Posted by lex, on August 25th, 2007
Much has been made, both better and worse, of President Bush’s comparison of the war in Iraq – and the potential consequences of failure there – with the national disgrace that followed hard upon the heels of our betrayal of allies in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the WSJ today, former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan reaches even further back in to evoke the ghosts of Normandy, relaying the tale of a hot-air ballooning trip that landed short in the fields of an octogenarian Norman farmer:
(The French farmer) didn’t welcome us because he knew us. He didn’t treat us like royalty because we had done anything for him. He honored us because we were related to, were the sons and daughters of, the men of the Normandy Invasion. The men who had fought their way through France hedgerow by hedgerow, who’d jumped from planes in the dark and climbed the cliffs and given France back to the French. He thought we were of their sort. And he knew they were good. He’d seen them, when he was young.
I’ve been thinking of the old man because of Iraq and the coming debate on our future there. Whatever we do or should do, there is one fact that is going to be left on the ground there when we’re gone. That is the impression made by, and the future memories left by, American troops in their dealings with the Iraqi people…
We’re so used to thinking of American troops as good guys that we forget: They’re good guys! They have American class. And it is not possible that the good people of Iraq are not noticing, and that in some way down the road the sum of these acts will not come to have some special meaning, some special weight of its own.
Taking nothing away from the bravery and class of American soldiers of yesterday or today, I fear the lady might be playing a too self-consciously pollyannaish role here: Ms. Noonan initially supported the war effort, and the president, before deciding at some point that the effort was irretrievably lost and that the president himself had betrayed both the party and her beloved Reagan’s conservative legacy. Not just because of the war, but also due to the profligate spending attaching to “compassionate conservatism” and the president’s support of immigration reform.
Ms. Noonan is particularly gifted at draping the workaday machinery of politics with beautiful imagery. She makes people believe. When President Bush lost Peggy Noonan, the Beltway wisdom went, he lost not merely the Republican Party machine, but also the party’s heart. Her “whatever happens now” missive uses the iconic imagery of pastoral Normandy to help us all “look on the bright side.” She gives the machine a fig leaf to cover their withdrawal of US forces regardless of facts on the ground in order to support the domestic political time line.
Each of them have their parochial concerns. The president hopes to win the war, to stabilize Iraq, to build an edifice of perceptible success upon the blood-soaked sand and treasure mounded in the desert. Ms. Noonan hopes to save the party.
The French people, and the Germans for that matter, were culturally familiar to the 40’s era GI’s in a way that the Japanese were not. The way that the Iraqi people are not. And yet I wonder how her iconographic Norman would have reacted to her ballooning party dropping in on his back yard if the American invasion had been repulsed at Normandy, his homeland occupied in the interim by fascists. Would he have remembered the kindness and class of the American GI? Or would he have remembered instead the jackboot in his neck, after the Americans had gone home.
Faced with the fractures in Iraqi society, the weakness of Iraqi civil structures and government institutions and the barbarism of our enemies it is difficult to remain optimistic. But even if defining “victory” has become increasingly difficult, the outlines of defeat remain starkly clear: Genocide, a strategically critical region embroiled in conflict, a generational loss of national prestige and the broken heart of a volunteer force that deserved better than to be lightly thrown into the grinder and only grudgingly withdrawn.
Nor should we pretend that a society brutalized by thirty years of tyranny, riven by sectarian violence and mauled by civil war will retain many positive memories of the brave soldiers who passed out soccer balls and medicine supplies, once those soldiers were withdrawn to satisfy the constraints of a faraway election cycle, leaving them to genocidal mortification.
It would be a pleasant thing to believe that some good will have come of this, no matter the outcome. But we have come too far, spent far too much and it is much too late to for us to drape their destiny with self-serving illusions. There are serious consequences in balance. We must not avert our eyes from them.