Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Numbers and Excuses

This is more a set of links than any well-developed thoughts of my own. I am too busy, too tired, too angry, to wrung thin by things from the personal to the global to say much on my own. So this, then, will be scattered thoughts with links what others have said.

Two numbers have impelled a lot of Iraq retrospectives recently -- 5 years, the anniversary of Bush's criminal war that just passed, and 4,000 dead, the number of American soldiers who have died in the commission of that crime. 5 years, 4,000 dead: a lot of regrets are owed, and so some people are paying -- many with wooden nickels.

But the latter number is, at best, misleading: far, far more than 4,000 people have died; that number doesn't include journalists, mercenaries, soldiers from other countries and -- most of all -- the many hundreds of thousands (if not more than a million) of Iraqi civilians who have died. Now, since our government has a powerful duty those who agree to defend it -- a duty, above all, not to waste their lives on criminal actions that end up harming our country (to say nothing of others) -- there is in fact some point to counting the dead American soldiers and noticing that number -- particularly given the sneering disregard for the lives of those "volunteers" that their commanders have shown.* But of course the primary point is, or ought to be, that human life is of incalculable value, and so that all human lives lost in this crime are blood on the hands of its architects. And by that standard -- the standard of our national creed (that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), to say nothing of the religious creeds professed by the majority of our citizens (that all humans are made in the image of God) -- the amount of blood on the hands of its architects is stunning.

So we get a lot of mea-culpas -- or so they are labeled: in truth, mostly they have been other-culpas: an attempt to shove the blame elsewhere. With few exceptions, the collection of reflections by liberal Hawks in Slate (one of the more prominent of these collections of regrets -- or things which are to regrets what Orangina is to real orange juice, an artificial and ultimately revolting substitute) are amazingly self-serving evasions of responsibility or guilt -- which seem to be often motivated by an attempt to pre-position themselves to support the next aggressive war America chooses to wage without contradiction, by describing their "mistakes" in terms that will enable them to do so.**

Rather than read them -- really, even if it weren't a waste of time, it's a drain on the brain cells; simpler to drink methanol*** -- take a look at this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow, who sums it up with the truth that only satire can deliver:

That about covers it.

About covers it, but not totally, because some people wrote more than that.

First is this set of reflections by Andrew Sullivan. While this has led to disdain in some quarters, I think it's not warranted: however dumb his thinking before the war, Sullivan has shown genuine regret, and seems -- unlike most hawks of whatever description -- to have genuinely learned something. It's far more honest than most of the drivel on this topic, and worth reading.

Even more honest is this set of mea-cuplas -- for once the term is deserved -- from John Cole at Balloon Juice. Now that's someone who's learned the lessons of the last five years.

It won't have escaped anyone's notice that it was people who were wrong -- rather than the far more numerous people who were right**** -- who are being asked to write on their past judgments. This is mostly just a reflection of the American media: it is hawks and not doves who are given venues to express their views; no one is declared marginal for supporting war, however crazy the wars they advocate or however wrong they are (indeed, they are usually rewarded with plumb assignments), whereas those who support the legal principles our own country advanced in the wake of WW2 (in the Nuremberg trials) are considered fringe.

But some of them spoke up anyway.

Jim Henley, in a (justifiably) widely-linked post, attempted to draw some humor out of the fact that still, five years later, we hear far more people who supported this criminal and stupid war than people who opposed it. I'll skip the snark, however, and cut straight to his somber conclusion where -- after rejecting various hypotheses about why he was right and others wrong -- says what he thinks those who were right had in common:
What all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time.
Amen. That's the basic point, the nub, the heart of it: far too many Americans are casual about war, whether because it's fought elsewhere, or out of an exaggerated sense of our own righteousness, or because our political class likes them scared & compliant, or out of simple militarism, or whatever. Those who really saw war was a bad thing could see that the excuses offered were so flimsy that the idea was obviously -- and yes, it was obvious; this was, in the end, an easy call -- a bad one.

He doesn't address his past views, but historian Eric Rauchway's reflections on the fifth anniversary of the war are also well worth reading (even if he highlights the estimate of 100,000 civilians killed, a number which is almost certainly far lower than the grim reality).

Other bloggers decided to honor those who were right about the war too. Quote-and-link round-ups of some of those who got this (again -- very easy) call right include:
Scientician at Open Left
Greg Mitchell at Tom Dispatch

So that's what I've been seeing recently. A good reminder that most of those who got the war wrong still are in the mindset that led them to get it wrong -- and hence are likely to repeat their mistake if offered the chance; that there are some honorable exceptions among those who got the war wrong; and that a hell of a lot of us were able to get this question right in the first place, even without the blunder before our eyes.

Oh, and among those who don't think they were wrong, certainly not about anything essential, in supporting the war in Iraq is Hillary Clinton, who still believes in the war in fundamental ways. Instead of voting for her, we should vote for someone who wants to "change the mindset that got us into war in the first place". (That link, by the way, is not a simple cite for the quote but a good examination of Obama's potential foreign policy -- a reason to hope in grim times. Check it out.)

Update: An additional link -- Hilzoy rebuts an attempt to justify hearing from those who got the war wrong here.

* "Volunteers" is in scare quotes because, first and foremost, a great many of our so-called volunteer soldiers have been prevented from leaving the service when they were scheduled to by "stop-loss" policies -- policies that are clearly unconstitutional under the 13th amendment, even if there isn't a chance in hell that the Supreme Court will ever acknowledge this; and second, because so many of them volunteered, but not for this.

** My favorite (if that's the word) example here is from Jacob Weisberg:
The first thing I hope I've learned from this experience of being wrong about Iraq is to be less trusting of expert opinion and received wisdom... When it comes to continuing debates about the weapons capabilities of Iran and North Korea, I resolve to accept nothing on faith (including the NIE saying Iran has dropped its weapons program).
In other words, Weisberg will express his regret for supporting an invasion based on false premises by being sure to keep an open mind about the merits of the trumped-up excuse for the next invasion. Wonderful.

*** Don't do this. Really.

**** Yes, far more: worldwide, the invasion was overwhelmingly opposed. The US is not the world. But of course plenty of us here were right too; we just weren't listened to.

No comments: