by David Bromwich
Will the summer of 2010 be remembered as the time when we turned into a nation of sleepwalkers? We have heard reports of the intrusion of the state into everyday life, and of miscarriages of American power abroad. The reports made a stir, but as suddenly as they came they were gone. The last two weeks of July saw two such stories on almost successive days.
First there was “Top Secret America,” the three-part Washington Post report by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin on the hyperextension of private contracts, government buildings, and tax-funded expenditures in the secret surveillance economy. Since 2001, the new industries of data mining and analysis have yielded close to a million top secret clearances for Americans to spy on other Americans. Then at the end of July came the release of 90,000 documents by Wikileaks, as reported and linked by the New York Times, which revealed among other facts the futility of American “building” efforts in Afghanistan. We are making no headway there, in the face of the unending American killing of civilians; meanwhile, American taxes go to support a Pakistani intelligence service that channels the money to terrorists who kill American soldiers: a treadmill of violence. Both findings the mainstream media brought forward as legitimate stories, or advanced as raw materials of a story yet to be told more fully. This was an improvement on the practice of reporting stories spoon-fed to reporters by the government and “checked” by unnamed sources also in government. Yet, as has happened in many cases in the mass media after 2001 — one thinks of David Barstow’s story on the “war experts” coached by the Pentagon and hired by the networks — the stories on secret surveillance and the Afghanistan documents were printed and let go: no follow-up either in the media or in Congress.
We seem to have entered a moral limbo where political judgment is suspended and public opinion cannot catch its breath.
Thomas Jefferson in April 1820, hearing the arguments on “the Missouri question” and seeing the passions heated by a compromise over slavery, said the conduct of his country then, “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror.” This seems a voice from another world. How many alarms we have had: about our Middle East wars, about the measures we took at home to secure ourselves against our adventures abroad. How dim and drugged our response has become. “It’s awful — we already knew — it doesn’t matter.” That seems to be the order of response, by now well rehearsed, by the opinion-makers in the media that break the stories. It is a numb belief that ends with inert acceptance. And one sees the same unhappy attitude in the behavior of the leaders as much as the led. General Mattis, the new commander of CentCom, said the release of the Wikileaks documents was “an appallingly irresponsible act.” He also said the cache of documents “doesn’t tell us anything that we weren’t already aware of.”
Yet these two statements can’t both be true. If an embarrassing secret was let out, with appalling consequences, then the revelation did say something we didn’t know. On the other hand, if nothing was new in the documents, their release was a banal instance of background reporting, as inoffensive as it was derivative. One of the things about a moral lethargy like ours is that it cuts away logic as well as common feelings.
Something is rotten in our democracy. Like a family where everything goes wrong and nobody says a word, we suffer a load of unasked questions that have under them still more questions. Do Americans always need a war? That is a first question. It did not seem so before 2001. And the attacks that America endured then, attacks whose misery we have returned a hundredfold against actual and imagined enemies — did those events and the interpretation put on them by Cheney and Bush (and ratified, with an agreeable change of tone, by Barack Obama ) trigger a mutation in the American character? In relation to the Constitution and our place in the world of nations, 2001 in that case must have assumed the status of the Big Bang in the universe of politics. Useless even to think of anything that came before.
To say we now act as if we need a war may underrate the syndrome. We seem to require three wars at a given time: a war to be getting out of, a war we’re in the middle of, and a war we aim to step into. The three at present are Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. And the three to follow? Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, perhaps: we are already well along in all three — well along in missile strikes, black ops, alienated people whom we say we support.
The commitment to war as a general need was not less wrong but it seemed more comprehensible when the president was George W. Bush. “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” wrote Melville; and it was evident to anyone with nerve-endings that Bush was an unsatisfied boy. The pursuit of multiple wars seems more exposed under Barack Obama because he fits a common idea of a grown-up. So we look more dryly now for the principle backing wars that once seemed driven by crude passions and a cruel simplicity of heart.
Consider Afghanistan. Two policies join there and are meant to advance each other. There is a counterinsurgency policy: “clear, hold, and build.” And there is counterterrorism: kill, kill, and conceal. In practice the latter means: kill a terrorist, kill the people around him, and hide the killing of those other people.
The face of benevolence on counterinsurgency requires that we pretend the killing of the innocent has nothing to do with the growing numbers who commit acts of terror against the U.S. and its outposts. But it can’t be denied — and it is not denied, in fact, only mentioned sparingly — that the new terrorists are often friends and relations of civilians we killed and tried to hide. The fact is that the two strategies of the war in Afghanistan — counterterrorism and counterinsurgency — deny each other’s reasons and nullify each other’s aims. These strategies, however, were assigned to be pursued in tandem by General McChrystal. And in pursuit of such contradictory purposes, he enjoyed the full support of Richard Holbrooke and the endorsement of the secretary of state and the president. That was the real import of the story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone whose unseemly quotations got McChrystal sacked. “It’s awful — we already knew — it doesn’t matter.”
Hastings has now been denied permission to be “embedded” with American troops. Can they deny permission to enough reporters to change the story, though, once the story is out? It has many aspects and many angles, and it is hard to stop those who are embedded from using their minds. A reporter now embedded, Ann Jones, recently gave a striking picture of the failure of American troops to make friends with Afghan tribesmen. Gaining trust was hard enough when the soldiers crashed into village homes with their masks on and rifles out to “make sure” before making friends. The trouble was that the manner of the entrance cooled the hospitality of the reception. With new orders to improve that process, new setbacks have also occurred. Young soldiers, Jones reports, to warm the friendship and win the confidence of Afghans, have explored a technique that works nicely in American high schools, a jocular exchange of farts. The practice is looked on by their Afghan hosts as a sign of deep disrespect. In this way a fresh misstep comes in to replace every order that has been rightly countermanded. It is the trouble of an occupation. Suppose now the Afghans come to associate the cheerful inadvertence of the young soldiers with those other soldiers they have heard of, the ones who ordered an air strike against a wedding party. The complex of Afghan feelings about the help they are getting can only be imagined.
American troops in Afghanistan labor under two indispositions which the Petraeus counterinsurgency doctrine never held properly in view. His model was the British constabulary force in Northern Ireland. But the Americans in Afghanistan, unlike the English in Ireland, don’t even speak the language of the occupied. Nor do they share any version, however reformed or qualified, of the people’s religious beliefs. The language problem runs deeper than most Americans take the trouble to imagine. The official language of the Afghan air force, for example, is English. (How can we trust them if we can’t understand what they say?) That is why there is no Afghan air force. The divergence of religious beliefs presents a difficulty no less intractable.
How does it look when American ingenuity has a shot at crossing the religious divide? Understandably, from one point of view, the solution was published in the New York Times, a paper that admits the Afghanistan war is badly tarnished but that wants American forces to stay. To solve the problem, the Times went to a sergeant from the 82nd Airborne Division, Mitchell LaFortune. “The insurgents’ concept of Islam,” writes LaFortune in his op-ed, “is objectionable to most Afghans, but there is little alternative, as most clerics who rejected the Taliban have been killed or have fled.” American forces nonetheless must support an alternative. “Creating a network of more enlightened religious figures to compete with the hard-liners will take time,” he admits, but “we could jump-start progress by creating a group of ‘mobile mullahs.'” What exactly are mobile mullahs? “Well-protected clerics,” says LaFortune, “who can travel through rural areas and settle land disputes and other issues.” But how will they earn the trust of the natives, passing as they do from place to place? Again there is a ready answer: “These men should come from the general areas in which they will be performing their duties and be approved by community leaders.” This apparently serious suggestion was given considerable space by our newspaper of record. And in doing so, the Times performed a kind of service. “Mobile mullahs” are a pure product of the counterinsurgency mind, naturally hopeful yet marooned in a country whose folkways it knows nothing of. The Mullah in a Humvee is the direct descendant of General McChrystal’s “government in a box.”
Afghanistan, for now, is the war we are in. Iraq is the war we’re getting out of — even if tens of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries remain, and the bases that protect them, and the world’s largest embassy. Yet our image of what we did to Iraq has been remarkably cleansed. The mainstream media have taken the cue of the president’s pledge not to look at the past. So, when we get a story of the impoverishment and squalor of Iraq, nothing appears to trace such effects to the economic sanctions of 1990-2003. Those were part of the “decent” fight against Saddam Hussein, according to American mythology; the pressure skillfully applied under the older, wiser Bush and under Bill Clinton. But pass now from the American media to a review of the evidence on sanctions by Andrew Cockburn in the London Review of Books, and a different story emerges. To take one example: the sanctions kept out pumps for the treatment of dirty water; and, writes Cockburn,
Every year the number of children who died before they reached their first birthday rose, from one in 30 in 1990 to one in eight seven years later. Health specialists agreed that contaminated water was responsible.
The effect, meanwhile, of inflation and unemployment was to make the people of Iraq ever more dependent on their dictator. Madeleine Albright in March 1997 declared that even if Saddam Hussein complied with the inspection requirements, the sanctions should not be lifted, since they were there to help overthrow the dictator himself.
Thirteen years after an American secretary of state uttered those words, we come no closer to the truth about U.S. policy when we read of the “benchmark” of electrical competence in a recent Times story by Steven Lee Meyers. Meyers tells us that “chronic power shortages are the result of myriad factors, including war, drought and corruption, but ultimately they reflect a dysfunctional government.” “Ultimately” must be taken here outside its normal usage to refer to the latest but not the largest cause. This mode of analysis is in keeping with other elements of Meyers’s coverage; for example the way the brute fact of American destruction of the electrical grid (a central feature of Shock and Awe) is dropped into a sagging sentence whose tenor is the vague idea that things happen: “Before Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago this month, Iraq had the capacity to produce 9,295 megawatts of power. By 2003, after American bombings and years of international sanctions, it was half that.” Notice the reluctance to say it plain: “American bombs destroyed Iraq’s electrical grid, and American insistence organized and maintained the sanctions.” Yet the Times story by Steven Lee Meyers is hardly a terrible example; it is if anything more honest and less self-acquitting than most that appear in the Times and elsewhere.
So much for present and past wars. What of the future war, the war a significant body of Israeli and American opinion is already preparing, the war against Iran? President Obama has called Israel a “sacrosanct” ally, and even before he used language so pious, fulsome, and unsuitable to the leader of an independent republic, Iran did not entirely trust the United States. To remember why, we would have to violate President Obama’s pledge to look only at the future, and actually look at the past. But let us follow his injunction for the moment; look only at the war of the future. How, then, does Iran link up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? From the tenor of Obama’s recent words about Afghanistan, one would suppose he is doing the best he thinks possible now — namely, getting out — but at the speed his domestic opponents compel, that is, more slowly than he knows it would be right to do. With Iran, by contrast, Obama seems to be doing what he believes is wrong — namely adding momentum to the pressure for a future war — but, again as with Afghanistan, he is doing it more slowly than he knows his opponents would wish in order to secure their ends. The war party within his administration is placated but not yet happy. Possibly the result Obama is hoping for is that these two manifestations of slowness, slow on the right side in Afghanistan, slow on the wrong side with Iran, will meet somewhere in the middle, and spare us two catastrophes at once. Yet time, in politics, doesn’t work like that; a fact this president often seems unwilling to absorb. It is sometimes important to say No early and definitively. You must say it early and definitively if you don’t want to get trapped into saying yes later in spite of yourself. History suggests that wars, by their nature, are not as well equipped for multitasking as the mind of Obama.
We are involved now in a slow effort to extricate ourselves from the defeat of our hopes for an empire in Asia. That seems the uncontroversial meaning behind Obama’s recent words if not all his actions; yet he is trying to do it without surrendering the assumptions we began with. The strongest word that Obama ever said against the Cheney-Bush war in Iraq was not that it was unjust, impolitic, or ignoble, only that it was “dumb.” A harsh condemnation in the idiom of technocrats, but not really in a league with Gladstone’s appeal to the English people
to ask whether you are substantially to be governed, your future pledged, your engagements enormously extended, the necessity for your taxes enlarged and widened, not only without your assent, but without your knowledge, and not only without your knowledge, but with the utmost care to conceal from you the facts.
It is hard to say which is worse, the expenditure or the secrecy, but as Gladstone saw, both function on the same principle. Much of the spending goes to beneficiaries whose identity must be kept secret, and every blunder committed in secret requires fresh outlays to cover it up.
Like most Democrats after Franklin Roosevelt, Obama cares mainly for domestic policy. That is why, in a year of financial collapse and deep recession, with two wars on his hands, he chose to make his mark with National Health Care — a daring choice but also a conventional one for a Democrat. He tried to reel in the leviathan of the health legislation while fighting a disaster that broke the banks and revising a security policy that had burst the bounds of the Constitution. This exorbitant ambition issued as much from the lack of one kind of imagination as from the prevalence of another kind.
Wars tend to lead to other wars. They do it even if you don’t accept the belief that your country must always be fighting wars. Yet Barack Obama has shown certain indications of accepting that belief. He said in his speech at West Point on December 1, 2009:
Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies.
He went out of his way to repeat the same assertion nine days later on an incongruous occasion, his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Obama there mentioned the particular responsibility of the U.S. for keeping peace by force of arms, and the gratitude properly owed by the world to America in consequence: “the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea.” Granted, a major topic of the Nobel Prize Speech was the danger of nuclear proliferation. Yet Obama, adopting the privilege and immunity of an American statesman abroad, omitted to mention that the only use of nuclear weapons ever has been by the U.S. against Japan. The president spoke as a teacher — a style that comes easily to him. But on this subject, as on some others, America cannot affect to teach a lesson to the world without also learning a lesson from itself.
At any time in history, it has required the most exigent efforts of the will and understanding combined to stop the next war from emerging out of the last. John Maynard Keynes, writing, in his memoir Dr. Melchoir, of the negotiations after Versailles on the lifting of the postwar blockade against Germany, described with precision the way that war delivers us to war. Keynes recalled the speech by Lloyd George to the representatives of France and America that finally broke the stalemate. “The allies,” he reports Lloyd George as saying in March 1919,
were now on top, but the memories of starvation might one day turn against them. The Germans were being allowed to starve whilst at the same time hundreds of thousands of tons of food were lying at Rotterdam. These incidents constituted far more formidable weapons for use against the Allies than any of the armaments which it was sought to limit. The Allies were sowing hatred for the future: they were piling up agony, not for the Germans, but for themselves. . . .As long as order was maintained in Germany, a breakwater would exist between the countries of the Allies and the waters of revolution beyond. Once that breakwater was swept away, he could not speak for France, but he trembled for his own country.
Should we Americans also tremble for our country when we think of the wind we are sowing in Iran?
There is little disagreement about the facts. “No one believes,” as Philip Giraldi put it recently, “that Iran is anything but a nation that is one small step away from becoming a complete religious dictatorship, but the country has a small economy, a tiny defense budget, and, as far as the world’s intelligence services can determine, neither nuclear weapons nor a program to develop them.” Yet President Obama and his advisers, if they dare to look, can watch House Resolution 1553 gaining signatures and stealing a march on their policy. The resolution is a demagogue’s dream of bogus collective security. It declares American support, in advance, for an Israeli attack on Iran, and gives the unheard-of approval by the U.S. to a foreign power to use “all means necessary” to advance its own interests, and to follow its own definition of those interests. The resolution incidentally adopts the language of Israeli propaganda when it refers to Iran as an “immediate and existential threat.”
Will Iran become our third war of the moment? Sanctions which, Benjamin Netanyahu has said, should soon become “crippling sanctions” already have us in lockstep on that path. To be satisfied with his advice, we have only to believe the Likud theory that Iran is a “suicide nation” whose rulers would gladly send their first nuclear weapon (still some years off) to destroy Israel and kill the Arabs in Israel along with the Jews; and that they would do it in the certain knowledge of bringing annihilation upon Iran itself. For Israel, unlike Iran, is known to have a large nuclear arsenal and the ability to launch a nuclear attack. It is a projection of fantasy not of policy to suppose the United States has a duty to join or support an Israeli attack on Iran. Yet not one word has thus far been spoken by anyone around the president to counteract the fantasy.
Those who pushed hardest for the Iraq war, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Frank Gaffney, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Liz and Dick Cheney and many others familiar and obscure are now turning up the heat for an attack on Iran. Why so much pressure so early? The reason may lie in the very improbability of the cause. Given the geographical position of the U.S. and the overwhelming strength of our offensive weapons and armed forces, the only way that we could possibly feel threatened by Iran is by taking Israel’s side early and acquiring Israel’s enemies as our enemies. Determined American hostility toward Iran is seen as the major step here. Vestigial decencies oblige the sane among the war party to admit there is no danger to Israel from Iran, just now, let alone an “existential threat” that implicates the United States. This will cease to matter if the enmity can be carved in deep enough grooves in the coming months.
To maintain the old wars and give us a new, the war party have now to argue, as they did in Iraq, that the only intelligent war is preemptive war, and that nuclear ambitions mark a special case. Besides, they can add, as they did in Iraq, and as they did in Afghanistan until a few weeks ago, an Israeli or American attack will bring the added benefit of improved democracy in Iran. There is a difference however. In Iraq, the war party successfully inducted a few native Iraqis into their cause. They called them the Iraqi National Congress, and rewarded with money and status the confidence man who led them, Ahmed Chalabi. They have not yet found a comparable party of Iranians, however minuscule, to defend the theory of the emancipationist bombing of Iran. People don’t want to be bombed, as a general thing. Also, as the electrical grid of Iraq may suggest, and as the design of “mobile mullahs” for Afghanistan may confirm, a set of conquerors who know nothing about the objects of their actions can be relied on to translate even what successes they gain into disasters.
November 2010 may well turn the president’s majority into a minority party. What then becomes of our past, present, and future wars? The Likud, in both Israel and America, may prove itself ready for action sooner than President Obama would like, just as the Tea Party picked up energy faster and harder than he looked for in the spring of 2009. In that earlier contest (and the same will hold true in this), a slow response and a delayed counterstatement did not earn a credit for prudence to offset the support it squandered on the way. When your reactions fall so far behind the pace of events, your footing is altogether lost. We have a president now whose most reliable quality is to remove the sting of panic but also the prod of urgency from every political situation. That trait has turned out to be far from an obvious asset. “It’s awful — I already knew — and we have everything under control.” The temperamental posture calls for him to strike an attitude of calm indifference to violent passions. Yet nowhere does political passion so quickly exceed all measure as in the craving for a war which no one in command has unmistakably discouraged.
– David Bromwich is a Professor of literature at Yale. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books. He is editor of Edmund Burke’s selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty. This article was first published by the Huffington Post.