Monday, June 27, 2005

Begin at the Beginning

I've always liked Matt Yglesias's "Weekend Update" feature on TAPPED -- his snarky dismissals of columnists are hilarious and usually spot-on. (My favorite part, though, is the question that opens them: a small invocation of a general, national culture, a description of what one might have been busy with if you were like everyone else. Of course they're often jokes; of course they are rarely if ever genuinely fully national. But it's a nice touch.)

One thing he always includes is an "op-ed you actually need to read". Today he links to Charles Krohn's Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post on the military's recruiting troubles. I get why he did -- the disastrous state of our armed forces is a very serious issue, one that -- in one way or another -- the country needs to confront. Krohn raises some important issues and possibilities. I get that too.

I think what got me so riled, though, are not any of the points Krohn made so much as what he didn't say. There is an air of unreality about the piece, as if Iraq was not, well, Vietnam 2: This Time It's Desert Heat. Here's what I mean. Krohn writes:

The Gates Commission, in considering the transition from a draft to a volunteer force, optimistically assumed that young Americans would come to the colors if the nation went to war with any country that presented a conventional threat. Unconventional, non-state warfare didn't enter into the commission's calculus.

And what about countries that presented no threat at all? Did the Gates Commission consider those? What about rather conventional wars of colonial occupation (a pattern familiar from France in Algeria, Israel in the West Bank, the US in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, among others)? To say the Gates Commission didn't consider "unconventional, non-state warfare" is to -- subtly -- elide the current problems in Iraq into the War on Terror. The Al-Qaeda threat is one of "unconventional, non-state warfare" -- and is not the problem. The problem is Iraq -- a disastrous war that has, and has always had, nothing to do with the War on Terror, and is not in any way an example of "unconventional, non-state warfare". It's conventional colonialism -- complete with the conviction that we can help the colonized country build better institutions, lies about our motives, the whole bit. It's a conventional war of occupation against a guerrilla force. Oh, to be sure, there are unique features (these guerrillas seem particularly indiscriminating in their murder: I mean, don't guerrilla's usually try to kill the occupying forces, not their own citizens?) -- but then, there are always unique features in any conflict. But to write this way is to perpetuate the fundamental, intolerable deceit of the Bush Administration, that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11.

Then there are the paragraphs that just seem to be written from the moon:

Such a commission could consider why recruiting incentives seem insufficient to attract today's youth. Should we consider a new approach based on a different set of inducements?

Um, why recruiting incentives seem insufficient? Surely it's that people are getting killed daily, with no end in sight, no admission of trouble from our supposed leaders, no clear idea what we are trying to accomplish or how we'll get there, to say nothing of a war whose justification turned out to be a pack of lies? Are we really going to fix this with "a different set of inducements"? -- Unless that's a code phrase for a draft, i.e. the inducement being serve or go to jail, in which case, yes, we'd get more soldiers -- although a draft raises a large number of problems of its own, not the least of which, in my view, are moral.

Ah, but that wasn't the whole paragraph. Krohn follows those questions with:

If young Americans and their parents understood why a favorable outcome in Iraq is in our nation's vital interest (and is not just a do-good effort to deliver the Iraqis from oppression) perhaps some of the stigma of serving would disappear.

First of all: "stigma of serving"? I don't think there's any stigma to serving. There's a basic and extremely rational fear of death and injury.

But the basic point here is right: if Americans believed the war in Iraq was a vital security issue, this would help immensely. Unfortunately, it's far from clear that it is in our nation's vital interest. And to the degree that it is (certainly a civil war and/or a failed state in Iraq would do even more damage to American security than the vast amount that the war has already done, insofar as it would provide terrorist recruiting, training & bases), the entire reason that it is is the horrendous decision to go to war in the first place based upon a pack of lies. (After all, the only reason for the war that has stood the test of time -- the only reason that was even remotely plausible to begin with -- was the notion that the war was "a do-good effort to deliver the Iraqis from oppression". And, after all, Hussein is gone.) As someone I once heard of somewhere asked one time, how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

To be fair, Krohn does approach these points in his next paragraph:

Those who see value in a preemptive approach to public affairs make the case that our commitment to Iraq should be explained clearly before growing disenchantment becomes more widespread. How hard is it to acknowledge the obvious -- that the war we have now in Iraq bears little resemblance to the war we began? Yet the war we have today against fanatics and insurgents is far more serious than the one we started.

And if there was a convincing argument that our presence there was helping rather than inspiring the insurgency (it's a muddy issue with arguments on both sides so far as I can tell) that would help. For that matter, if we had any leadership that was even remotely competent -- beginning with being even remotely connected to the disastrous reality on the ground -- that would probably inspire confidence as well. But then, if we had any leadership that was even remotely competent -- that cared at all about American lives -- we simply would never have gone in the first place.

This goes on through the whole article: the Gates commission "did not foresee a time when economic incentives would be insufficient. A new study might fill this void." -- yeah, a new study is just the thing, I'm sure. "Our country will be threatened in the future, and some of the challenges will be ambiguous." -- and how many will be fictional, invented by malevolent politicians? "A high school valedictorian thinking about enlisting in the Army sees the reduction of minimum standards for his or her potential peers as a disincentive." -- yeah, bad peers, that's right up there along with dying in a bloody, mismanaged, lie-based and quite probably pointless war.

But you get the point. We won't be able to have any reasonable conversation on the rebuilding of the army until we have a reasonable conversation on Iraq. And we won't be able to have a reasonable conversation on Iraq until we get thoroughly straight the war's origins: it's utter non-necessity, its utter lack of any connection to the assault on our country on 9/11, its utter lack of any basis in American security at all. If we got this straight, then maybe would could have a conversation along these lines: now that we are, disastrously, there, would our staying or withdrawing be better -- more likely to benefit the suffering people of Iraq, more likely (therefore) to minimize the horrible damage done to American security by the invasion. (I'm leaning towards withdrawal, but it's hardly obvious (a subject for a future post.)) But that's where we need to start.

Update: In comparison, Bob Herbert writes a column about this issue which doesn't drive me crazy -- even though he doesn't include the sort of firebreathing rhetoric that I did above. All he does is not obscure the main issue, which is that "there are limited numbers of people who will freely choose to participate in an enterprise in which they may well be shot, blown up, burned to death or suffer some other excruciating fate." Sure, I think there should be more focus that this is not simply a war where people are dying, but a seemingly endless, seemingly pointless war begun under false pretenses in which people are dying. (I'm not certain that Americans would oppose a war, even with higher casualties, that seemed genuinely necessary (although after this administration, I suspect that the necessity will need to be pretty conclusively demonstrated -- as, indeed, it should have to be.)) But at least Herbert doesn't duck the central issue the way Krohn did.

1 comment:

Darwin Entwisle said...

Happy New Year!