The white hats, part II

So the story goes that America is disinterested, often even benevolent, in its conduct of foreign affairs. We fought the Vietnam War to protect the South Vietnamese and the rest of Southeast Asia from Communism; same with the Korean War. World War II was “the Good War”; Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany during World War I in order that the world “be made safe for democracy.”

And then there’s Iraq. We fought Iraq in 1991 to liberate Kuwait — remember, Iraqi soldiers were pulling Kuwaiti babies from incubators.* We went to war with Iraq a second time five years ago tomorrow. The story at the time was that Iraq possessed dangerous “weapons of mass destruction” and was developing even worse, more massively destructive weapons, and that it might use these weapons against the United States.

Now the darkly hilarious thing about this line of argument, of course, is that not only is each point false about Iraq — we know now, although it was fairly obvious then, that Iraq had no “WMD” in 2003, was not developing any, and in any case had no delivery mechanism that would allow these imaginary weapons to get to the United States — but that the points are actually quite true when “Iraq” and “United States” are switched. And in fact, we have used quite a bit of our massively destructive weaponry against Iraq in the past five years.

Another big story that was told to sell the war, and more importantly to justify the war in retrospect after it became clear that the promised WMD would, inconveniently, not be forthcoming, was that the United States had a responsibility to rid Iraq of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein and institute democracy. Now this of course made no sense at all: for starters, of all the brutal dictators in the world, why Saddam; and why the urgency to fulfill this humanitarian obligation in 2003, when the United States was already fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan? (Saddam had been even nastier as a ruler in the 1980s, using poison gas against Iraqi citizens among other horrors, but at the time U.S. policy was to support him — we all remember Donald Rumsfeld, then Special Envoy to the Middle East, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.) But Tom Friedman and other propagandists needed some kind of line, and this one fit precisely into the pre-established tradition of American Exceptionalism. Americans were eager to believe it because it once again let us hide the truth about our brutal imperialism from ourselves.

This second justification for the war became threadbare, however, as it gradually became hard for all but the most committed liars and self-deluders to deny that we had not brought and could not bring democracy to Iraq. (Which is not to say that democracy in Iraq is impossible — it’s just that the United States will not be the force to inaugurate it.) Dick Cheney is one of these committed liars; the Washington Post on Monday ran a story about his surprise visit to Iraq titled “In Iraq, Cheney Praises ‘Remarkable Turnaround'”:

As the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq neared, Vice President Cheney flew unannounced into Baghdad on Monday and declared the U.S. effort to install democracy and stabilize Iraq a “successful endeavor” that has been “well worth the effort.”

Hours after this story was posted online, another one went up at The New York Times titled “Suicide Blast in Iraq Eclipses Cheney’s Visit”; a bomb inside what the Times calls “one of the most secure perimeters in Iraq” killed 43 people.

So nobody really believes anymore that the U.S. can install democracy in Iraq; almost nobody talks about democracy as a “mission objective” — although the democracy story is still an important retrospective justification of the invasion. The debate has shifted; the invasion is a fait accompli, 140,000 troops are now on the ground, and the Bush administration is negotiating a “status of forces” agreement with the (U.S.-backed and -dependent) Iraqi government to secure the rights to permanent, massive military bases there. The need now is to justify staying in Iraq, and to reach the sophisticates, the people too smart to fall for the Cheney/McCain bullshit about past and present al Qaeda links, another variation on the American Exceptionalism theme has emerged.

This variation was expressed in remarkably pure form in a “Week in Review” piece in this Sunday’s New York Times titled “Five Years.” Reporter John F. Burns begins by recounting the beginning of the aerial assault on Baghdad, which he witnessed firsthand. He leaves no doubt that the invasion was warranted and welcomed, at least by himself and his fellow reporters. I count eight references in the 2,000-word article to the “evil” or “murderous tyranny” or such of Saddam Hussein, including the puzzling phrase “carapace of terror.”

Burns then turns to things going wrong. He notes that U.S. marines had orders to protect the Iraqi Oil Ministry building but nothing else; this fact does not lead him to conclude that the motivations for the war may not have been as disinterested or benevolent as he believes, but rather to see a “misstep” in a long chain of mistakes that lead to the failure of the initial mission.

Burns devotes one paragraph to U.S. war crimes in Iraq and another to the cost of the war in dollars and lives. The latter includes a single clause about Iraqi lives lost, stating civilian casualties as “tens of thousands.” (The lowest current estimate, provided by Iraq Body Count, is 82,000 to 89,000, and is certainly an undercount since it counts only documented deaths; other studies put excess deaths since the invasion in the hundreds of thousands.) To his credit, Burns writes about personal moments of horror during the five years he spent in Baghdad.

He then settles down to address the real question: what now? Well, hopefully, “America ultimately finds a way home with honor, and without destroying all it went to Iraq to achieve.” But what does that mean? Does “honor” here mean behaving honorably in war — and if so, does it make sense to speak of honor after Abu Ghraib, the murder of 24 civilians by U.S. troops in Haditha, the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmudiya by five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, or the razing of Fallujah, to mention just the crimes that Burns himself brings up? And what of the second clause — if America has not achieved what it went to Iraq to achieve, how can it destroy what it went to Iraq to achieve?

The tone has slipped into High Elegiac. Burns tells us that, despite what opinion polls say, Iraqis want “American troops [to] remain long enough to restore stability.” (He knows this because, although “people tell pollsters and reporters what they think is safe, not necessarily what they believe,” Iraqis tell him only the truth, not what he wants to hear.) Sadly, though, “it would be passing strange, after the years of unrelenting bloodshed, if Iraqis demanded anything else.” Burns concludes by taking for granted the U.S. obligation to remain in Iraq despite the bleakness of the war’s prospects:

It is small credit to the invasion, after all it has cost, that Iraqis should arrive at a point when all they want from America is a return to something, stability, that they had under Saddam. For America, too, it is a deeply dispiriting prospect, promising no early end to the bleeding in Iraq.

And there it is, finally: the mutated version of American Exceptionalism that now allows the high-minded to argue for continued war. We’re still fighting for the Iraqis’ own good, you see. The goal is no longer democracy but stability, staunching the flow of blood. And yes, it is tragic that U.S. soldiers and Iraqis will have to keep dying, but that is the price we and they must pay if America is to “ultimately [find] a way home with honor.”

It seems we’ve heard this song before:

Take up the White Man’s burden —
Send forth the best ye breed —
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild —
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden —
Have done with childish days —
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.

Yes, we have a burden, this line goes, to keep fighting in Iraq, to keep killing Iraqis — for their own good. It’s a thankless burden; there will be no “lightly proffered laurel”; the lack of apparent victory, the lack of any end in sight, is precisely why we need to stay; we might be there for 50 years, or 100.

We live in the most powerful empire the world has ever known. As you might expect, the empire gained and maintains power through violence. And like other empires before it, the empire tells itself stories to justify this violence; the stories might even be more elaborate than those of previous empires, since the public has somewhat more power and is thus somewhat more to be feared by the people who run the empire for their own profit.

There are a few options open to citizens of the empire when we see through these stories. We can leave. We can become activists and oppose the violence. We can decide to lose ourselves in our private pursuits, doing what good we can for people close to us.

But what we can’t do, not while remaining at all moral, is to pretend that the empire is anything but what it is, or that its deployment of violence is actually directed to disinterested or benevolent ends. It does not mean what we think it means to be the guys wearing the white hats.

5 responses to “The white hats, part II”

  1. lane says:

    Is there an Utne Reader for the blog world?

    Can you get these two articles wider distribution?

  2. bw says:

    Dave — I don’t have much to add (other than “Amen”) but wanted to say that I read this with rapt attention. It’s a really compelling set of arguments.

  3. I think California fell into the ocean today. Except for one snappy remark on a thread from last week, it’s all crickets chirping around here.

    [chirp chirp]

  4. Adriana says:

    This is brilliant, Dave. I just wish I had something substantial to contribute to this beyond “yeah, what you said!”

    Is it lazy to sit around wishing it all to go away until the new candidate comes along, hoping it won’t be McPain? I think that’s the mushy, passive role I’ve taken lately. Oh hell, I can’t do anything now I’ll just wait for the next president.

    But good for you for still putting up some resistance.

  5. Dave says:

    Adriana –

    I dropped this because of the other thread, but I wanted to suggest that waiting for the next president isn’t nearly enough. Obama’s foreign policy speech yesterday was quite good for a mainstream American presidential candidate, but it included plenty of imperialist chestnuts — off the top of my head, I recall suspicion of the U.N., expanding the Army and Marines, and putting more troops in Afghanistan. Obama is way better than McCain and probably somewhat better than Hillary, but he’s not going to change fundamentally America’s imperialist posture.