What can we do?

3,471 United States servicemembers have now been killed in Iraq. By one count, there have been between 64,632 and 70,783 reported civilian deaths in the war, although the best estimate of excess civilian deaths due to the war (the Lancet study published last fall) gives an estimate with a high degree of certainty in the hundreds of thousands.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that George W. Bush envisions a role for the U.S. military in Iraq similar to the one they play in Korea. Josh Marshall discusses what’s wrong with this analogy. It’s hard to say what’s scarier — the complete cluelessness of the statement, or its assumption that at least tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for something like the five decades they’ve so far been in Korea.

Meanwhile, construction of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad proceeds. The complex will be as large as Vatican City and cost more than half a billion dollars to construct. (See Glenn Greenwald’s discussion — scroll down for Update 2.) America is hunkering down in Iraq for the long haul.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a former Army colonel and Vietnam veteran who teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His research focuses on American foreign policy and especially our nation’s militarism. He has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War.

You may have heard of Bacevich in the news recently. His son, a 27-year-old Army lieutenant also named Andrew, was killed by a suicide bomber in Salah Ad Din province, Iraq. His father described Lieutenant Bacevich as “brave and steadfast and irrepressible.”

On Sunday, the elder Bacevich wrote a searing op-ed in the Washington Post, wondering whether he’d done his duty to his son, who so clearly was doing his duty for his country. “Memorial Day orators will say that a G.I.’s life is priceless,” Bacevich writes.

Don’t believe it. I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life: I’ve been handed the check. It’s roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning once he starts pitching next month.

Bacevich is pessimistic about any mere citizen’s ability to end the war. He sees a disenfranchisement of ordinary citizens and a disregard of the value of human life by a system that is beholden to money rather than the people. Bacevich describes himself as a conservative Catholic, but his critique is radical. He suggests in his article that by merely speaking and writing in opposition to the war, he was in effect doing nothing to stop it.

My question is, is there anything we can do? I don’t feel like I’ve done much of anything, really, to stop this fucking war. It’s insane and profoundly immoral. Why do we let it go on?

32 responses to “What can we do?”

  1. I think you’ve hit on the utter helplessness many people feel right now. How did we get here? What does it matter if we speak out or bang drums or skip classes to protest? This thing was a steamroller from day one. The administration has disregarded all advice and evidence to the contrary of its single-minded agenda, which seems clearly related to money more than anything else. (Its environmental policies are geared to the same ends — to let oil companies off the hook and maximize their profits.)

    The only thing that could bring them down is a scandal the size of Watergate. I don’t think the country is demoralized yet the way it was at the end of Vietnam, but it’s getting there. With luck we’ll have regime change (though I’m suddenly scared that Fred Thompson will win the election, simply because Americans find TV personalities comforting in the face of hard facts), but no matter who comes in next there’s an enormous mess in the middle east that will affect us all for decades to come. If everything’s still different after 9/11, it has as much to do with the stupidity of the Bush administration’s responses as it does with the actual attacks on US soil.

  2. WW says:

    I feel helpless as well.

    I love your writing, Dave. And love that in one week you go from Phoebe’s triplets to flag-draped caskets.

  3. sorry, i know i’ve already commented, but:

    there have been between 64,632 and 70,783 reported civilian deaths in the war!

    the running numbers outside judson memorial church on the square has the toll even higher. this reminded me of your comment sometime this week dave (i think in person rather than on here) about the jerkwater congressman who got all teary-eyed on the floor and asked when we’re finally going to do something about the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. who was that guy again? i’d like to send him 75,000 postcards with photos of the dead and see if that satisfies his bloodlust.

  4. Scott says:

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekeran. Chandrasekeran clearly illustrates the problems associated with this misadventure’s first year: sending too few troops into Baghdad to protect government buildings and other facilities from looters; the cultish faith the Administration placed in Ahmed Chalabi (who was viewed by most Iraqis as illegitimate); the understaffing of General Garner’s team; L. Paul Bremer’s insistence on a strict de-Baathification policy (even though he was warned by several members of his team that Baathists were the most qualified and educated Iraqis available)…the list goes on.

    Of course the biggest mistake was invading in the first place. That said, I don’t see the US’s evacuation as the solution to the civilian-death-problem (unless we’re talking about “collateral damage” deaths). Given the fact that Iraq has fallen into civil war (that we created through our negligence) we have a responsibility to protect the civilian population. Also, given that Syria is primarily Sunni and Iran is primarily Shiite, the probability that a larger-regional-conflict would arise out of a full-blown Iraqi civil war is quite high.

    It’s a complete mess; there’s no doubting that, but we did break the place…

  5. Dave says:

    Bryan — the guy was John Boehner, House Minority Leader. Video here.

  6. lisa t. says:

    i feel like you’re reading my mind, dave. or my mind yesterday, as npr reported another (are they daily?) suicide attack. i felt kind of disgusted with myself (on the way to a yoga class), with the millions of americans who each day travel to and from work, go home, eat a meal, watch tv. not that we don’t deserve these things, but that what’s happening in iraq so severly contrasts with them. i don’t feel that i can even truly understand the situation because its reality occurs so far away from my sunny, green grass day. the reports on the news about civilian deaths in iraq leave me feeling troubled, irritated– i also feel, as bryan said, helpless, a bit useless. thanks (i think? yes, definitely) for articulating.

  7. Dave says:

    Yeah, pronounced Bayner, though. The video is really interesting — he chokes up just the way I used to see people choke up at church, and I suppose I’ve pulled the same move myself. Sincere phoniness.

    Scott, that Emerald City book looks fascinating and I’ve been wanting to read it for a while. As for the Pottery Barn argument, I agree it carries a lot of weight. I’ve written about the repugnance of those who are shifting the burden of “success” onto a feckless Iraqi government, as if the Iraqis who are trying to stitch together some kind of modus vivendi are the ones who created the current impossible situation.

    But does the continued presence of 150,000 or 200,000 U.S. troops actually help the situation? We’re not exactly keeping the peace at the moment. There’s a multi-faction civil war going on. Death squads, suicide bombings. We’re training Iraqi police and soldiers who are then joining up with various guerrilla factions, and the groups fighting U.S. forces are gaining sophistication that they are starting to apply in terrorist actions outside of Iraq. Unfortunately, I think the least awful of the courses of action available to us is to withdraw all troops soon. There will probably be a bloodbath, but there’s going to be one sooner or later anyway — ultimately, there’s no magic number of troop strength or time commitment that will provide enough political stability in Iraq to prevent whatever horrific ethnic cleansing is in the works. Matt Yglesias wrote today that he keeps trying to come up with a metaphor involving a boat going off a waterfall.

  8. dave — the link in the last comment doesn’t work.

    i’m not sure i’m comfortable with “but there’s going to be one sooner or later anyway.” there’s nothing to be done to minimize the loss of life?

  9. Dave says:

    The issue is this: It’s morally wrong, because it’s a complete waste of human lives, to fight a war for an unattainable objective. Right now, it’s not clear what the U.S. objectives in Iraq are; the administration avoids defining victory, but what little they do say on the subject has indicated steadily diminishing expectations as the situation looks more bleak.

    If our objective is to create a free and democratic Iraq, we ought to just give up and go home now, because there’s no way it’s going to happen. If our objective is to create a stable Iraq that can manage its own affairs, including internal security, then ditto.

    If our objective is to minimize civilian loss of life (keep in mind that this is neither the stated nor apparent objective of the administration), I admit it’s harder to see what to do. But maintaining the present course of action is not the way to achieve this objective — we are maintaining only a modicum of stability; hundreds of thousands of civilians have died; the sectarian forces that would presumably be responsible for even greater bloodshed in the event of a U.S. withdrawal are gathering strength, and even General Petraeus says there’s nothing we can do militarily to stop them. There is also evidence to suggest that the continued U.S. occupation has helped radicalize numerous Iraqi factions and has kept a stable political solution from developing.

    Other strategies have been proposed for achieving the “minimize bloodshed and try to help stabilize” solution, including partition and having U.S. troops withdraw either to a few non-urban bases in Iraq or to a neighboring country so they’ll be ready to intervene if a humanitarian crisis develops. These all sound like bad ideas to me, but I don’t really know. Every option sounds bad to me. But right now, we’re wasting the lives of our soldiers because we’re asking them to die for something that cannot be accomplished. They’re dying for nothing.

  10. Scott says:

    “We are maintaining only a modicum of stability.”

    But there’s no way of knowing what the level of stability would be if U.S. forces withdraw. I don’t think Iraq will become more stable within a power-vacuum.

    “Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died.”

    To me, this is (from a moral standpoint) the biggest issue. Again, I don’t think
    the U.S.’s withdrawal will improve the civilian death toll.

    “The sectarian forces that would presumably be responsible for even greater bloodshed in the event of a U.S. withdrawal are gathering strength, and even General Petraeus says there’s nothing we can do militarily to stop them.”

    But what we can do that we have failed so miserably in doing is to solve the basic infrastructural problems. Some electricity and clean water would do a lot more in creating a stable Iraq than kicking in peoples’ doors. Again, it is our responsibility to fix these problems which were created because of ridiculously bad American policy.

    “There is also evidence to suggest that the continued U.S. occupation has helped radicalize numerous Iraqi factions and has kept a stable political solution from developing.”

    Perhaps an even larger problem is that (so far) two million Iraqis have fled the country. Of course, the first ones out the door where the ones educated and specialized enough to help in the rebuilding. The ones who have stayed are, in fact, more likely to answer the call of radical clerics. But again, if the Iraqi infrastructure was partially repaired, the country would become naturally more stable ,and maybe draw skilled Iraqis back home. I know this is not a sexy answer, but it’s the best one I’ve got.

  11. Dave says:

    But what we can do that we have failed so miserably in doing is to solve the basic infrastructural problems.

    But we have proven unable to do this. In fact, it looks impossible to do this until the security situation is resolved — people keep blowing up the power plants we rebuild, not to mention the markets, schools, and police stations. Resolving the security situation requires resolving the political situation. But resolving the political situation requires a more secure country than can be achieved without a political solution.

    There are things in Iraq that would be nice to achieve. But even the very basic-sounding ones are beyond our grasp.

  12. Scott says:

    I don’t think solving some basic infrastructural problems are out of reach. The first thing the U.S. needs to do is reincorporated the low and mid level Baathists that were forced out of their jobs under Bremer’s de-Baathification policy. These are the people that know how to run Iraq’s basic services.

    The next thing is to focus the military on protecting power and water treatment plants, and away from the impossible battle against insurgents. It is true that the current military strategy is fueling the call for insurgents, but this call was begun when thousands of Sunnis were alienated through a mass purging, and the dissolution of the security forces. Getting these people back to work is one of the keys, and that can’t happen unless there’s more power and water.

    I don’t know…

  13. Lane says:

    We need some bad ass college action.

    I read this today and thought of being 40 in 1968. You wouldn’t have had the time to get all fired up and sit in and shit because you would have been working all day. I now see how critical the baby boom was to the uprising against Vietnam. Those kids all had the time to get REALLY pissed off and burn shit and shut down Columbia and all that.

    Sadly, we just don’t have that age cohort that can go freaky on this thing. Additionally they’re all being buried by student loan debt.

    And of course our casualites haven’t reached 50,000 yet.


    This whole thing is going to get a lot worse.

  14. Dave says:

    They’re not protesting because they’re not getting drafted.

  15. bryan says:

    burn shit and shut down Columbia and all that.

    my favorite summary of the 60s ever. it explains todd gitlin’s entire career.

  16. Lane says:

    looking up the casualties from Vietnam caused me to read the Wikipedia entry on that war. I really didn’t know about the 20 years leading into that mess and how it then played out.

    This thing is a mess but I don’t think it’s like that one. I think we’ll dump the whole thing and it will implode into chaos and internal bloodshed. I don’t really see how the US will ever allow 50,000 troops to be killed.

    Anyway, wierd.

    Great thoughts Dave.

  17. G-Lock says:

    They’re not protesting because they’re not getting drafted.

    Amen to that, Dave.

  18. Scott says:

    For those of you interested in ’60s revolutionaries, I highly recommend the Mark Kurlansky’s book, 1968: the Year that Rocked the World. One of the great things about this book is it focuses on the international aspects of the revolution. As Americans we tend to only see the ’60s as a reaction to Vietnam, but it was actually much more than that. There were massive levels of unrest in Paris, Prague, Czechoslovakia, Mexico City, Madrid, and Tokyo.

    Gitlin was at Harvard then Berkeley, and adhered to non-violent means of demonstration to the end. The Columbia shutdown was a spontaneous action, which most credit to Mark Rudd (later the leader of the Weather Underground). Rudd was your blow-ship-up kind of revolutionary.

    Of course, the Administration is full aware that the draft would be way too unpopular, and it couldn’t get away with half of its policies if the kids of the rich were also dying. This is one of the reasons that Rummy and other neocon hawks are all for the type of technology to transform the American army into a small and light force. On this, I recommend a book by James Der Derian called Virtuous War – fascinating book.

  19. why scott, i was being facetious about gitlin — thinking about his career as a journalism professor and talking head rather than a student radical — but thank you, as ever, for the reading list. your endless supply of knowledge about late 20c war never ceases to amaze me.

    sometime in the year or so after 9/11 i remember having a conversation with dave about how i thought it would affect the writing of post-WWII American history. my theory was that the typical textbook progression from WWI and WWII to Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War would eventually be replaced by a reorientation toward the creation of the state of Israel, the six-day war (1967), the first Gulf, 9/11, etc., and that it might even be possible that Vietnam would be eclipsed by whatever was yet to come. At the time I first said that it seemed incredible: could America ever forget Vietnam?

    apparently we already have.

  20. can i just say, in my state of insomnia, that it’s really satisfying to see one of dave’s political posts break the 20 comment barrier? i thought the Friends one was going to dwarf this one in terms of comments, which is kind of sad when you think about it.

  21. Scott says:

    Bryan, I’m sorry if I came off all know-it-allsey; I’m just not the biggest Gitlin fan.

    To me, an interesting parallel between the Vietnam and Iraq wars lie in their post-colonial contexts. Many questioned Vietnam as the U.S. essentially taking the imperial baton from France; the motivation, as they saw it, was the West’s inability to completely let go of its old colonial holdings (and not so much as a question of the cold war heating up).

    I’m a believer that, though an over simplification, Iraq can also be looked at through this lens (at least try it as a thought experiment), and I’m not just talking about the question of the race for oil (which really began when the British fleet switched from coal to oil-powered – thus their interest in taking this particular chunk of the Ottoman-imperial-quilt). I’m referring to the West’s overreaching colonial identity, which one can certainly hear in people like Tony Blankley (or anyone else who mutters the phrase “civilized world”).

    Another interesting parallel between the two cases is the fictional U.S. justifications for war (though you can see this in Mexico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii among other places). It seems that America has a real identity problem: as a hegemon, it wants to act like one, and slap the rest of the world around; but it still needs to hide behind a fictional-moralistic-mask created through the “city of the hill” myth (which also leads to some of the military’s bizarre rules, like not being able to write curse-words on bombs). The U.S. as a force of morality and its need to justify its wars met its apex with the Bush doctrine – now we can act like the hegemonic power we are, but only when we feel threatened. In the context of the size of the American military, this will, no doubt, be seen as one of the most fucking hilarious twists in global history. Don’t worry, we will be able to look back and laugh (in five or six-hundred years).

  22. Dave says:

    For some reason I had been thinking Mark Rudd was just early to mid SDS, not Weather Underground, but Wikipedia says I was wrong. I took Russian with his son in high school — had a bit of a crush on him, actually.

  23. Dave says:

    Scott — take a look at the top of that Glenn Greenwald piece I linked in the post for support for your colonialism theory — not from Tony Blankley, from Tony Blair.

    I agree with Lane that we’re not going to see 50,000 American soldiers killed in Iraq. But I think this war will ultimately have much more pernicious consequences than Vietnam, since it’s happening in the Middle East.

  24. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I’m going to stick up for the Friends post and point out the obvious relationship between Dave’s two latest offerings.

    What are we supposed to do about world/historical events over which we feel little control? Offer each other reading lists and video clips? Buy a bigger house? Raise money for the central Asian gorillas by running a 7k in a monkey suit? Take your kids to Disneyland? Put another progressive bumper sticker on my SUV?

    I don’t pretend to have good answers for Iraq. The issues of responsibility (personal and national), human suffering, and moral equivalence don’t have easy answers either.

    But I understand the anguished and impassioned responses I read above. What, exactly, are we supposed to do?

    What would Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, (sorry but I forget the other one, Aniston, right?) and Joey do?

    Pottery Barn indeed.

  25. Lane says:

    “What would Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, (sorry but I forget the other one, Aniston, right?) and Joey do?”

    Embrace thoughtfully when Giovanni Ribisi gets called up on active duty thus threatening to make his triplets fatherless.

  26. Scott says:

    Umm, Mancillas, those are central African gorillas. At least say your nay correctly.

    So the Friends would go shopping at Pottery Barn? Is this like Satan’s advice to go the Disney World after 9/11?

  27. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Lane, if they were threatening to draft Ribisi or his buddies (even Beck) I would be marching in the streets.

    I’ll go ahead and offer a book suggestion of my own-Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint

    And I remembered, it’s Rachel, isn’t it?

    Scott, you save the African gorillas if you wish but I am all Asian all the time.

    Yes, I do think the Friends would go shopping at Pottery Barn but I was thinking more along the lines of Colin Powell’s “you break it, you bought it” Iraq analogy and how this factors in to our latest discussions of consumerism vs. activism.

  28. Scott says:

    Let me guess, Ruben, you sported the “Donna Martin Graduates” baby tee back in the day, didn’t you?

  29. Ruben Mancillas says:

    The third season of The O.C. had an in-joke where Rachel Bilson was wearing one of those shirts and Adriean had to explain the whole thing to me.

    Nah, hate to disappoint but I didn’t get into 90210 until after Donna got drunk.

    I was too busy trying to shut down the first Gulf War back then.

  30. Scott says:

    #30 is a total sock pupet, by the way — Unless it was Scott Peterson; I know he comments from time to time.