Sunday, October 16, 2005

An Accomplishment Worth Savoring

In Gideon Rose's fawning review of a new book on Iraq by the "hawkish liberal" George Packer, he asks a penetrating question:

How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos?
To answer, one must consider a host of issues that supporters of the war - George Packer, for instance - decided were irrelevant. The difficulty of imposing democracy at gunpoint is one. The tendency of the United States to install authoritarian regimes in countries that have resources it covets is another. A consideration of our dealings with Vietnam might be instructive, too, for those intrepid enough to venture so far into the dark past. Those of a more philosophical bent might even ponder the fact that there are different kinds of strength, and that "the strongest power in modern history" might actually have been rather weak in certain essential ways.

Packer may have considered these issues, or any number of others. But in the end, he found them all lacking in gravitas:
"I would run down the many compelling reasons why a war would be unwise, only to find at the end that Saddam was still in power, tormenting his people and defying the world," [Packer] writes. "The administration's war was not my war -- it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances -- but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way." Eventually, crossing his fingers and deciding that Saddam Hussein had to be considered the greater evil, he went along for the ride (as did I).
I submit that this is the most inexplicable and inexcusable opinion it was possible to have in the run-up to the war. To support the war and trust BushCo was merely to be a fool. But to support the war while objecting to BushCo's methods? I hope for Packer's sake that he's simply lying.

Many of us worried that BushCo would commit crimes against this country and others. We thought he was incompetent, vicious, and corrupt. We explained the basis for these suspicions by invoking his career of cowardice and dishonesty, and his demonstrably disastrous and crony-ridden stint as governor of Texas. But a gaggle of self-involved media chatterboxes like Packer and Rose chose to ignore all of this, and to ridicule those of us who had our facts in order and had drawn the proper conclusions from them.

Perhaps they were as naive as they claim. If so, they ought not to be allowed out of the house without a guardian, because they're a danger to themselves and others. More likely, though, they're bought-and-paid-for cowards whose solipsistic vanity is more discomfited by looking foolish than by being an accessory to mass murder.

What I find most offensive about Rose's tone, and Packer's, is their easy, privileged supposition that Civilization saved them a place at the table while they were out getting innocent people killed. Having willfully put themselves outside the moral community, by shilling for an idiotic war that turned out precisely as its opponents said it would, they're now shameless enough to subject us to the spectacle of their judiciously self-administered "chastening."

People have been executed for crimes less egregious than those of the journalists who acted as cheerleaders for this war, and people have killed themselves over sins far less mortal. When you have the blood of innocents on your hands, it's somewhat crude to demand sympathy for the agonized indecision you went through before the slaughter started.

I'm sickened by this burlesque of honesty and moral seriousness. I have no patience with people like Rose and Packer, who wail about how Bush botched "their war," not least because I suspect that if a "stable" authoritarian regime had been (or could be) imposed on Iraq, these human windsocks would have no serious quarrel with the killing involved, nor with any repressive, anti-democratic tendencies of the new regime.

Rose, in fact, isn't throwing away his party hat just yet; he's still holding out for the possibility of being able to say "I told you so":
[A]lthough events in Iraq have now largely passed out of Washington's control, there is still a remote possibility that the worst outcomes -- full-scale civil war or a completely failed state -- might be kept at bay, leaving the ending of one of the cruelest tyrannies in modern history as an accomplishment worth savoring.
When he's not busy saying daft things like this, Rose takes great pains to praise Packer's literary accomplishments. Perhaps it pleases him to remind us (and himself) that being catastrophically, murderously wrong about a war needn't be the end of one's career, no matter how unflattering this might be to our culture, and to human nature generally:
His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet.
Had Rose read elsewhere in Benjamin's On the Concept of History, he would've found a passage far more relevant to Packer's efforts:
At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate, and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to extricate the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entangled them. The assumption here is that those politicians' stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their "base in the masses," and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus are three aspects of the same thing.
"Servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus" perfectly describes the political and journalistic response to the Iraq War. And both Packer and Rose, as they attempt to reconcile their power-addled historicist daydreams with the fact that their "great and noble" undertaking has turned sour, also manage to underscore Benjamin's point about the political intertwining of culture and barbarism.

They should be ashamed. They're not.


Samurai Sam said...

How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos?

One of the biggest reasons is because Bush only too willing to take on the mantle of White Knight Crusader for Freedom but is not willing to make the committment required to effectively manage a conquered nation. One of the historic examples Bush supporters like to refer to by way of comparison is the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan after WWII. What they fail to realize is that there was no attempt made at acheiving "flowers at our feet" populist support from the conquered nations. Both Germany and Japan were completely and devastatingly crushed by the Allies and then placed under martial law for a number of years. The Allies made certain that the social superstructure of modern democracy was in place before control was ever passed to the people of those nations. We didn't give them freedom for freedom's sake, as Bush seems to believe he's doing in Iraq. We gave them no other option but to become the nations we and the other Allies wished them to become, regardless of their thoughts on the matter. Neither Bush, his supporters nor the American people in general had the stomach to do in Iraq what needed to be done if they truly wanted a stable post-Saddam era.

Phila said...


Good point, but I think the differences between Iraq and the Axis go even deeper than that. Germany and Japan were basically homogenous societies with a shared culture; the threat of civil war in either country was minimal.

Also, the defeat of both these aggressor nations was total and unconditional, which surely served to limit the likelihood of an anti-US insurgency. Fascism promises total victory; under total defeat, it seems to lose a lot of its hypnotic hold on people.

A WWII-style occupation in Iraq wouldn't necessarily have led to stability, in my view...ethnic and religious strife, coupled with our status as invaders, would've caused problems for us regardless. And in additional to the political will, I think we lacked the manpower.