9/11 and the case for reality (Part 3): Are we a "peace-loving nation" or a nation committed to permanent war?
With the launch of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," former career military officer (now professor of international relations at Boston University) Andrew Bacevich has written: "Claims that once seemed elementary -- above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power -- now appeared preposterous."
"I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that 'war is hell,' it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and -- whatever those misinformed peaceniks said -- we made the world a better place.
"But then I went to a war zone. . . ."
-- Jeremiah Goulka, in "Confessions of a Former Republican"
"All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. . . .
"George W. Bush's decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary -- above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power -- now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended 'global war on terror' without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords."
-- Andrew Bacevich, in "The Unmaking of a Company Man"
(the introduction to his book Washington Rules:
America’s Path to Permanent War)
(the introduction to his book Washington Rules:
America’s Path to Permanent War)
Before the detour yesterday ("What makes Willard's thuggish imbecility on Libya different from his usual thuggish imbecility?") necessitated by the "Mutt" man's Mutt-ish outburst, I had intended to continue my "9/11 and the case for reality" series, in particular proceeding from Tuesday's Part 2, "The right-wing worldview has long coupled delusions with lies, not least in matters of 'national security.'"
In a sense, though, we were continuing the theme, because it wasn't just the "Mutt" man's terrifyingly outsize ignorance and cynicism on display ("I'll say any damn thing I have to to get what I friggin' want, which is to park my carcass in the Oval Office"). There was an actual strain of ideology embedded in the Muttster's thuggish reiteration of the view "America don't apologize, America kicks butt -- bring it on, suckuh!" Remember that many of the right-wing pols who were horrified by the "Mutt" man's orgy of self-indulgence objected not to the substance but to the manner of it -- to the politics rather than the "principle." (Sorry, I have to put quotes around "principle.")
This is the very mindset we were talking about Tuesday, drawing on testimony from two reformed right-wingers who have told their conversion stories in Tomgrams from Tom Engelhardt's TomDispatch.com: Andrew Bacevich ("How Washington Rules," from 2010 -- in the form of the introduction to his book, as noted above) and Jeremiah Goulka ("Confessions of a Former Republican," from a couple of weeks ago). "What both men are talking about," I wrote Tuesday, the 11th of September, "are the lies and delusions that lay at the heart of foreign policy -- in the name of 'national security' -- in the Bush regime. And today is the anniversary of what should be its eternal shame."
The eternal shame shines on! Since Tuesday night we have learned that the "Mutt" man, despite his previous disinclination to twist his silver-plated tongue around matters of foreign policy, is proud to light the light and carry the torch for that eternal shame.
It's hardly a secret that right-wing pols as far back as memory goes have honed their skills at using phony-baloney mindless jingoism to monopolize the votes of voters bred to respond to this very bogosity. One of the fascinations of both Jeremiah Goulka's and Andrew Bacevich's stories is their frankness about their unquestioning acceptance of this worldview. It's a sterling reminder of how gullible even very smart people can be.
On Tuesday I quoted this telling paragraph from Jeremiah Goulka:
Lots of Republicans grow up hawks. I certainly did. My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.
Tonight I think we need to read on a bit:
(One thing that seems ungracious to point out but I think still needs to be pointed out is that despite Jeremiah's from-the-cradle passion for military service -- "the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness" -- he made that fateful first visit to a war zone not in military service but as a RAND Corporation researcher.)
To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines. We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den. Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.
As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory. (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.) I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that "war is hell," it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and -- whatever those misinformed peaceniks said -- we made the world a better place.
But then I went to a war zone.
I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues. My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington’s terrorist list.
It got ugly fast. . . .
As I noted Tuesday, for Andrew Bacevich the awakening didn't begin till he was 41, when in he got firsthand views of the 1989-90 former East Germany, which in his hawk's-eye view was the forward edge of the terrifying Soviet juggernaut poised to engulf the West, which he discovered instead to be a dilapidated wreck.
[I might add here that one of the fascinations of the final volume of the diaries of the language and literature professor Victor Klemperer (published decades later as The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1945-59), who miraculously survived the Nazi period in his home city of Dresden only to be confronted with the Soviet occupation, is his observation of the stripping of East Germany by the Soviets extracted, who shipped back to the Soviet Union everything they found which was remotely transportable, and left behind a client state that was close to a slave state.]
Bacevich wrote that, following his transformative observations in Jena and East Berlin, "Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble." I quoted the paragraph that follows on Tuesday:
That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not -- to me, at least -- in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over 31,000 nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served, was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness for instant use.
Again, tonight I think we need to read a little farther.
I was not so naïve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws. Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore, circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.
To Bacevich "the choices seemed clear enough": between "the commitments, customs, and habits that defined American globalism, implemented by the national security apparatus within which I functioned as a small cog" and "appeasement, isolationism, and catastrophe." And circumstances provided him with the perfect backdrop for this view: "Seeing the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil answered many questions, consigned others to the periphery, and rendered still others irrelevant."
Before his belated awakening he says, he had "occasional suspicions," including a bunch from his personal Vietnam experience, "which I had done my best to suppress."
I was, after all, a serving soldier. Except in the narrowest of terms, the military profession, in those days at least, did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player. Later, when studying the history of U.S. foreign relations in graduate school, I was pelted with challenges to orthodoxy, which I vigorously deflected. When it came to education, graduate school proved a complete waste of time -- a period of intense study devoted to the further accumulation of facts, while I exerted myself to ensuring that they remained inert.
This is, I think, a valuable insight: the way the system uses ambition to cultivate and reinforce obliviousness in its would-be players. With his 23 years in the Army behind him, and his ambition gone with them:
Wealth, power, and celebrity became not aspirations but subjects for critical analysis. History -- especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War -- no longer offered answers; instead, it posed perplexing riddles.
Bacevich underlines that he was coming to grips with this wildly different reality in the '90s, a period "bookended by two wars with Iraq when American vainglory reached impressive new heights." More important than his "realization that I had grossly misinterpreted the threat posed by America's adversaries"--
was the fact that I had misperceived "us." What I thought I knew best I actually understood least. Here, the need for education appeared especially acute.
George W. Bush's decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary -- above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power -- now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended "global war on terror" without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords. During the era of containment, the United States had at least maintained the pretense of a principled strategy; now, the last vestiges of principle gave way to fantasy and opportunism. With that, the worldview to which I had adhered as a young adult and carried into middle age dissolved completely.
I don't think the "Mutt" man really believes any of that nonsense he's been spewing about Egypt and Libya. Like everything else he says in the campaign, it's just stuff he says. What makes him dangerous isn't the substance of the stuff he says, such as it is, but his willingness to say any damned thing that comes into his head if it may help put him into a position to do the stuff he really wants to do, about which we know just enough to make me, at least, pretty terrified. (We also know that he's probably prepared to do, as president, all sorts of stuff he doesn't really give a damn about if it means gaining support for the stuff he does.)
But there are a lot of people out there who do believe in this brand of kick-butt jingoism, and that's very dangerous, especially as long as there are cynical politicians prepared to pander to them. I wish there was some way to help them to understand the things that Andrew Bacevich and Jeremiah Goulka came to understand.
We still have some additional important lessons to learn from Jeremiah, which go beyond the national-security sphere, and also underlie it. I wish they gave me some hope, but I'm afraid that the fact that they don't doesn't allow us to ignore them. Watch this space.