Fighting a traditional war in Iraq dooms us to failure; knowledge and understanding are the real weapons of the future
I'm working my way to a point, though I expect the journey to be so tortured and convoluted as to make The Lord of the Rings seem like a picnic outing.
Breaking my solemn vow to the Politics staff not to listen to right-wing talk radio, I indulged to hear the current discussion on Iraq and the now notorious treatment of Iraqi prisoners by some U.S. soldiers. The problem, as the talk shows define it, is the same as it is with everything else: Democrats. Consideration of the abuse itself ranged from fraternitylike pranks gotten slightly out of hand to acceptable practices that liberals were just too damn stupid to understand humiliation being the only way to successfully manipulate these enemies. Their litany: "We have not been apologized to for 9/11; we have done nothing wrong; we have no cause to apologize to anyone; the real problem is those who would: the Democrats the traitorous enemy within." Not surprisingly, congressional Democrats are presumed to be either allied with this train of thought or to play into the outrage by being more political than ethical, seemingly way too thrilled at any Bush administration misstep that might give them an electoral advantage.
As Chester Himes once wisely observed, "Anybody is capable of anything." I know many that think, "I would never, under any circumstances, do that" (be it mistreat prisoners or some other abomination). They're almost all wrong. Abstract considerations are very different from real-world situations.
Consider that we invaded Iraq with no endgame in mind and no understanding of the country's history, politics, customs, or social structures, not to mention language and religion. Our military then put young kids with no training in charge of prisoners. Now many of those kids are going to be court-martialed. The responsibility goes directly to the war planners, who instead will be complicit in jailing the pressured and almost intentionally perverted GIs. This is not to argue for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation; it would change nothing except to absolve so many of the guilty and be used as a political weapon against moderation and decency.
Hypothetically, if we were to agree that this is all being "blown way out of proportion" the abuse was "minor" or "necessary" or "acceptable treatment" or whatever the core issue remains. What is the consequence of these photos around the world?
Why are we in Iraq? All the official reasons have been shown to be bogus. Iraq posed no imminent threat and had no significant relationship with al Qaeda and, even if they discover WMDs tomorrow, that would demonstrate no intent to use them nor to supply terrorists. Certainly Saddam Hussein was a monster, but arguing that those against the war ignored his homicidal inhumanity is beyond disingenuous. Most of those advocating invasion belonged to constituencies that had long argued against human rights as criteria for American alliances. And, ironically, many of those opposed to the invasion represent groups that have long protested U.S. support of repressive governments.
The invasion had little to do with UN-imposed sanctions and even less to do with promoting democracy. Listen to talk radio: Those people hate democracy in action. One talk-show host argued that about 45% of Americans hate America, democracy, and the president. A recent letter-writer argued that the war would result in moderate Arab governments as though democracy doesn't mean they get to make that decision. In the face of confusion and desiring reassurance, expect Iraqis to vote for religious fundamentalists who assault moderation and promote narrow, reactionary agendas. Americans did so in the last election, and I'm betting, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to the administration's failures, we will again in the next.
We invaded because, after 9/11, the U.S. felt unbelievably vulnerable. Boasting the most powerful military in the world proved inconsequential; we were unbearably humiliated. Listen to the war's defenders; sooner or later, they will make the point that we have to fight this war for our future. The latest pitch is that we don't want future generations of American women forced to wear burkas.
The United States invaded Iraq not to overthrow Hussein nor to impose democracy. This war is a fearful response to the world. After the unknown of 9/11, we needed the known of American tanks, assault weapons, and planes. The complexities of a protracted diplomatic and intelligence campaign against nongeographically specific terrorists organized in small, fluid cells, unified by ideas rather than uniforms, boasting neither front lines nor heavy weapons, provide no cathartic release. We are fighting this war on our terms, using our weapons, demonstrating our invincible military superiority it doesn't matter that Iraq, even by the administration's own admission, has never been connected to 9/11. This is a war, all rhetoric aside, we are sure we can win. The equation is simple if dishonest. Heroic American soldiers have died in past wars fighting for freedom and our way of life. Heroic American soldiers are dying in Iraq. Therefore, they are fighting and dying to preserve freedom and our way of life.
On the contrary, this war is itself the greatest threat to all of us, perpetuating as it does an "us" against "them" mentality the West against the Third World, Judeo-Christian beliefs against those of Muslims, the modern world against the past. Claiming this is an effective assault on terrorism is to argue that a flooding river can be battled on one's terms, that building imposing dikes along one section ends the threat. Instead, the water just gushes over the banks everywhere else.
This conflict is about ideas and beliefs, perceptions and opinions, not weapons and tactics. Yet, we're ignoring that, needing to fight a traditional, easily comprehended war. Recently, I was talking to a student taking courses in UT's Middle Eastern studies department, which has long had an excellent national reputation. He suggested the department isn't as strong as it has been in the past. Obsessed with this war and with cutting taxes, the government is even failing to fund the real weapons of the future: knowledge and understanding.
The right-wingers are fundamentally right, at least about my core beliefs. Racist, chauvinistic, opportunistic, hostile nationalism is our world's great cancer. In some basic ways, we are all of the same family. In order to survive and prosper, we all need to come to a greater understanding of each other, accepting that the world is a single community.
This is not to argue naively for a one-world government, nor to claim that we're all really benign that if we just hug each other, everything will be all right. We've all seen husbands and wives, once in love and long committed to each other, who, despite having so much in common, end up in acrimonious, irreconcilable dispute brothers and sisters no longer speaking, parents and children openly hostile. Adding ethnicity, religion, economics, cultural, and social differences just makes communication and understanding that much more impossible. As we lament the loss of languages or the disappearance of indigenous local customs, we need to remember that the other side of the coin of traditional folk dances is Serbs and Croats, Hutus and Tutsis, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Palestinians killing each other. Which is not to argue against indigenous customs, ethnic traits, or national identity, but to agree that we are far from even a hint of harmony, openly threatened by each other and much better at war than at peace.
Still, we are all human for all the ways we are different, we are also alike. Thriving on this planet, especially as technology shrinks it, is going to require ever-increasing communication and cooperation. As difficult, uncertain, and dangerous as those tasks may be, they at least need to be goals. Currently, they are derided as fantasies by almost all concerned. The problem is all of us. It is as stupid to blame the U.S. for all that is wrong as it is to privilege any other nation or race. The most technically backward countries are usually the ones most prone to sectarian hostilities, though the most advanced are easily the most dangerous.
If you really believe in God, regardless of your specific religion, the greatest form of worship is living ethically and morally. Given even the boundaries and beliefs of other religions, if one were leading a spiritually holy life, wouldn't harmony be a goal? (I readily admit to a lack of knowledge about Muslim tenets concerning jihad.)
Guards in Iraq and prisoners, members of the administration, American soldiers and Iraqis (including those welcoming us and those fighting us), Israelis, Palestinians, North Koreans, Chinese, and on and on, are all members of our effectively small world community, whether we like it or not.
Historically accepted patterns of interaction, serving fear rather than vision, are not now working, nor have they ever. If your concern really is about God and a safe, sane, free, and creative environment for your great-grandchildren's great-grandchildren, it is neither naive nor idealistic to suggest that what has served us so poorly in the past is doomed to do even worse in the future. Accepting reality, acknowledging limitations, considering hatreds, understanding differences now is still the time for impossible dreaming.