Excuse me if, at 62, and well into my second
era of protest against yet another distant, disastrous, and disabling American
war, I express a little confusion. Was it actually like this in Rome while the
legions were off fighting on the German frontiers? Was this the way it felt
in London while the imperial forces conducted their frontier wars in Afghanistan,
or Paris when the Foreign Legion was holding down North Africa? Was this how
it felt in Washington when Douglas MacArthur's father was suppressing the Filipinos
and Gen. Jacob Smith was turning the island of Samar into a "howling
wilderness"? Is this the way it usually feels in the heartlands of great
empires until the barbarians actually do come knocking at the gates?
I went marching against the president's Iraqi war of choice in my hometown
last Sunday. I found myself in an older crowd, many visibly from the Vietnam
era. It was relatively quiet, small-scale, and lacking in energy; all in all
– for me at least – a modestly dispiriting experience, given the crisis at hand
and the disillusioned state of public opinion here in the U.S.
I came home wondering whether some Bush-era version of the old Roman formula
had indeed been working. Had bread and circuses become croissants and iPods,
or Bud and American Idol, or Sony PlayStation 3 and 24? I couldn't
help puzzling over the gap between public opinion on the president's war and
public action, or between the conclusions opinion polls tell us so many Americans
have reached and those generally reached in Washington as well as in the mainstream
I know I'm not alone in wondering about such things, so here's my provisional
exploration of some of what's puzzled me most. I don't claim to have the answers,
only perhaps some of the questions. Think of this, then, as a guided tour of
a few of the trees on our landscape – with the hope that you'll be able to
spot the forest.
An Imperial Frame of Mind
For four years now, journalists have reported
on Iraq; editorial pages have editorialized; and pundits – that special breed
of Ciceros – have opined; while the retired generals who fought our last frontier
wars have trooped onto FOX, MSNBC, and CNN to analyze this one; and experts
and political figures of every expectable sort have appeared again and again
on the Charlie Rose Show, Meet the Press, and their ilk, without
our general fund of wisdom seeming to improve appreciably.
The same people who once thought Bush's war was a great idea, or a good idea,
or at least an okay idea, or something we should all support no matter what,
are still at it. Now, some of them claim the war was a lousy idea but, following
Colin Powell's Pottery
Barn rule, are convinced that, since we "broke" Iraq, it's "ours" anyway.
Some, like the Washington
Post editorial page's editors, still think the invasion was a good idea,
just somehow poorly – the word you always see is "incompetently" – carried out,
making the mess the Iraqis are in still ours.
Of course, many of those who once praised the war have revised their opinions
and judgments somewhat (and were usually exorbitantly praised for doing so).
Still, just about all of them, not to speak of just about everyone in Washington
who hasn't gone numb or mum, seems to agree on one thing. As the Washington
Post put it in its fourth-anniversary-of-the-war lead editorial, "It's tempting
to say that if it was wrong to go in, it must be wrong to stay in. But how Iraq
evolves will fundamentally shape the region and deeply affect U.S. security.
Walking away is likely to make a bad situation worse."
Under the many conflicts between George W. Bush and most of his opponents in
the Democratic and Republican parties lies an area of agreement seldom challenged
in the mainstream political or media world (or, when challenged, given remarkably
little attention). On the deepest points, major politicians and the most influential
parts of the media are actually in remarkable accord. In fact, you could say
that, in the world of our media gatekeepers, there's just another version of
the sort of accord that existed before the invasion of Iraq.
That country, it is said, is crucial to "American interests" – "vital national
security interests in Iraq" was the way, for instance, Hillary
Clinton put the matter recently. There is also agreement (as there was about
such things in the Vietnam era) that if we were to leave Iraq totally or "precipitously,"
American credibility would take a terrible hit, that the terrorists would
be "celebrating." It is similarly agreed that, while all sorts of partial
withdrawals from Iraq might sooner or later be possible, actually withdrawing
from the country is hard to imagine, even if staying seems hardly less so. This
is why, as in the recently passed House
legislation, withdrawal of all American forces has been replaced
by the withdrawal of all, or most, American "combat
troops" (or "combat brigades"), a technical term that actually accounts
for less than half of American forces in Iraq.
The two categories are now so conveniently blurred that it would be pardonable
if few Americans grasped the difference any more than did Charles Gibson, anchor
of ABC's World News Tonight. On last Friday's news, he claimed the House
had voted to get "all U.S. forces" out when his own White House correspondent
used the correct phrase, "combat forces."
Americans lived through endless similar non-withdrawal (or partial withdrawal)
"withdrawal" plans back in the Vietnam years. Now, it seems, we must do so again.
At that time, a crucial argument against full-scale withdrawal was the "bloodbath"
sure to follow. It was common knowledge in Washington then that any American
withdrawal would result in an unimaginable version of the bloodbath already
long underway in that country. That it didn't, of course, hasn't stopped the
Vietnam playbook from being pulled out again. Now, we have the "Iraqi bloodbath"
to contend with.
It's not just that those "vital national security interests" would be endangered
by a withdrawal from Iraq. On one predominant "fact," just about everyone who
matters in Washington agrees. We cannot leave Iraq because only we protect
the Iraqis from themselves; only we have any hope of "stabilizing" the country.
Even the Pentagon has
finally acknowledged that a brutal civil war is underway in areas of Iraq;
nonetheless, if we were to up and depart, it is agreed, a near genocide-level
bloodletting would certainly be in the cards. We are, in other words, the only
force standing between the Iraqis and the "gates
of hell." Yes, we may have loosed all this on them in the first place; yes,
our tactics in the field may only
clear the way for greater bloodshed; yet our "presence" remains their sole
remaining hope. This is considered a reality of our world, a clear, if understandable,
limit on American policy-making, whether Republican or Democratic.
That this common Washingtonian wisdom is but a prediction about a future yet
to be made is seldom noted; that it is being offered by people who often, however
unconsciously, have a stake in its coming true is not commented upon either;
that, for many of them, such a bloodbath might justify much that has gone wrong,
conveniently highlighting the "depravity" of the Iraqis we tried to help, isn't
a subject for discussion; that most of these seers have had uncommonly poor
records when it comes to predicting any developments in Iraq over the last four-plus
years is seldom brought up either.
There is also, of course, something grimly self-fulfilling about this particular
prophecy. If a single conclusion can be drawn about the U.S. presence in Iraq,
it's this: The longer we have been there, the worse it's gotten. We've now reached
the point where, with Americans "protecting" Iraqis from themselves, nearly
one in five of them have nonetheless either fled their country, been forced
into internal exile, or died in the mayhem. If you were projecting into the
future, it would be far more logical to assume that, with us present, this situation
would only worsen. (Of course, by now, both predictions might prove accurate.)
Even the president's surge plan, a version of the old Vietnam-era "oil spot
strategy," is but an attempt to extend the control of the American military
and the dependent, largely Shi'ite Iraqi government from the citadel-microstate
of the fortified Green Zone inside the Iraqi capital to most of Baghdad. It
is aimed at turning our "Iraq," at best, into a full-scale city-state, while
driving much of the internecine killing to the outskirts of the capital or surrounding
provinces. How such a plan could possibly "stabilize" the situation there in
any long-term way remains beyond serious explanation.
But perhaps this sort of deep agreement on the "realities" of our world should
not surprise us. After all, we're talking about a literal "conspiracy" here
– in the original Latin sense of the word: to con-spire once essentially
meant to breathe
the same air. Indeed, our politicians and top media figures do breathe the same
air and, in a way that wasn't true decades ago, cohabit in the same rarefied
Not surprisingly, then, they often agree on the basics, holding in common,
above all else, an essentially imperial mindset. In this way, they are genuine
representatives of what was – before a ragtag minority insurgency fought the
U.S. military to a standstill – hailed as the planet's "last superpower," its
only "hyperpower," its "global sheriff," the ultimate inheritor of Western civilization,
not to speak of the mantles of the Roman and British empires, and so on. This
imperial mindset can, at its most kindly, be expressed in this way: In any situation
where American "interests" are at stake, the United States can only be imagined
as part of the solution, not part of the problem. In the present Iraqi situation,
such thinking also represents an imaginative failure, your essential deck-of-the-Titanic
strain of thinking.
So call all this the fog of imperial war and, if you want to see it in action,
just turn on your TV and check out David Brooks, or Tom Friedman, or Richard
Perle, or George Packer, or various of the New York Times or Washington
Post reporters who regularly double as pundits, or retired Gen. Jack Keane,
or Sen. Joe Biden, or countless others nattering on about our prospects in Iraq.
Sometimes it seems as if all the major figures on our television landscape were
simply in some hypnotic state, claustrophobically recycling the same stale air.
Oddly enough, as far as I can see, the
only disqualification for being a pundit or expert in our TV world, when
it comes to the president's Afghan and Iraq wars (or his prospective Iranian
one), is having been right in the first place, having imagined from the start
something of what actually did occur – as, for instance, was the case with Nation
columnist Jonathan Schell and Boston Globe columnist James
Carroll, or, for that matter, any of the millions of protesters who took
to the streets in early 2003.
The Protesting Public: Erased From the Story
Among the missing-in-action of these last years
are all those Americans who went out into the streets before the invasion of
Iraq began, part of the largest global antiwar demonstrations ever mounted.
Even a fine piece like Frank
Rich's "The Ides of March 2003," his recent return to the countdown to war,
leaves out that mass of people – a distinct minority in the U.S., but already
part of a global majority.
They carried a plethora of handmade signs, including "No
blood for oil," "Contain Saddam – and Bush," "Uproot Shrub," "Oil for Brains,
We Don't Buy It, Liberate Florida," "The Bush administration is a material breach,"
"Preemptive war is terrorism," "W is not healthy for Iraqis and other living
things," "Use our Might to Persuade, not Invade," "Give Peace a Chance, Give
Inspections a Chance," "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand," "Peace is
Patriotic," and thousands more. In their essential grasp of the situation, they
were on target and they marched directly into the postwar period in vast numbers
before seemingly disappearing from the scene and then being wiped from history.
It wasn't, as people now often claim, that almost everyone was gulled and
manipulated into supporting this war by the Bush administration, that no one
could have had any sense of what a disaster was in the making. Millions of Americans
had a strong sense of what might be coming down the pike and many of them actively
tried to stop it from happening. I
certainly did, and I found myself repeatedly in crowds of staggering size.
Women traced out pleas
for peace naked on beaches, while in the Antarctic well-bundled bodies formed
similar peace signs in the snow. And almost everywhere on the planet hundreds
of thousands, millions, marched. After the invasion was launched and we had
broken Iraq like a Pottery Barn vase, Americans in startling numbers went to
the effort of officially apologizing in photos at the Sorry
Everyone Web site.
The demonstrations of that moment were impressive enough that my hometown
paper, the New York Times, which loves to cover large demonstrations
as if they were of no significance, had a fine front-page piece by Patrick
Tyler claiming that we might be seeing the planet's other superpower out
on the streets.
Here is a description I offered
of an enormous demonstration in New York City four days after the shock-and-awe
invasion was launched:
"Twenty to thirty minutes after the group I was with ended our
march at Washington Square and dispersed, I called my son – thanks to the glories
of the cell phone – and he told me he was stuck at the end of the march over
30 blocks north of us. And we hadn't even been near the front of the march.
That's a lot of people and there were sizable crowds of onlookers, cheering
from the street side as well as people waving or offering V signs from windows
all along the way. It was a remarkably upbeat experience. We were all, perhaps,
stunned by the evidence of our existence. Many, many young people. Wonderful
signs. Drums and music. Roaring waves of cheers at the end. I think we felt
something like shock and awe – of the genuine kind – that we had not gone away,
that we were not likely to go away."
And then, in a sense, we were gone. And yet, in another sense, we never left
At the time the invasion was launched, polls showed over 70 percent of Americans
in support of the president's war (or in a state of terror about terror, should
we not stop Saddam Hussein from nuking us). Now, here we are, four years later,
and the pundits who were telling us that we should indeed do it are still familiar
fixtures on our TVs, while the faces of the pundits who didn't, and of the Americans,
in their millions, who arrived at similar conclusions and tried to stop possibly
the maddest, most improvident war in our history, have been erased from memory.
And yet, to offer a little hope to those who believe that the mainstream media
holds the idling brains of hundreds of millions of Americans helplessly in its
thrall, that we are all merely the manipulated, let's consider something curious
indeed: The general point of view of the minority represented in those giant
prewar demonstrations took deep hold as time passed and has now been embraced
by a striking majority.
Back in December 2006, when James Baker's Iraq Study Group released its report
– and was hailed in the press for finding genuine "common ground" on Iraq –
I argued that
the American people, without much help from politicians or the media, "had formed
their own Iraq Study Group and arrived at sanity well ahead of the elite and
all the 'wise men' in Washington."
The Bush administration, of course, rejected the findings of the Iraq Study
Group, while the Democrats, by and large, accepted them. But no one turned out
to be particularly interested in the "Iraq Study Group" formed by ordinary Americans
whose "findings" were expressed in that least active of all forms: the opinion
poll (and later, the midterm election). Nonetheless, the numbers in those polls
represent a modest miracle, if you think about it.
According to a poll
released that December by the reliable Program on International Policy Attitudes
(PIPA), 58 percent of Americans wanted a withdrawal of all U.S. troops
from Iraq on a timeline – 18 percent within six months, 25 percent within
a year, 15 percent within two years; 68 percent of Americans wanted us completely
out of that country with no permanent bases left behind, including a
majority of Republicans – despite the fact, that you could search the American
press, most of the time, in vain for any indication that the Bush administration
had built a series of vast
military bases, big enough to have multiple bus routes and capable of housing
20,000 or more American troops and contractors. In addition, according to PIPA,
by the end of 2006, 60 percent of Americans had reached the conclusion that
the U.S. military presence was "provoking more conflict than it is preventing";
while only 35 percent still thought it a "stabilizing force" in Iraq.
Too bad we don't have similar polls for politicians, opinion-makers, and media
gatekeepers. They would surely bear little relation to PIPA's findings.
In 2007, if anything, such polling figures have only grown more emphatic. A
recent Newsweek poll,
for instance, offered the following figures: 69 percent of Americans disapprove
of the president's "handling" of the Iraqi situation; 61 percent think the U.S.
is losing ground in Iraq; 64 percent oppose the president's "surge" plan; 59
percent favor congressional legislation requiring the withdrawal of all U.S.
forces by the fall of 2008.
In the most recent CNN poll,
61 percent of Americans feel the decision to launch the invasion of Iraq was
"not worth it"; 54 percent think the U.S. will not win there; 58 percent believe
we should either withdraw "now" or "in a year"; in the most recent USA Today/Gallup
poll, 58 percent favor total withdrawal from Iraq either immediately or within
12 months. So it goes in poll after poll, while the president's approval ratings
continue their slow
slide into the low
Let's remember, by the way, that, unlike mainstream Democratic "withdrawal"
plans, the American public is talking about actually leaving Iraq, as in that
old, straightforward slogan of the Vietnam era: Out now! In other words, there
is a hardly noted but growing gap – call it, in Vietnam-era-speak, a "credibility
gap" – between the Washington consensus and what the American people believe
should be done when it comes to Iraq.
Add in one more odd fact here: It's possible that American public opinion is
now actually closer in its conclusions to its Iraqi equivalent than to the Washington
consensus. A number of recent polls, in which Iraqis expressed grim feelings
about what has happened to their country, have been released
and, like the American polls, they seem to reflect a belief that American forces
are anything but "stabilizing" and an urge simply to have the Americans out.
September 2006 poll found "that seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to
commit to withdraw within a year."
And yet the translation of all this sentiment,
of these conclusions, into visible action, despite inspirational
moments, has generally been less than overwhelming. Yes, in the years since
the invasion, there have been a few enormous
marches; and yes, there are groups that protest regularly, even heroically;
and yes, in cities and towns across the country, protesters have gone out weekly
with their signs, sometimes to freezing midwinter street corners, simply to
make a point. Nonetheless, given the extremity of the Bush administration and
its acts, it's hard not to wonder why, most of the time, the levels of mobilization
have been so relatively weak.
Those of us who can use the tumultuous mobilizations of the Vietnam era as
a point of comparison – there was even a group called The Mobe then – are
certainly aware that this time around nothing comparable has happened. It's
crossed my mind that there might even be a silver lining in the disappearance
of those large, boisterous prewar crowds, in the fact that, generally speaking,
the country seems, in protest terms, strangely demobilized.
In the Vietnam era, though few realize this, antiwar sentiment was strongest
at the bottom, in the blue-collar world. As Vietnam
scholar Chris Appy has
pointed out, for instance, a Gallup poll in January 1971 "showed that the
less formal education you had, the more likely you were to want the military
out of [Vietnam]: 80 percent of Americans with grade-school educations were
in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; 75 percent of high school graduates
agreed; only among college graduates did the figure drop to 60 percent."
What largely neutralized the full development of antiwar sentiment among the
majority of Americans in that era was, I believe, the strength of anti-antiwar-movement
sentiment, the visceral reaction of many working-class Americans against the
crowds of protesters, against the look of that far wilder moment (and a media
that invariably focused its cameras and attention on the wildest-looking of
the demonstrators, especially those carrying the flags of the enemy and chanting,
"Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win"). That visceral dislike for antiwar
sentiment, as expressed in the streets, was strongest at the bottom. In other
words, in those years, angry feelings about the disastrous war in Vietnam were
offset by angry feelings about the most visible of those demonstrating against
Interesting enough, according to John
Mueller of Ohio State University, an expert on the subject, the loss of
support the Bush administration has experienced for its Iraqi adventure has
followed the same arc as in the Vietnam era (and the Korean War era as well);
but, in the Iraqi case, support has eroded far more "precipitously," based on
far fewer American casualties and, Mueller wrote back in late 2005, "there is
little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline."
On this he proved correct. If anything, the decline in support seems only
to have intensified
in recent months, leaping well ahead of equivalent figures for the Vietnam era.
Only four years into the Iraqi catastrophe, polling figures match or exceed
for 1970 (perhaps seven years into the Vietnam conflict, depending on how
you count) on questions like whether you favor the complete withdrawal of American
forces. In 1970, for instance, 56 percent of Americans thought going into Vietnam had
been a mistake, already way below figures for Iraq. In the latest ABC News/Washington
for example, a record 64 percent of Americans say the war was "not worth fighting."
Given that, why were antiwar Americans so mobilized in the Vietnam era and
why are they so relatively demobilized now? (And don't think, by the way, that
the Vietnam-era mobilization in the streets, with all its wildness and excesses,
made no difference. Seymour Hersh, for example, points out in The Price of
Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House that President Nixon was considering
a major escalation of the war in 1969 when vast crowds of demonstrators descended
on the capital. "Those Americans who marched in Washington on October 15 to
protest the war," Hersh wrote, "had no idea of their impact; they were protesting
the policies already adopted by the Nixon administration and not those under
consideration. Nixon came out of the crisis convinced that the protesters had
forced him to back down [from his secret plans to escalate the war]. The protesters
thought the Moratorium had been largely a failure.")
The reason most often cited for the Vietnam-era mobilization is the draft.
After all, we still had a citizen army then. Usually, the draft explanation
is linked only to fear – the fear, in particular, that middle-class kids had
of going to Vietnam; and fear was certainly a factor that drove some young men
into the streets. But it wasn't, to my mind, the predominant one. The draft
had a more important effect. It reminded young men (and also young women, who
couldn't be drafted) and their friends, relatives, and parents that the killing
going on in Vietnam wasn't just some distant event, that it touched and affected
them. The draft made the war, and anger about it, real in a mobilizing way as
nothing has done today.
Here's a second difference of eras: The young in revolt in the 1960s, whether
on campuses or in the military, even those who claimed they were out to change
the "system" or bring down "the establishment," had grown up with a deeply embedded
belief that this was a system that could be challenged, could be changed; that
real democracy (or "participatory democracy" in the phrase of the moment) was
actually possible; that each person could make a difference. We still retained
– whether we knew it or not – a kind of faith in the American system and its
ability to respond. We had hope.
Similarly – and this is a third point seldom mentioned today – the young
in the streets, however frustrated by the moment, however unresponsive or even
criminal they found their leaders, still believed that, at some level, they
would be, and should be, listened to. And the fact is they were being listened
to. When President Lyndon B. Johnson complained about "that horrible song" ("Hey,
hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"), he was listening; when Richard
Nixon went out of his awkward way to claim that he would be watching a Washington
Redskins football game as demonstrators arrived in town, he was signaling that
he knew they were coming.
Today, it crosses no young minds that the top officials in the White House
might be listening. Many fewer young people, I suspect, have any remnant of
that deep faith that our political system could be responsive to them or that
anything they could do might change it. When they look to Washington, what they
see is fraud, dysfunction, conspiracy, cronyism, cabal, influence-peddling,
corruption, fear – in short, a system, a world, beyond response, possibly beyond
repair, and utterly alien to their lives. In such a situation, despair or apathy
tends to replace anger and hope.
The Iraq demobilization, then, is certainly part of a larger demobilization,
a deeper belief that, as Bill
Moyers made vividly clear in a recent speech, your vote doesn't matter;
that democracy is a-functional; that none of this has anything to do with you,
or your ballot, or your feet, or your sign, or your shout.
Our world has changed radically since the Vietnam era. Today, an increasing
part of what matters in public life (and work life) has been "privatized" and
subcontracted out, or simply outsourced. The U.S. military has essentially been
subcontracted out to small-town
and immigrant or green-card America – to, that is, the forgotten or ignored
places in our land; as a result, for most people in draft-less America, the
war is not part of our lives or that of our children. (The draft itself has
been carefully kept off the table by the Bush administration, despite the desperation
of a body-hungry, overstretched military.) In addition, war-fighting has been
outsourced to private corporate contractors who deliver the mail and the fuel,
do KP, wash the laundry, build the bases, and, in the case of tens of thousands
of rent-a-cop mercenaries,
do some of the guarding, fighting, and interrogating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And yes, the political system has increasingly been subcontracted out, with
malice aforethought, to thieves, looters, cronies, and absolute dopes. Little
wonder that Americans, living through the Age of Enron, scanning the horizon
from Iraq to New Orleans to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and watching Halliburton
head for Dubai, generally believe their system no longer works; that those high-school
civics texts are a raging joke (that, in fact, fierce joking, à la Jon
Stewart, is the only reasonable response to the extreme, roiling absurdity of
this administration as well as our world); and that, if you took to the streets
of the capital, no one in either party would be paying the slightest attention.
No wonder Americans have arrived at a series of striking conclusions on Iraq,
but haven't done much about them.
In an interview with the president, Jim Lehrer recently
inquired about why he hadn't asked the public (other than the military)
to "sacrifice" more. Bush, who had urged Americans to show their post-9/11 mettle
by heading for Disney
World and intensifying their shopping
behavior, fumbled around before replying this way:
"Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they
sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV
every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States,
but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat
down because of this war."
Perhaps the formula wasn't so much bread and circuses as terror and consumerism.
(Stop al-Qaeda, use more gas.) Same idea, though. This was, after all, an administration
intent on terrifying and demobilizing most Americans (while mobilizing
the foot-soldiers of the political Right), all so that they could create a Pax
Americana world and a Pax Republicana "homeland."
It was a mad dream, now in ruins. In response – and this is just my own hunch
– Americans performed their own acts of privatization, even as they came to
reject this administration, its war, and the way it was gambling with all our
lives. That's not so surprising. After all, we really do all breathe the same
air, live in the same world. And so, while they were at it, many Americans may
have subcontracted out their war protest to others, to the pros maybe (even
if those pros were actually dedicated amateurs, some of whom really were sacrificing
something in their place). That, I think, is the forest I see.
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt