Us and them, part I

By lex, on July 18th, 2007

I’ve got a long and rambling post rattling around in my head that I can’t quite bring forth in concise form, so here it comes in lamentable length. I blame NPR.

Yesterday on the way into work I was listening to an NPR reporter interview one of those hoary leftovers from the Vietnam anti-war movement, a traveler of the old school who had stumbled back into the gratifying light of self-importance in the 21st century. The old goat was bemoaning the fact that so many young people these days are not getting into the anti-war movement like they did back in 60′s and 70′s.

Their attitude, he said, was that all of the soldiers in the fight were volunteers, they’d gone overseas knowing what could happen. Didn’t have much to do with them. It was enough to make a man despair.

Here’s a guy who probably burned his draft card back in the 60′s and you can almost hear the wistfulness in his voice: If only they brought it back. If only everyone’s child ran the risk of getting killed or maimed overseas. If only we all had skin in the game. Then we could put an end to this senseless war.

These people are a small if noisy minority, for most part well-intentioned and at least consistent, even if they are also consistently wooly-headed. War is awful, yes, yes. But even if decide not to believe in war, that’s no guarantee at all that it won’t continue to believe in you.

These were augmented of course by your true, nut-ball radicals, the folks like ANSWER, the anti-everything anarchists and revolutionaries. Folks with a lot of spare time on their hands, good at organizing “peace protests,” but who deep in their hearts wouldn’t mind cracking a few skulls on the way to burning it all down, man. All of it. Amerika.

Then there were the rabid partisans on either side. Those on the left suspected that the war was being used by those on the right to frighten people, line them up behind a Dear Leader who would steal their liberties and turn the keys of their uterus over to John Ashcroft. Which, who knows? There might even have been an element of opportunistic truth in that, and no glory attends to a partisan of any stripe who would seek to shape something so existentially important as an actual war to political gain. Still, another minority I have to think.

And if those on the partisan left built a kind of coalition of convenience with the minimally overlapping ideologies of the stilt puppet set, it isn’t anything but the active expression of a will to power. Not just for its own sake, pace Jeff Goldstein * but also because they really, really know what’s best for us. And that damn war is in the way.

Turned around the other way, the Democratic Party wasn’t nearly radical enough for folks like ANSWER, but, you know: They’d do, for now. Lenin had an expression for it.

These were the folks who were actively against the war right from the start, them and a very small percentage of inveterate pessimists and the people who really did know that sweeping Saddam’s legions from the field would be as child’s play compared to the daunting task of planting a functioning democracy – not just a one-time vote, but all of the civil institutions that go along with the system – into soil where the concepts were not just alien, but in some cases actively toxic. And while it’s true that there were few enough expert in Islam and Arabia to know the risks of the attempt – no matter how many now claim to have known all along -it’s also true that for every John Cole there was a Fouad Adjami.

So. Maybe 30% of the population in avid opposition to crossing the line-of-departure on 20 March 2003, vs. 70% who thought it was a good idea. Numbers neatly flipped * now.

In the interest of brevity (too late!), let me stipulate the motives of an equally energetic and similarly variegated set of committed partisans, neo-cons and war, yes-by-all-means! enthusiasts on the fringe right to focus on that 40% more or less in the middle. People who supported the war at first but who have lost heart over the years. The rest of us, in other words. The real people.

Who are they, and what has changed their mind?

It’s easy – too easy – to blame the shifting basis of support for what had been described as a long, hard struggle to malaise generated by deceptive politicians who claim that their initial support for the war was only because they’d been lied to. A brief trip through the Googleverse puts all of these back in their rightful place, and anyone who argues today that WMD were not abundantly found is only saying that we now know more than we did then – frail virtue.

We should hope for more from of our elected representatives than self-serving attempts to whitewash history, but being as they are we should not hope too fondly. The thing is what it does.

It’s also deceptively simple to blame the unremitting hostility of a mainstream media wedded to disaster narratives and the “another grim milestone” brand of Green Zone reportage. The truth is that in a media market conditioned to MTV-length attention spans, the press offers what the market wants. You and I quickly bore of stories of provincial reconstruction, rebuilt schoolhouses and planes that land on time.

It’s also popular to say that the people are “war weary,” but – apart from the very small percentage of those who are actually deployed, or their families – what do they have to be weary of? We live lives of ease, prosperity and entitlement our own parents could not have imagined, we shop at the mall, are very nearly fully employed, the economy is on solid footing, the stock market is through the roof and yet we go to the watercoolers with worried looks and tell ourselves that the country is very much on the wrong track, tut-tut.

Yes, the war has gone on longer than most people thought it would, but that only means that a hard thing takes as long as it takes – and insurgencies, while mostly prone to eventual failure * are notoriously persistent.

Yes, it is costing a great deal, but as has been mentioned recently, we are very nearly at historic lows * in defense expenditures. And to say that it is costing too much relative to the return on investment is to find oneself debating on the slippery floor of what-if-we-hadn’t fantasies sliding towards sharply pointed it-could-still-get-worse predictions. Even as a once-worrisome national deficit is shrinking *- for now – to a structurally supportable level.

But critics will ask, what about the human costs? All the while knowing that the nasty spats of sectarian violence we have seen to date is merely the exposition to a genocidal coda that will occur if we leave precipitously, before the Iraqi security forces are sufficiently equipped and trained to defend their fragile democracy from the virulent forces of violent extremism which even now goad and claw at them.

But isn’t some of that violence engendered by the very presence of our forces in the field? Yes, some. But the thinking person must admit that whatever rushes in to fill the void created by the withdrawal of the admittedly tattered security blanket created by 150,000 of America’s Finest will not claw itself to local, regional or national pre-eminence without an order of magnitude increase in bloodshed. Nor will it do so without drawing in competing regional actors supporting various parties and sects in a strategically critical part of the world that we will have only just abdicated any form of influence over: Intra-mural slaughter in the Shia south, genocide and displacement in the center, a fortified Kurdish north drawing the ire of the restless Turks.

That, my humanitarian friends, is a hole with no bottom.

But what if we are brutally honest, stipulate that horrorible things occur throughout the world and admit that the only lives we really care about are those of our own, 4000 of which have now gone down to dust in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those committed volunteers, the flower of our national youth whose death their undraftable peers cannot be induced to protest.

Every life lost is a tragedy, precious to the ones who owned them and a source of howling pain to loved ones left behind – even one is too many. And yet, on issues of great import it seems but coldly rational to point out that such losses – regrettable though they might be – are historically miniscule *. Or that the accumulated losses of five years combat overseas represents no more than one month’s carnage * on our freeways and surface streets.

I think it comes to this: We’re feeling guilty.

We’re feeling guilty because we were never asked to sacrifice, never asked to pitch in. Never really asked to share the pain. I used to think that the “sacrifice” argument was a moral canard, a clever way for war opponents to strangle a recovering economy the better to more quickly destabilize support for the effort. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think we see young people and families torn apart and know that going to the mall isn’t getting it done and it makes us feel resentment in ways we can’t quite be proud of.

We’re feeling guilty because we thought that the gray heads had it all under control until a hurricane came ashore in the summer of 2005 and reminded us that no one is ever really in control of anything. We’re feeling guilty because of a press that quickly decided showing us pictures and videos of people jumping to their deaths from a burning World Trade Center was too much for our sensitive dispositions, but that we really needed to have the grotesque humiliations of Abu Ghraib rubbed in our noses for months on end.

We’re feeling guilty not because we were lied to but because everyone was saying everything and we heard what we wanted to hear. That it would be over quickly, that we’d be welcomed in the streets with flowers, that all people were alike everywhere. We’re feeling guilty because we naturally assumed that people liberated from a grinding fascist tyranny would be grateful. That they wouldn’t immediately set about clawing both at their liberators and each other. That they wouldn’t murder themselves in such ghastly numbers, even as we feel guilty for knowing that while we’re not committing the worst of the violence, that it somehow belongs to us anyway. For believing that they just wanted freedom, and democracy and a chance to live normal lives.

That they were like us. And not like them.

But this has gone on too long. I’ll have to come back for “them”.

* 08-11-2018 Links Gone; no replacements found – Ed.

** 08-11-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.

 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, GWOT, Politics and Culture

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