Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Between Tonkin and a Hard Place

Paul Krugman has this to say in his latest column at Grey Lady dot com:

There has been notably little U.S. coverage of the "Downing Street memo" - actually the minutes of a British prime minister's meeting on July 23, 2002, during which officials reported on talks with the Bush administration about Iraq. But the memo, which was leaked to The Times of London during the British election campaign, confirms what apologists for the war have always denied: the Bush administration cooked up a case for a war it wanted.
It seems to me that the reason there's so little coverage of the memo might be that there's nobody around who still finds that even the slightest bit surprising. Everybody knows that Dick Cheney was in charge of the first Gulf War; we've been hearing Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld call for an invasion of Iraq since the Clinton era; etc. When Dubya appointed all these people to his inner circle everyone knew that they would be spending most of their time trying to find a reason, any reaon, to invade Iraq. The neocons were so obviously just going through the motions with the "WMD" pretext that it must have been a relief to them when, immediately after the fall of Saddam, they were able to ditch it and retroactively change the justification to spreading "democracy" or some such concept. Everybody knows the pretext for the war was manufactured by the government (as were the pretexts for Kosovo, Vietnam, WWI, etc.); but nevertheless, its supporters rewrite history to justify it, and as Krugman notes, even its opponents now want to "stay the course," in other words extend and increase it.

That's the most important difference between Iraq and Vietnam, which are otherwise strikingly similar as Krugman goes on to note. Public support for Vietnam pretty much disintegrated when the Pentagon papers were released in 1971, revealing that the war had been based upon a big honking lie. But today, even though everybody's known about the lies from almost the beginning, they still complacently continue to support the war. I don't really know why that is. Maybe it's the spectacular failure of the media in covering Iraq which allows people to see it as a distant, faraway struggle, and thus ignore it. In Vietnam, the horrors of war, both on soldiers and civilians, graphically intruded into people's living rooms every evening when they would much rather have been watching "Bonanza." But to today's television viewer, American deaths are no longer flag-draped coffins, they're just dull numbers, staying the steady course upwards, always upwards. Iraqi civilian deaths are not graphic images of napalmed children and entire villages face down in ditches, they're just... not even numbers, since the U.S. military doesn't count them. They might as well not exist. "Collateral" and "unintended" damage, those depraved and maniacal euphenisms of the Gulf and Kosovo wars, at least had the benefit of being so absurd that they drew attention to themselves every time they escaped from a general's lips. The generals have gotten wise to this, and now slaughter their civilian victims twice, first in deed, and then in discourse by refusing to even acknowledge their existence.

Given all this, it's hardly surprising that Iraq occupies a minor enough place in most people's consciousness that it can be just another trivial issue to support or oppose according to what "their" side of the sectarian, almost tribalistic ideological divide is supposed to think at any given time. That's what censorship, both of the clumsy official sort used in WWI and of today's more sophisticated "embedded" sort accomplishes: By dehumanizing the victims, it vastly weakens their potential emotional effect on, and therefore importance to, the voters. The political pressure that (eventually) forced Nixon to concede military defeat for the first time in American history was a wonderful thing, but it was not entirely a spontaneous, grass-roots eruption. It's a depressing thought, but if today's emaciated media had been reporting the news back then, the U.S. would probably still be in Vietnam.

Krugman continues:

So we need to get beyond the clich├ęs - please, no more "pottery barn principles" or "staying the course." I'm not advocating an immediate pullout...
Come on, Paul, what was the point of writing a whole article denouncing this "stay the course" idiocy if you're in fact advocating... staying the course? The U.S. government doesn't need to "find" a way out of iraq, it's there right under its nose: Immediate withdrawal, followed by several thousand dollars in war reparations to every individual Iraqi (much more to those who were injured or lost family members), followed by a constitutional amendment permanently barring any deployment of the American military outside of the boundaries of the United States. (And hopefully within them as well.) This, not staying the course, is what those who opposed the war should now be advocating. The U.S. government should atone for its mass murder in Iraq by, at the very least, ceasing to murder people. Not by continuing and escalating the murder.

By the time Nixon came into office, everybody knew that the Vietnam war had to end. And most people wanted it to end immediately. But Nixon dragged it out several more years in order to achieve not just peace, which is what Americans were demanding of him, but peace "with honor." How many thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians, gave their lives in those excruciatingly drawn-out extra tag-on years, solely for the sake of the "honor" of an artificial collection of lines on a map, namely the "United States"? It's like the Kosovo war, which was fought to restore the "credibility" of NATO. Countries and alliances are not human beings; they're nothing more than large-scale criminal syndicates which legitimize themselves through manufactured ideology. The attempt to vest them with human characteristics like "honor" and "credibility" in order to fool people into supporting monstrosities like the bombing of Cambodia which they otherwise wouldn't is depraved. It's... dishonorable.

So I would ask all the opponents of the war who nevertheless insist that the U.S. "stay the course" rather than pull out immediately to give me a single good reason that doesn't involve anthromorphizing human qualities onto imaginary entities like states. No country's "honor," "credibility," "respect," or "self-esteem" is worth so much as a drop of the blood of a real-life human being.
Comments:
So, in your view, should the U.S. have joined the Allies against Hitler, given that some civilian deaths would inevitably result (and constitute, on your account, "mass murder")? Given what you're saying here, you are simply against all war, ever, no matter how justified.

In the present case you seem to want the U.S. to withdraw no matter what the effect of that would be on Iraq itself. Am I right that even if it were likely to lead to increased violence and death, you'd still favor U.S. withdrawal?

Possibly the reason that the "Downing Street Memo" hasn't received a huge amount of attention is that it doesn't tell us anything new: we all know that the WMD intelligence wasn't very good. It's also an obviously partisan political leak.

Anyway, enough of this: where's your Belinda Stronach post?
 
Keep up the good work » »
 
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