Friday, April 23, 2004

A rambling meditation on Iraq

All this is prompted by my seeing an article in the Times and these pictures, released yesterday, of flag-draped coffins of U.S. servicemen and -women being unloaded at Dover AFB, which, my foreign readers may not know, the Pentagon had forbidden the public from seeing; indeed, the press hadn't even known pictures were being taken.It is Friday morning; I'm listening to The Powers of Heaven, a profoundly beautiful recording of "Orthodox Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries" by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, on Harmonia Mundi, conducted by Paul Hillier and given to me as a birthday present by my painter friend Susan . . . and I am thinking about Iraq.
As I have been telling my Comp students as we practice our critical thinking skills, if one is a truly thinking person it is absurd to say one is completely for or completely against the events of the past year.  There's no significant disagreement, for example, that Saddam Hussein was a despot of the most vicious and paranoic sort, and few would argue against the ideal that a people should have the freedom to determine their own political destiny.  The ends, as broadly stated above, I had and have no quarrels with.  But from here on, the means by which my nation has chosen to accomplish those ends are incredibly muddy and, in my view, different degrees of (at best) wrong-headed.  Not to be at all flippant or gloating, but the devil is indeed in the details, as my government is finding out.The Bush administration's announced policy of pre-emption, in retrospect, seems to have been the catalyst for all this.  The notion that we have a right to attack another nation if we THINK that nation is a threat to us is such a bad idea--not to mention a dangerous one (did anyone in the adminstration imagine the possibility of another, less "responsible" nation's adopting this same policy as a way of justifying an attack on an enemy?--as to defy my understanding of how anyone could think it was a good one.  Then, all last winter and spring, as the US was first urging the resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq (which I supported as well) and then, almost immediately, criticizing the inspectors' slowness and then their (alleged) ineffectiveness and at the same time claiming to know where those WMDs were hidden and why couldn't Blix find them (which just infuriated me--the criticism, that is, of the very procedure we had worked so hard to gain approval of), it struck me then that it seemed as though my nation actually wanted the inspectors, if not diplomacy itself, to fail.  And now, if Mr. Woodward's book is any indication, the decision to go to war was made before the inspections even began, thus, alas, confirming my suspicions.  Indeed, if I were truly cynical, I would say that we knew all along that no such stockpiles existed and thus the war was premeditated. I'm not prepared to go that far, though; not that it's any better to believe it, I "prefer" to think that our intelligence agencies just gave way too much credence to the reports of defectors who sought to curry favor with my government by essentially telling the CIA what they thought--and, apparently, guessed correctly--we wanted to hear.
Add to all the above the now painfully-evident (even, very belatedly, to my government) facts that, militarily and politically and economically, we all "misunderestimated" what we were getting into (and that Bushism could not be more appropriate for what is happening there), and the resulting mess--for my country and, even more so, for the Iraqis--is profoundly and simultaneously saddening and angering.  I include myself in that "we": I remember watching Colin Powell's presentation before the Security Council, hoping against hope that it would be a flimsy case he presented and then saddened that it indeed seemed a solid case but still hopeful that the inspectors could do their work, find what they were charged to find, and the Iraqis would cooperate as they had pledged and disarm, and that would be that.  Saddam Hussein would still remain in power, but at least that perceived threat to our national security would be gone, and our grounds for threatening war would be gone.  But that is the "beauty" of a policy of pre-emption: it's based not on the fact of an attack but on the perception that one may be forthcoming, no matter when that may be.  Kinda like a geo-political Minority Report.
So today, I saw the story and pictures in the Times, and I was profoundly moved by them.  I should also say that I also wanted to visit the site where the pictures were first posted, The Memory Hole here, but the site was so busy that it never opened.  They are powerfully evocative in their, to my mind, apolitical charge.  I have always thought it a huge mistake on the part of President Bush that he has never once met the arrival of one of these planes at Dover.  It seems to me that if he is indeed persuaded of the rightness of the course he has set for our nation in Iraq, he would honor those lost in the sailing of that course.  Yet he recently saw fit, in an attempt at humor for a fund-raising event, to have himself filmed looking for weapons of mass destruction in the Oval Office.  Perhaps irony IS dead, after all.  But as I said, these photos are powerful precisely because they allow us to think anything and everything we want.  Maybe THAT's why the Pentagon wanted to keep them: they evoke and signify too much: the honoring of the dead, indeed; but also, the cost of (choose one) freedom/invasion.  They are a reminder simultaneously of the cost of ideals (some things--freedom--are indeed worth fighting and dying for, even on behalf of other people's achieving their freedom) and the price we all pay (they with their lives, governments with their credibility here and in the world), no matter the means employed, honorable or not.
There's no turning back.  We cannot fail in Iraq: we have cast our lot for freedom for the Iraqi people, and if we indeed mean that, we have no choice but to make that happen, for their sake and, just as crucially, for our own.  The frustrating thing is that, even if we (finally) do it right (and by "right" I mean a process that involves both the Iraqis and the UN), it's not going to be pretty.  More--many more--of those coffins will be arriving at Dover.  I want them to arrive, though, in service of means indeed worthy of the ends we say we want to achieve.  THEN, maybe, we can regain some of what we've lost in the Muslim and Arab worlds.  Maybe.
Those wishing to see the comments for the original LiveJournal post can go here.


Alex said...

I agree with what you are saying in principle with a few exceptions. I’m just an amateur historian but it seems to me that WW1 and WW11 was started, if you ignore the perceived grievances, because the initiator nations basically felt like it. As far as diplomacy failing or letting Blix continue with his inspections, I fail to see à la John Kerry that a few more months would have made a pinch of difference. Going back to my WW1 and WW11 analogy, I can’t recall seeing any of the nation’s leaders photographed with the miles and miles of coffins of the war dead. It is OK to acknowledge the war dead after the war is over. I often wonder if we had had mass communications around in the form of CNN, the Internet, Blogging, or Cell phone cameras during WW1 or WW11 we might have German and / or Japanese as the world’s franca lingua.

John B. said...

Thanks for your comments.
I would say in response that in my opinion there is never a bad time to honor our war dead--I simply cannot see how doing so is detrimental to morale either here or abroad. On the contrary: I would argue that if the war in Iraq is being fought for the noble cause of creating an opportunity for a nation to move toward eventual self-government, then all the more reason to recognize publicly the men and women who have died in doing so. NOT to do so would be to cheapen their lives and, by extension the cause for which they died.
As for the inspections: allowing the inspectors to finish their work would have made a difference IF the U.S. voted for the Security Council resolutions in good faith. The inspectors would have found nothing, and though Saddam Hussein would still remain in power, we would have confirmed his military weakness--in other words, that he in fact posed no threat to the US. That we now can never know whether it would have made a difference is a source of great sadness and frustration for me.