners when the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks revealed that Saudi Arabia is not the ally it was considered to be, but rather a country capable of switching its allegiance to Islamic extremists should it decide it no longer wants America’s oil dollars.

In their rotten, dark-scoundrel hearts, members of the Bush administration quietly thank Osama bin Laden for opening the doors at home to a decade of foul legislation they’d unsuccessfully sought to pass restricting the rights of American citizens. Many sections of the Homeland Security Act are deliberately structured to begin dismantling free speech and other civil liberties, and to establish a Kremlin-like federal culture in which anyone can be spied upon at whim and thrown into prison under the pretext of suspicion. If you think this administration has the best interests of Americans, or humanity-in-general, in mind, check its record on environmental issues such as global warming or oil farming in the Alaskan wilderness, or its stance on national health-care initiatives or education.

I’d go so far as to call this part of a long-term conspiracy by the corporate oligarchy for which the Republican Party has become the primary mouthpiece. The Reagan administration began deliberately dismantling nationwide education initiatives and devaluing intellectualism as part of a plan to dumb down a new generation of citizens who have now come into adulthood. How else to explain recent survey results indicating that younger citizens support Bush’s intentions to wage war on Iraq, while middle-aged voters view the president’s efforts with skepticism? Or the conviction of marketing experts that the generation coming into adulthood over the next decade will be the most susceptible ever to advertising? A generation of consumer cattle, bred by the fed. I hope these stupid little fuckers will prove this aging bastard wrong. But it’s obvious that even older citizens have caved under the weight of two decades of propaganda. How else to explain the election of an unqualified corporate raider like Mitt Romney as Massachusetts governor? Government is supposed to be a benevolent institution that takes care of us, not an industry led by cost initiatives. How the hell did we ever let things go so wrong?

Now, I hate Osama bin Laden and believe that he should already have been brought to justice (although it’s great for a smoke-and-mirrors operation like Bush’s to have a live scapegoat). I also believe that Saddam Hussein is a murderous scumbag. But war is vile. And we’ve already seen in Afghanistan that this war is going to be altogether different from the first, high-tech Gulf War. It will be up-close and messy, opened by bombs and long-distance-weapon fire, but brought to its ultimate result — if it can be — by close-quarters fighting akin to the battles our troops fought with Al Qaeda members in that desert prison, in hospitals, and within the walls of homes in small villages. It will be personal and terrifying, and it has the potential to cause the kinds of death and injury to US troops and civilians that we have not seen since Vietnam. It will do nothing to prevent terrorism in the US or to make anybody’s life better. The opposite is likely. Blood for oil and corporate wealth. Is that a trade a responsible president would ask us to make?

— Ted Drozdowski

 

What power does

Lately I have been doing research and writing on fitness and sports. Everybody knows the country is fast becoming morbidly fat. By official measures, two-thirds of the population is overweight, nearly one-third obese. Few people know, however, that sports and exercise have declined in per capita participation since about 1990, wiping out the gains of the so-called fitness boom — if it was real. In part, our fat is spreading because of the larger quantities of bad food we eat, especially when we eat out, as we do increasingly. Our frantic, produce-and-consume-from-cradle-to-grave society is destroying healthy home cooking. But experts recognize that lack of exercise is a greater contributor to our fatness.

As physical education in schools has declined, watching sports on television has increased. Befitting our global empire, America is replicating Roman spectatorship, not Greek participation, as a model of sport. And there are other signs of late-Roman-like corruption: the increasing gap between rich and poor; the shameful ostentation of the wealthy; the destruction of community and family, with the resulting neglect of children; the high incidence of crime and drug use; the vast numbers imprisoned; the bizarre growth of gambling; the enormous amount of time people spend watching the circus of television; the envious hatred directed at the United States from abroad; the reliance on a professional military to fight that hatred; and, most important, the absence of any viable spiritual alternative to materialism. These could be signs that the rich, imperial, winner society may become the loser society. Degeneracy predicts decline.

Several years before September 11, 2001, I asked my freshman English class at the University of Maine if, under any circumstances, any of them would die for their country. Not one student raised a hand. The question had no meaning for them. In our consumer society, sacrifice has no place. And, the students explained to me, American military technology — as demonstrated to them on television in the Gulf War and in Kosovo — had rendered dying for one’s country obsolete. War for them was a spectator sport.

They were willing, though, to let their country kill. Think what that may mean for us and for the rest of the world: war without sacrifice for us, war without end for them. It pains me to say it about these pleasant, semi-innocent young people — they were probably expressing attitudes learned from their elders — but their way of thinking was degenerate. The war on terrorism has changed nothing. What was the sacrifice President Bush asked Americans to make after September 11? Go shopping.

I am encouraged, however, by the people, young and old, turning out to protest — sometimes sacrificially, by getting arrested — the government’s barbaric rush to attack Iraq. I wish there were more of them. They are defending civilization.

— Lance Tapley

 

America the incompetent

I do not trust my government. I do not trust the media. Osama bin Laden is dead. Osama bin Laden is alive. We’re going to war. We’re not going to war. Be scared of terrorism. Be more afraid, like code-red afraid. Worry about anthrax. Fret about smallpox. Fear the thug in Iraq. Ignore the dictator from North Korea. Forget about corporate crimes. Disregard the faltering economy.

I consume the news in disbelief. The American people — fooled by the president’s arrogant preaching — overlook his hypocritical message: we will use our weapons of mass destruction if Saddam doesn’t get rid of his.

Why doesn’t anyone tell us to disarm?

When we go to war, we become the terrorists. Thousands — or hundreds of thousands — of innocent Iraqi civilians will die. Our smart bombs will cause carnage. Our missiles will knock down apartments, hospitals, and mosques. Our artillery will destroy neighborhoods. Our bullets will murder the blameless. Our actions will obliterate a country and further destabilize a region already filled with people who hate America. Our brutality will trigger more violence from our enemies.

If the US military’s exploits in Afghanistan are any indication, Saddam will survive unscathed, just as he did after battling Bush’s father. He is a man surrounded by doubles and look-alikes. How will we know if we ever get the real Saddam? He will become a secular bin Laden, taunting us from an undisclosed location while his surrogates wage a war of terror the United States is not prepared to fight.

The armed forces have begun the grand migration of personnel and equipment for Gulf War Two. The pollsters wonder if the American public can handle casualties. The more realistic question, though, is whether we understand that most of our deaths will be the result of accidents, blunders, or mathematical errors.

That’s what we forget during these days of patriotic fervor and militaristic boosterism: We can kick Saddam’s ass, but not without mistakes. Remember, most of the American casualties in Gulf War I died as the result of “friendly fire,” the polite way of saying, “We fucked up.” It’s unpatriotic to discuss the incompetence of the armed forces. We’re led to believe that our crack troops are perfect and strong. But most of today’s sailors and soldiers volunteered during peacetime. And these inexperienced warriors will be almost worthless in the battles that follow the initial high-tech bloodbath.

Bush is using Saddam to distract Americans. Bush and his handlers have hypnotized the masses into believing Iraq is our worst enemy. He doesn’t want us to realize it’s almost impossible to beat the small cells of militants — armed with box cutters and airplanes — who infiltrate our society. Instead, he wants us to focus on a traditional foe with borders and buildings, on a tangible measure of alleged success and on kill rates.

Although he claims to be a Christian, Bush’s war-mongering shows he’s just a poser with a Bible. I’m pretty damn sure Jesus wouldn’t recommend slaughtering a country in order to punish its leader. I don’t think the Savior would agree with our weapons strategies, or our willingness to fight over oil or to wage war in order to revitalize the sagging defense industry.

We need to seek peace. It’s as simple as that. Every other option is complicated and painful. But easy changes to our foreign policy could defuse global conflict. We need to eliminate our dependence on oil. Remove our troops from countries where they’re not welcome. Stop giving despots guns and money and biological poisons. Disarm all nuclear weapons on the planet. Stop playing these war games that will haunt us forever.

— Chris Barry

 

Information, please

All right, Mr. President. Let’s ignore the vapid, matted-haired peaceniks whose anti-Americanism is so reflexive and ingrained that they’d sooner cook Osama bin Laden a vegan meal than countenance hunting him in Afghanistan. And let’s forget about your creepy “chicken hawk” plotters who are so fixated, so obsessed with sending low-income 19-year-olds to die in combat even though they themselves craftily eluded conscription a generation ago. Both of these groups are immaterial now. Because, like many other spoiled children, you’ve complained and fussed and hectored for so long that it looks like you’ll finally get the war you want so badly.

But, Mr. President, leaving aside the fact that you still haven’t given us a cogent argument as to why we need to do this now, please answer this question instead: then what do we do?

Because no one in your administration has offered anything more than boilerplate bromides when confronted with explaining what exactly the plan is once the military campaign is over (it should be relatively quickly, we’re told) and Saddam Hussein is gone. It’s not because no one is asking.

What sort of government will you install in Baghdad? You’ll have to do it quickly. Who will it be? The Iraqi National Congress or other exile groups? The US by proxy? Somebody like the shah? (Or like Saddam used to be?) I read an Associated Press report about some plans in the works to “use American and other foreign troops as a stabilizing force until a new government is formed.” (“The United States will not cut and run,” assures Ari Fleischer.) But what exactly does that mean?

And what about the myriad other hurdles after that? Iraq’s enormous debt? Internecine squabbling and vendettas among the country’s fractious ethnic groups? Iraq’s nervous neighbors? What about tending to the injured and destitute? Food, medicine, education? I remember how you used to jeer at “nation-building.” Can I believe someone’s mind changes so quickly? Or do you plan to palm that yucky stuff off on the UN? (An organization that’s worth something sometimes.)

It just seems like you’re putting the cart before the proverbial horse. You’re very intent on disarming and dethroning Saddam, that much is abundantly clear. But I’ve seen very little evidence of serious, specific thought about the whole range of responsibilities that will arise after we’ve “won.” How much have you pondered what happens next? In the November Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows wrote a cover story called “The Fifty-first State?” that deals with “the inevitable aftermath of victory in Iraq.” Did you read it? In researching the piece, Fallows consulted with “spies, Arabists, oil-company officials, diplomats, scholars, policy experts, and many active-duty and retired soldiers.” Have you? Or have you talked only with Richard Perle?

I’m not saying the challenge we face is impossible. Nor — I feel compelled to spell out — am I saying I’m against it out of hand. I just wish you’d be a little more forthcoming about how, specifically, you plan to tackle it. I keep hearing Paul Wolfowitz talk about this shining beacon of Iraqi democracy, the cornerstone of a new Middle East, that will rise from the ashes of Baghdad when the smoke finally clears. Of course I hope it does. I’m sure the Iraqi people do too. But what if they elect someone you don’t like?

At the very least, you know all this will be extraordinarily expensive. You seem very willing to go to war alone; are you equally willing to shoulder the financial imperatives of reconstruction? In this economic climate? Without raising taxes? Do the American people know about this?

Yes, we did the brunt of the work in refashioning Germany and Japan in our image after World War II. But we did have some help. And it took a lot of time and a lot of money. But look what we’ve done on other occasions. We routed the Soviets from Afghanistan. Then we “cut and ran.” Look what happened next.

Mr. President, all I’m saying is this: your guys are very good at leaking war plans to the papers. Let’s see them leak some reconstruction plans. Because we can’t afford to make this up as we go along. Not now.

— Mike Miliard

 

Back to the future?

This is what I hate about current discussions about a possible (inevitable?) war with Iraq: they are hardly ever discussions. Most people’s political opinions are formed by a mixture of personal experience, economic interest, gender expectations, and one’s idea — usually sentimental — of what America stands for. In times of crisis, we all resort to the simplest, most reductionistic expressions of these opinions. As someone who has been actively involved with progressive politics since the mid 1960s, I am infuriated — and disheartened — when any criticism or qualm I voice about the Bush administration’s foreign policy or war on terrorism is greeted with the dismissive comment, “Get over the ’60s — this isn’t Vietnam.” Of course it’s not Vietnam, but it’s not Pearl Harbor either, and Saddam Hussein isn’t Hitler.

I understand that there is a strain of progressive political argument that easily slips into knee-jerk rhetoric enumerating the appalling, immoral errors of US foreign policy: the genocidal war against Vietnam, funding and training death squads in Central America, instigating “regime changes” (i.e., assassinations) in Chile, Cuba, and a host of other countries. But, quite frankly, this is not what I hear most progressives arguing. What I hear — and say — is not “This is another Vietnam,” but “We don’t want another Vietnam.” That is very different. It is called remembering and learning from history.

What I hear from conservatives, however, is rhetoric that is far less nuanced. It is the rhetoric of insistent nationalism. I remember hearing such sentiments about Vietnam in the 1960s and early ’70s, the constant reiteration of “America — love it or leave it” and the far more frightening “My country, right or wrong.” These declarations were called out — and called upon — to displace discussion. The antiwar movement (a wide range of groups and people, hardly all progressive) was demonized for even voicing criticism of US policy. It’s true that the protesters themselves often did not promote fruitful discussion. Although it raised a startling, potent, and vital question, chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” was as polarizing as the “America first” rhetoric. As with politics today, real discussion was hardly possible. But that was because — in large part — those with political and military power (and their supporters) were unwilling to have a discussion.

Most progressives I know today are willing to have a frank, civil discussion. But that discussion has to be a complicated one that involves the past and the nature of international politics. And it must be open to the possibility that the United States might not always be right. Complicated discussion is difficult when people feel threatened. During the 1960s and ’70s, the “threat” of a Communist takeover of Vietnam — which in retrospect appears so illusionary, so imaginary — was enough to impede all civil political discussion. Life and politics are so much more complicated today that even the idea of such a discussion feels nearly impossible.

When I discuss Iraq with my less progressive friends, I try to be clear and avoid easy rhetoric. My basic theme is that war should be the last resort, not the first. It should be predicated on moral and ethical principles and waged with clear objectives against clear dangers. At this point in the discussion — as rocky as it is — it seems to me that a war against Iraq meets none of these criteria. Yes, I know that this isn’t the 1960s and this isn’t Vietnam. But I also know that we don’t move forward with any sense of survival or integrity unless we have hard, open discussions about what we are doing and why; where we have been, and what we have done wrong in the past.

— Michael Bronski

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