Sometimes, when things are on your mind and you can't quite find the words to pin down what it is that's bothering you it helps to do some reading. It's that old thing about language and epistemology - the medium of thought is language, not just the words, but the words put together in such a way that, when they fall just right, you finally realize what the issue is. Otherwise you just have a vague, uncomfortable mix of unsettling feelings. But then you find someone providing the words to "express" that unease and, often to your surprise, you have the thing in hand - you can think about it, not just mope around and feel ill at ease. Good poetry is like that, finding the exactly words for what disconcerts, and making it something that can be considered. It was hard to explain that to the students in the English class back in the seventies, as it's one of those odd ideas, that the poem they don't want to discuss anyway really doesn't "mean" anything at all - as Archibald MacLeish puts it Ars Poetica, "A poem does not mean, but be" (text here). It's expression, not description, and certainly not an essay out to make a point. It's bringing what was outside language, and not accessible (not "thinkable"), and making it actually available to the mind. And that's pretty neat, and too, often a great relief - you finally get the words that make it possible deal with the big stuff in life, or the small and funny stuff. No one wants to go through life feeling vaguely uneasy, or even vaguely happy, and not be able to explain or express either, or much of anything, even to themselves. We all want to make sense of things. And that takes words. It takes language.
But it's not just poetry that does that. Many are uneasy about what's happening in the world, and in this country, and read everything they can, or listen to the talking heads on the radio or television, hoping someone will say the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness, as it were - the words that pull all the uneasy feelings into the words that make it all accessible. We all want to make sense of things. And that takes words. It takes language. Yes, some find such "relief" reading or listening to Ann Coulter, or Rush Limbaugh. Some prefer Al Franken or Bill Clinton. The impulse is the same - making sense of things. The primary sources are all spinning you this way or that - John Murtha one way and George Bush the other, for example. You try to sort it all out. You turn to the words of those who say they have done just that. You get a match with the words that ease your inarticulate discomfort - or you don't and keep trying.
This is all complicated by the net. There are a million voices out there, and many million words. How do you find a match - the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness?
Here's a shortcut. Try Arthur Silber at "The Power of Narrative" here - and yes, the name of his site indicates he knows just what he's doing, building the narratives you might find useful, finding the words that make it possible to think about things that made you really uneasy but you just couldn't nail down.
And this particular link he's trying out some ideas, some language, that offers a way to think about the big issue of the day, our war in Iraq. He pulls in some stuff from Jacob Hornberger and tries out some formulations that might help.
A few days earlier he had written this regarding the invasion and occupation of Iraq, something he says almost all politicians and our media ignore entirely -
That's blunt, and of course no one discusses it, but with the majority of us now thinking the war in Iraq was a stunningly stupid idea, and having any number of reasons to think so, this cuts deeper. It's not really one of those "what was oft' thought but ne'er so well expressed" things, because no one was probably "thinking" this, they just sensed it was so, but didn't have the words. No WMD, no ties to al Qaeda, so we're told the real reason for the Iraq move was to bring democracy to these people, because that's a good thing to do. People were uneasy with that, and still are. This nails it - it's been a deadly mess but we really, really meant well, just doesn't cut it. We know better.
This is the foundational point, one that is almost never acknowledged in our public debates. Iraq constituted no threat to us, and our leaders knew it. Therefore, our invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are naked acts of aggression. To fall back on the defense of "good intentions" is to confess that your actions have caused nothing but disaster and death - but that you "meant well." None of the Iraqis who have suffered so grievously or who are now dead, and none of the Americans and others who have been horribly wounded or killed, gives a damn about anyone's intentions, good or otherwise. Neither should any decent and compassionate human being.
Then there was this interesting question in the Detroit News - "Some war critics are suggesting Iraq terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi should have been arrested and prosecuted rather than bombed into oblivion. Why expose American troops to the danger of an arrest, when bombs work so well?"
That sets off Jacob Hornberger here, suggesting one answer is so a five-year-old Iraqi girl isn't killed -
Yeah, yeah. As Silber says, some would argue that such "collateral damage" is just an unfortunate byproduct of war - "War is brutal. People get killed in war. Compared with the two world wars, not that many people have been killed in Iraq, proponents of the Iraq war and occupation would claim."
Of course, I don't know whether the Detroit News editorial board, if pressed, would say that the death of that little Iraqi girl was "worth it." Maybe the board wasn't even aware that that little girl had been killed by the bombs that killed Zarqawi when it published its editorial. But I do know one thing: killing Iraqi children and other such "collateral damage" has long been acceptable and even "worth it" to U.S. officials as part of their long-time foreign policy toward Iraq.
This U.S. government mindset was expressed perfectly by former U.S. official Madeleine Albright when she stated that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the U.S. and UN sanctions against Iraq had, in fact, been "worth it." By "it" she was referring to the U.S. attempt to oust Saddam Hussein from power through the use of the sanctions. Even though that attempt did not succeed, U.S. officials still felt that the deaths of the Iraqi children had been worth trying to get rid of Saddam.
But then, now we are an occupation force serving a sovereign regime, however dysfunctional and new, and that makes us pretty much the domestic police force there. What they have isn't up and running yet.
Such claims, however, miss an important point: U.S. military forces have no right, legal or moral, even to be in Iraq killing anyone. Why? Because neither the Iraqi people nor their government ever attacked the United States. The Iraqi people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Thus, this was an optional war against Iraq, one that President Bush and his military forces did not have to wage.
The attack on Iraq was akin to, say, attacking Bolivia or Uruguay or Mongolia, after 9/11. Those countries also had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and so it would have been illegal and immoral for President Bush to have ordered an invasion and occupation of those countries as well. To belabor the obvious, the fact that some people attacked the United States on 9/11 didn't give the United States the right to attack countries that didn't have anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.
That made the United States the aggressor nation and Iraq the defending nation in this conflict. That incontrovertible fact holds deep moral implications, as well as legal ones, for U.S. soldiers who kill people in Iraq, including people who are simply trying to oust the occupiers from Iraq. Don't forget that aggressive war was punished as a war crime at Nuremberg.
... Moreover, what people often forget is that the United States is no longer at war in Iraq. This is an occupation, not a war. The war ended when Saddam Hussein's government fell. At that point, U.S. forces could have exited the country. (Or they could have exited the country when it became obvious that Saddam's infamous WMDs were nonexistent.) Instead, the president opted to have the troops remain in Iraq to "rebuild" the country and to establish "democracy," and the troops opted to obey his orders to do so. Occupying Iraq, like invading Iraq, was an optional course of action.
But the folks we have there now aren't thinking that way. That's not what they were trained to do, and Hornberger sees a problem -
No kidding. That may be bothering people, and now they have the words that make it possible to think about that, seriously.
It's not difficult to see that the military holds the Bill of Rights in contempt, which is precisely why the Pentagon established its torture and sex abuse camps in Cuba and former Soviet-bloc countries - so as to avoid the constraints of the U.S. Constitution and any interference by our country's federal judiciary.
It is not a coincidence that in the Pentagon's three-year effort to "rebuild" Iraq it has done nothing to construct a judicial system that would have independent judges issuing search and arrest warrants or that would protect due process, habeas corpus, jury trials, and the right to counsel. To the military, all that is anathema, not only because it would presumably enable lots of guilty people to go free but also because it might inhibit the ability of the military to take out people without having to go through all those legal and technical niceties.
... More important, all too many Americans have yet to confront the moral implications of invading and occupying Iraq. U.S. officials continue to exhort the American people to judge the war and occupation on whether it proves to be "successful" in establishing "stability" and "democracy" in Iraq. If so, the idea will be that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, including countless Iraqi children, will have been worth it. It would be difficult to find a more morally repugnant position than that.
Silber piles on -
That really is what happens when you can't find the words to express that something is wrong here. These two guys do. And yeah, this all is what many of us were sort of thinking. But we didn't have the words. Now we do.
For obvious reasons, neither our political leaders nor our media will confront this fact in a straightforward manner. As Hornberger says, to do so would be to acknowledge that our government and our military have acted in the most profoundly immoral manner imaginable. And ... an attack on Iran would multiply the scope of the immorality involved by many factors.
Our widespread determination to avoid these fundamental issues leads to ludicrous results, including much of the reaction to the death of Zarqawi. Here I am not concerned with the fact that Zarqawi's death will not make the slightest bit of difference to Iraq's future - although it certainly will not, the unceasing propaganda of our government to the contrary notwithstanding. Zarqawi was a comparatively minor figure, and we have unleashed much larger forces. At the moment, it would appear that no one and nothing can control or diminish those larger forces to the required degree.
In the wake of Zarqawi's death, many supporters of Bush and our foreign policy strongly condemned those of us who failed to adopt the celebratory tone they demanded.
... "Look how consumed you are by hatred for America and for Bush!" the hawks bleated. "You can't even be happy that this monstrous son of a bitch has been killed!" Zarqawi was certainly a monstrous son of a bitch, and I shed no tears for him personally. But am I happy that he was killed? No, I most certainly am not - because our very presence in Iraq represents an act of unforgivable immorality. We should never have been there to kill him in the first place. But that is precisely the point that the hawks want all of us to forget, and to never acknowledge under any circumstances.
This is what happens what you forget basic moral principles, and when you seek to obliterate the chain of events that brought us to where we are today. Each event is judged in isolation, completely disconnected from every relevant fact. But judgments made in this fashion are completely meaningless and devoid of content: events occur in a complex, specific context, and it is that context that reveals their meaning and their moral import. Discard the context, and judgments are utterly arbitrary. Yet this is essentially the manner in which all our national debates now take place.
But then, given events of Thursday, June 22, the war will go on -
The lines are drawn, and what the Republican have left - with the war so unpopular and the chaos in the streets of Baghdad, Afghanistan going badly and its prime minister turning on us, and the world turning on us even more, and the ongoing scandals from Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff to the crew of thieves in Ohio, with the head of all government procurement just convicted on four felonies counts, the Marine investigations of a possible massacre here and premeditated murder there - is name calling. Is seems proposing options and plans makes you a coward who wants to cut and run.
The GOP-controlled Senate gave an election-year endorsement to President Bush's Iraq policy on Thursday, soundly rejecting Democratic demands to withdraw troops from the three-year-old war that has grown increasingly unpopular.
Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the Democrats' position, saying on CNN, "Absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point would be to validate and encourage the terrorists by doing exactly what they want us to do, which is to leave."
... In back-to-back votes, the Senate agreed with the president and turned back two Democratic proposals to begin withdrawing most of the 127,000 American forces in the war zone.
The first, offered by Sen. John Kerry and supported by 11 other Democrats and one independent but no Republicans, would have required the administration to start pulling troops out by year's end. It also would have set a deadline of July 2007 for all combat forces to leave.
... Most senators didn't agree, and the proposal fell on a 86-13 vote.
Minutes later, the Senate defeated by 60-39 a resolution to urge the administration to begin "a phased redeployment of U.S. forces" sometime this year. The resolution would not have set a deadline for the end of the
U.S. presence in Iraq.
That vote was largely along party lines.
... On Capitol Hill, the two parties' competing assessments previewed likely lines of attack little more than four months before Election Day.
... Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have staged debates on Iraq for two weeks, with both sides maneuvering for the political upper hand in a midterm election year. Both the House and Senate soundly defeated withdrawal timetables last week. Thursday's Senate votes showed up in campaign literature shortly after they were cast.
How odd. And Josh Marshall puts it nicely here -
Why? Because you'll be called out as a coward if you do. That's the real "power of narrative."
I'm a bit confused. I'm hearing a lot of reports about Republicans chanting about staying in Iraq forever, the danger of ever withdrawing our troops. There's Cheney. There's Frist. I can't say I've done a systematic scan of all media. I'm just saying what I've happened across during a day of work. And I'm not seeing any Dems. Not hearing any clear message.
What Republicans want is More of the Same.
That's the motto. More of the Same.
The president says he wants to stay in Iraq for at least three more years. Virtually every Republican agrees. Three more years. They approve the course the president has set.
They're for More of the Same. They don't have a plan. They just want to stay indefinitely.
They're just for More of the Same.
I must say it drives me to distraction that Democrats aren't saying this more clearly. Get on TV. Get on the radio. Why cede all the ground to the likes of Dick Cheney?
Yes, it makes no sense. Alternatives are not treason. But in an election year they are, even sensible ones - not saying that these were. It's really not the substance of any alternative, of course. It's proposing one at all. Doing that makes you a quitter who wants to cede the world to the bad guys. That's the narrative. We'll see if that flies, come November.
And the president has famously said that when the troops come home is up to the next president. That's three more years.
But there are alternatives.
James Wimberley discuss them here -
That is discussed in detail, and a good read, but what Wimberley works to is a hypothetical American policy aimed at actually winning in a reasonable time frame, in perhaps then years.
The operative part of House Resolution 861 - the one that just passed on a strict party split - was the refusal to set a withdrawal date from Iraq. I found the half-baked rhetoric of the preamble at least as interesting, for it shows the depths of confusion into which US policy has fallen; and, by the same token, the extent of Osama bin Laden's strategic victory.
He started from a very difficult position. Most jihadi Muslims, including the Taliban, Chechen autonomists, Hamas, and al-Zarqawi follow the fairly realistic "near enemy" strategy aimed at "liberating" Muslim majority populations into the delights of fundamentalist rule. He leads a small minority group of jihadis espousing an apparently insane "far enemy" strategy directed at the United States as the ultimate guarantor of the vile regimes all jihadis want to overthrow: secular, corrupt rulers of Muslim countries and of course Israel.
What would that be?
Now there an odd concept here - stop calling this a war and giving them status of some great military power. Call them thugs and go after them, all out, as stupid thugs, an treat them with the appropriate contempt. Belittle them.
1. Counterattack as narrowly as possible. Isolate bin Laden and his followers from other Muslims, even other jihadis; cut the links of sympathy from the mass of Muslims.
2. Return to the best values of American tradition: integrity, steadfastness, due process, magnanimity, and "a decent regard to the opinions of mankind". This is essential to the first objective.
Consequently the third becomes:
3. When his movement is weakened and isolated, destroy it.
The style of the conflict should be inspired by the half-century of containment of Soviet communism. Global jihadism as an ideology is worthless fantasy and cannot survive more than a few decades. US policy should be principled; Fabian; patient; calculating; multilateral and multi-level; and political ahead of military. A few ingredients:
Recognise and name your enemy. It is Al-Qaeda, a small jihadi faction, and its emulators. It isn't even all jihadis. Near-enemy jihadis have a lot of different enemies, Russia, Israel, Mubarak's Egypt, Musharraf's Pakistan, etc. America's first problem is the few jihadis that kill Americans as such.
Refuse bin Laden's vainglorious gambit of defining the conflict as a war. Insist you fight criminals: outlaws, pirates, enemies of humanity. When they are captured, try them as such. Take the direction of the conflict away from the Pentagon.
"Speak softly and carry a big stick." Avoid the hysterical and alienating rhetoric that HR 861 exemplifies, advertising fear and weakness. This is a great power against a couple of hundred fanatics; a threat, but not an existential one.
Divide and conquer. Don't fall into bin Laden's trap of defining the conflict as one. Set jihadis against each other; split jihadis from peaceful Muslim fundamentalists, fundamentalists from modernizers.
Cooperate with allies but don't let them set your priorities. Hamas is Israel's enemy, not America's. The alliance with Israel may lead America to boycott Hamas; or an interest in splitting jihadism may point to a dialogue. Don't pretend there is no tradeoff or that interests are identical.
Show a determination to moralize the conflict with trials of American war criminals and compensation to their victims. Close GITMO and other extralegal camps. Bring all detainees into the ordinary criminal justice system, or release them.
Accept civilian casualties stoically. This is the only area where the metaphor of war is useful. There's no reason to think that al-Qaeda is capable of inflicting 9/11 casualties on a regular basis, but make it clear that the USA could stand them indefinitely without changing its core foreign policies.
Accept failure in Iraq and get out.
It is an alternative. For some of us this is a match - the "Ah Ha!" words that ease the uneasiness, at it were.
It'll never happen. The administration is too invested in the narrative they've got humming along now. But it's a thought.