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February 09, 2007

The Manichean War


The people "running" this war were never capable of distinguishing between the vision of the war they were selling to the country for propaganda purposes and the reality of what was happening. Even if torturing people to get "intelligence" was something which actually worked, the premise that such "intelligence" would actually help to solve the situation was based on the fantasy vision of what that problem was. They really believed that there were some evil masterminds with evil lairs - first former Baathists and then various "foreign fighters" - and if only they could find them and kill them then the problems would go away. There was an "enemy" which could somehow be vanquished, and once we did that the ponies would arrive.

This was a cartoon version of the war they tried to sell to the American public, but it was also what was driving their truly barbaric behavior.

That's quite right. I'll link again to Mark Danner's wonderful piece on the many different wars folks in the Bush administration thought they were fighting, which I still think is the smartest analysis of Iraq yet written. It's also worth dipping into an essay my friend Chris Hayes authored on the role World War II nostalgia played in all this. It wasn't an accident that the right kept comparing Bush to Churchill and Bush keeps comparing himself to Truman.

On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” He wasn’t alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.

Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert—first in rhetoric, later in fact—a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.

No leader wants to be a mediocrity, a technocrat, a manager. Even the CEO President wants to engineer a dramatic turnaround and series of takeovers, not leave a record of competent governance and incremental achievements. But Bush entered office at a moment that seemed capable of little more. No wars in the offing, no powerful enemies looming, a surplus in the budget, relatively high contentment and satisfaction among Americans. 9/11 was his chance for greatness, and he took it. But Afghanistan was too easy, too quick, too simple, too obscure. We roared to Kabul and then it was...what? Over? So the reprisal against al-Qaeda became a war against not only terror, but tyranny, and illiberalism. A war against evil. As more and more Americans recognize that deception, and as our own actions in Iraq -- which will leave the country a maelstrom of murder, chaos, and tribal enmity -- begin looking somewhat dark themselves, I wonder how great the psychological damage will be to America. Back to Chris:

It is a grand irony that Spielberg claimed repeatedly that his entire motivation behind making Saving Private Ryan was to deconstruct the simplified version of WWII that Americans had come to accept. “All wars,” he said in a typical interview, are “chambers of horrors.” And that’s certainly true of the film’s opening and of the gruesome descriptions in Ambrose’s books and Brokaw’s recounting. But what emerges from these works is a picture of war as a chamber of physical horrors—torn limbs, exposed viscera, muck, blood. Absent completely are the moral horrors of combat, the horror of taking a life, of feeling the killer within. There’s a good deal of evidence that suggests the most traumatic experience of war isn’t being the target of violence, but rather the agent. A 1994 study of post-traumatic stress in veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam found that “responsibility for killing another human being is the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war.”

What America is going through isn't, I think, a revulsion at the physical horrors of war. Nor is it a precise analogue to the Vietnam Syndrome, wherein we question our own power. Our power is massive, our ability to salve ancient ethnic conflicts is less so, but that's a different issue. What no longer looks certain, though, is the righteousness of our cause, the morality of our mission. American exceptionalism is what's taking a beating, even among Americans. We're shocked at the moral transgression of this invasion, and the blithe ease with which the country accepted a tragic conflict which will leave, when all is said and done, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dead. It is the ease with which we have taken those lives, and the realization that we were capable of doing so immorally and irrationally, that will be most unsettling to the American psyche.

February 9, 2007 | Permalink


Good essay! What is really hurtful is that those sentient Americans who feel this pain have to live with the idea that our democratic system brought us leaders who mislead us into this tragedy, and that our media that is supposed to critically examine in our public interest the governmental actions actually played the role of enablers of deceit, fabrication and naked aggression.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 9, 2007 12:15:52 PM

You call it "psychological damage", I call it maturing. Americans never had a right to those illusions about themselves or about war, and shedding them -- if they manage that -- is a healthy thing, not "damage". Too bad it took hundreds of thousands of (mostly non-Americans) dying to do it.

Posted by: Ryan | Feb 9, 2007 12:18:55 PM

It is the ease with which we have taken those lives, and the realization that we were capable of doing so immorally and irrationally, that will be most unsettling to the American psyche.

Well, approximately 70% of us, at least. But there's still far too many people who do not see what has happened as immoral, irrational or in any way damaging to the idea of American exceptionalism. That's probably the true danger here.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 9, 2007 12:23:11 PM

"responsibility for killing another human being is the single most pervasive, traumatic experience of war."

A contemporary movie of "Saving Private Ryan" was "The Thin Red Line" that touched on this (I didn't really think "The Thin Red Line" was that great, though it remains popular amongst those who see themselves as connoiseurs of "feeelm"). There's a scene where a soldier fires at an enemy and sees him fall, and the soldier thinks to himself, "I've killed someone. That's the worst thing you can do. Worse than rape."

Posted by: Tyro | Feb 9, 2007 12:28:42 PM

One thing is sure, looks like "the intelligence and facts WERE being fixed around the policy."

Where was our press on this story? Another conspiracy theory proven correct.

Posted by: bubba | Feb 9, 2007 12:37:54 PM

What is really hurtful is that those sentient Americans who feel this pain have to live with the idea that our democratic system brought us leaders who mislead us into this tragedy.

Who are you including here? Only those political enemies to your party, or are you honest about your feelings and blame the Democrats who voted for war as well?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 9, 2007 12:38:24 PM

Yes, how deeply true. Our transgression does have the potential to destroy any residual righteousness in our many individual American psyches.
I wonder, though, if collectively we can admit this despite our collective powers of (persistently self-righteous) denial. I wonder, that is, whether the great american novel of this particular decade (or century) will make the point that you've just made, or will it continue to point blameful fingers at the establishment instead of at the real culrpit, our own myopic self-righteousness.
I supppose I'm suggesting that even this chronic travesty may not be able to crumble our dangerously righteous morale, because, as much as we individually know what we have done, collectively I suspect America may never want to know.

Posted by: Katy Huff | Feb 9, 2007 12:39:53 PM

Are Iraq war supporters still trying to compare it to World War 2? While American soldiers in World War 2 had to go through a lot, one problem they did not suffer was being unable to tell the German soldiers apart from the French, Dutch or Belgian civilians.

In Iraq, just as it was in Vietnam, it is impossible to tell who is the combatant and who is the civilian just desperately trying to stay out of the way. Of course, if you kill enough civilians, it gets easier as their family and loved ones all become potential combatants.

Posted by: d0n camillo | Feb 9, 2007 12:45:43 PM

I dunno. The US killed millions in Vietnam and southeast Asia and it didn't seem to do much lasting damage to American exceptionalism.

Posted by: David Mendelsohn | Feb 9, 2007 12:58:41 PM

I hope Katy Huff isn't correct. I fear she may be.

Posted by: Meh | Feb 9, 2007 1:00:31 PM

don sez: While American soldiers in World War 2 had to go through a lot, one problem they did not suffer was being unable to tell the German soldiers apart from the French, Dutch or Belgian civilians.

Surely you'd agree that our air bombing of German cities and Japanese cities didn't distinguish between military and civilian targets? Dresden and Tokyo fire bombing?

Agreed, there is a major difference between WWII and Iraq. The US didn't start the war, and our leaders didn't manufacture justification for the war and lie about what America's motivation for fighting.

Amid the dozen or so 'reasons' offered over time by BushCo for the Iraq war, two of the most obvious and perhaps likely, but never discussed by BushCO are that Bush wanted this war for his own image/legacy/mission, and that the neo-cons wanted control of mideast oil and assertion of US hegemony in the region.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 9, 2007 1:01:34 PM

I don't really see the distinction between Vietnam and Iraq here. In terms of psychological damage, the war in Iraq is just Vietnam on a smaller and more limited scale. Obviously, though, the scars of Vietnam failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq.

Collective memory is short. Really, really short. And flawed to boot. I mean look, the whole thing is already being reframed as George Bush's war. It wasn't "America" that destroyed Iraq. It wasn't the "American people." Because America is good. No, responsibilty rests with the bad rulers, the complicit media, etc.

Some people (like Ezra) end up shocked at "the blithe ease with which the country accepted a tragic conflict." And most people will be much more resistant to any more military ventures in the Middle East. But the War in Iraq won't destroy the myth or reality, whatever you want to call it, of American exceptionalism. The Vietnam War shook it, but was overtaken by subsequent events: growing economic hegemony, the end of the Cold War, etc. Both the Vietnam and Iraq wars were/are discreet events, without the power to effect the long-term geopolitical calculus. Just a little mistake, you know. Doesn't mean you toss the baby out with the bathwater.

The real deathblow to American exceptionalism is going to come from the economic rise of the two billion peoples of Asia, when the U.S. simply won't have the unipolor political or eonomic power to justify a doctrine of exceptionalism any longer.

Posted by: Korha | Feb 9, 2007 1:13:55 PM

Yes... but, I think as with Vietnam, many on the left underestimate America's power to reinvent narrative in a way that better suits our needs - that is, we would rather have our righteousness. What we will grapple with, and never quite solve is that people will want someone to blame for Iraq, someone who led us astray, and I suspect that person is George W Bush, and I think he knows it.

I also don't think you can separate the things like our sense of power or our righteousness from the horrors of war. I think Americans do, fundamentally, recoil at the notion that we could be the agents of so much horror and bloodshed. That's a key element to why we are a far less agressive nation than other previous super powers. We think we are right and we think, somewhat naively, that we can talk people into agreeing with us rather than force them. I think this is why so many people are bewildered about what's happened in Iraq - on the right because we can't seem to convince people of the rightness of our cause and on the left because we have acted so contrary to our basic nature. And no one knows how to undo what we've done. But I don't think we will ever give up one our sense of being right - I know I still believe, fundamentally, in what makes this country great. But in order to keep that sense of our rghtness going, Iraq will need to be defined as a mistake. And someone will have to be blamed for it. That's how we work.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 9, 2007 1:30:25 PM

"We're shocked at the moral transgression of this invasion."

I'm not sure this is true, if by "we" you mean the American public. We're shocked that it's gone so poorly, and that our leadership lies and lies and lies about it, that there were no WMD, but my sense is that we have a ways to go before most Americans reject exceptionalism. I understand that for most people, maybe for all people, there's a link between efficacy and morality; we're all utilitarians on some level. And I might have traded Saddam for a secular democracy if only 1000 people were going to die, but I feel that a huge moral transgression occurred as soon as the fight bomb dropped on Baghdad, whatever the outcome. I don't think most Americans share my view. If it had gone less awfully (an impossibiliy, yes, but), with somewhat less killing, torture, and mayhem, most Americans would have accepted it. That's why it's so important that the left wins the political debate coming out of Iraq, a debate about first principles that should validate everything the left's been saying for years and years.

Posted by: david mizner | Feb 9, 2007 1:30:58 PM

Regarding Chris' last point on how the psychological toll is worse (or as bad) as the physical: This couldn't be more timely. (Or ghastly).

Posted by: Brian Cook | Feb 9, 2007 1:34:29 PM

As others have mentioned, all or most of this was also learned from Vietnam. Human nature is more stubbornly suited to war than we may want to believe. You can see it not only in our march to Iraq but in less obvious but, I think, related and analogous ways in other kinds of human battles, even in arguments at blogs. If I may borrow a bit of old wisdom, set in religious terms, Jesus taught that he who calls another an idiot (or something like that) is in danger of hellfire. Why? Because (and this is fairly clear from the context) such thoughts are the beginning of and a form of the same hatred that's inherent in far worse things. Of course, degree does matter, but the capacities and inclinations are all kept well oiled.

We hope, of course, that the degree of horror involved in actually killing and maiming will stop our anger and petty hatreds from becoming far worse. History shows this can't be relied on. Not only do we still march off to war, but the psychological damage from killing and maiming others is generally more limited than we might expect. We just aren't made to be so sickened by war that we won't do it. That, unfortunately (I hope my meaning is clear), isn't entirely a bad thing. War is just as terrible close up whether you have a legitimate reason or not. But sometimes it has to be done.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 1:39:43 PM

Verbal diarrhea by the truck, train and barge-load, but the one word you never hear in 'civilized' discourse about war is the one word that really explains it all: profits. That's why war 'has to be done'. There was just no other way: without seizing direct control of the resource by the application of military power, U.S. Oil corporations were simply going to be cut out of the profits. Hence America's rulers jumping up and down on the panic button, and damn the 'facts'. And from that point of view, Dick Cheney is correct when he describes the war as a stunning success: now U.S. corporations have Production Sharing Agreements in place giving them 75% of the profits.

And this is why Iraq is not Vietnam. America could trash Vietnam and walk away, no big deal, no harm done, at least not to the U.S. But Iraq is different: there are profits at stake, running easily into the trillions. Beside that, who cares about any number of dead peasants?

Posted by: RLaing | Feb 9, 2007 2:36:28 PM

Jeez, I though America lost her cherry when Andy Jackson marched the Cherokee west.

Yes, Exra this time your very special morally superior, clean-for-Gene short-haired generation will renew America in a sober reassessment of real limitations blah blah blah.

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy writes novel.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 9, 2007 3:00:44 PM

RLaing, I don't know why you believe what you said, but it isn't because there's good evidence for it. There are far more plausible explanations than yours.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 3:21:16 PM

"There are far more plausible explanations than yours."

But those other explanations are just so much uglier than mere greed.
No Ezra put much time and effort in this and I mustn't be condescending and flip. I must show respect and kindness.

Saul Bellow wrote that "the greatest horror is the repetition of a man's bad character."

This nation, simultaneously founded in slavery and liberty, has always carried two conflicting foundational myths, exemplified on the one hand by Hawthorne and Melvile and the "return of the repressed", and on the other hand, in Natty Bumpo, Huckleberry Finn, Abe himself as myth of rebirth, renewal, recreation remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

Right. Or was it John Cheever? And it might have been "grief at repetition of bad character". Naw, I think it was Bellow.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 9, 2007 4:13:07 PM

Take out "plausible" and substitute "emotionally appealling" and Sanpete is 100% correct.

Posted by: RLaing | Feb 9, 2007 4:56:48 PM

RL, do you consider your view strongly emotionally appealing to you? The evidence doesn't account for your belief very well. I don't see good evidence that any of our recent wars was for profit, much less all of them. I suppose you think we went after Afghanistan for oil or something?

Bob, why would other motives be uglier than profit?

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 5:20:51 PM

Ah. 'Our' wars. That explains a lot.

Hey, you know what the difference between a conservative and a liberal is? The conservative endorses torture and mass murder because it makes him feel powerful. The liberal endorses torture and mass murder because he loves humanity so much. Something is the same there, but I can't quite put my finger on it...

Posted by: RLaing | Feb 9, 2007 6:11:01 PM

You've changed your theory. Earlier both conservatives and liberals were going to war for profit. Now it's for power or love of humanity. I think you're getting warmer, at least.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 9, 2007 6:33:23 PM

Jeez, Sanpete, you read like a parody of yourself. The real lesson of the Iraq War is that greater civility is called for in blog comments? That's idiotic. :)

But, really, I see no meaningful connection between the rush to war and the tendency of people to be rude on blogs. The rush to war was not about rudeness - it was about uncritical thinking, ideology, the rejection of the liberal order, amoral political considerations, a cultural inclination to war, the disconnect between the sufferings of war and the political class, and I could go on. It was not about rudeness.

Posted by: DivGuy | Feb 9, 2007 6:33:39 PM

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