Sunday, January 14, 2007

Our long national nightmare

I remember when Gerald Ford became president and told us that “our long national nightmare” -- Watergate -- was over. When America heard those words, it was as close as 200 million people could come to exhaling at once. There was a sense of relief in the land, and during the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, a renewed sense of hope and even pride. For being a good and decent man at a time when that was exactly what our country needed, Ford deserves the accolades that came his way following his recent passing.

Today, we are in the throes of another long national nightmare that shows little sign of ending soon. It is called the Iraq War, an unnecessary enterprise poorly executed. The result may well be that we are creating a Shiite state in Iraq, one that will ally itself with Iran, which is no friend of American interests. (Who knows, perhaps one day a strongman will emerge in Iraq, perhaps a mullah with dreams of building nuclear weapons against the infidels.) At the very least we have created a base camp for terrorists where there was none before.

It is a nightmare because it didn’t have to happen, and it is not over because whatever will eventually play out in Iraq is only in the middle -- or perhaps even still the early -- stages.

I smelled a rat from the beginning. Like Jerry Ford, who asked that Bob Woodward shield his true feelings about Iraq until after his death, I saw no justification for this war. It seemed precipitous, wrong-headed, unnecessary, avoidable. I know enough about war and politics and history to know that sometimes wars must be fought, and I count among these the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and get Bin Laden. Like almost every other American, I was with George W. Bush up to that point.

But I have also read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about how the eminently avoidable World War I came to be, and I lived through Vietnam, and so I know when nations make errors in judgment, when leaders are wrong -- when, unlike the case of Jerry Ford, a people are saddled with a head of state who is not the right man (or woman) for the time. What we have in the White House now is an individual whose talents are better suited to being a county commissioner than leader of the Free World. Sometime in 2002, as Bush began to listen to Dick Cheney and his neoconservative pals, and as he began to believe that God had anointed him for this task, the president -- never a student of history -- quite simply lost it.

And so I stood in the rain in March 2003, along with 150 other people, to protest on the eve of the war at an intersection in this small town of ours. We carried candles, and we shielded them from the moisture and the wind. We had many honks of support from passing cars and also a number of hecklers. I have participated in more vigils against the war since, and as time has gone on passersby have honked more and waved more and a cop even briefly flipped on his siren on for us. Last time I was out, no one gave us the finger or yelled about how we were supporting Saddam Hussein.

And part of this nightmare is the feeling of sickness, of sadness, of dread for our troops, our precious young people who have been killed and maimed and scarred in this enterprise -- let alone the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have suffered similar fates. And for those yet to be sent, yet to die, yet to suffer in this madness. It is one thing to play dress-up soldier, another thing to be one in the line of fire. Tim Russert of NBC interviewed a reporter Saturday who spoke to his sources in the Bush Administration and they said what I think we all know: Many of those around Bush, perhaps even the man himself, doubt that his new escalation of the war has all that much chance of working. Maybe -- had Bush listened to Colin Powell rather than Donald Rumsfeld, had he committed overwhelming force at the start and followed up by keeping Jay Garner in charge and not replacing him with Paul Bremer -- maybe, just maybe, it might have worked. But that ship has sailed on the sea of incompetence and naiveté and arrogance that is the Bush Administration.

And now the “surge,” or as Condi Rice calls it, the “augmentation.” The English language, too, is a casualty of war, along with the truth. We do not know for sure what will happen in the coming months, but George W. Bush will do one thing, of that I am certain: He will hand this mess to his successor so that he doesn’t have to face up to the long national nightmare he has set in motion for all of us. Another imperial figure said it long ago: Apres moi, le deluge.

And what of his successor? I have little respect for those who supported the Iraq war resolution. Politics trumped patriotism for many of them, especially the Democrats. Did John Kerry and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton vote “yes” because they believed “yes,” or because they believed it was politically expedient, the popular choice, the right thing to further their careers? And what of the Republicans -- traditionally the party that supposedly likes to avoid foreign entanglements. Did any stand up? Did any bother to demonstrate independence of thought? One gathers that George Bush the Elder may have had his doubts; one knows that Jerry Ford did. People who knew them say that neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan would have followed the course of Bush the Lesser.

There were a few lonely voices against the war resolution. I remember Robert Byrd, the aging senator from West Virginia, giving long, eloquent talks on the Senate floor, virtually alone in that chamber. He spoke about the meaning of the Constitution, holding a copy of that document in his hand, a prop ignored by those too busy renaming French Fries “Freedom Fries.” Byrd’s voice quavered but his arguments were solid, yet most did not listen.

And I remember Al Gore speaking against the war -- Al Gore, the people's choice in the election of 2000. In The Guns of August and later in The March of Folly, Tuchman demonstrates brilliantly that an accident of history -- be it the assassination of an archduke, or one vote on the US Supreme Court -- is sometimes all it takes to turn the world on its head.

Sometimes I think I will awaken from this nightmare, that the right man will be in the White House, that there is no war in Iraq, that the shared sacrifice President Gore called upon all of us to make after 9-11 is resulting in progress on energy independence (and against global warming), that the wise and skillful use of a nation’s blood and honor has captured Bin Laden, dealt mortal blows to terror, and left us with hope after all. That there is no national nightmare, that it was all a bad dream.

And then I turn on the TV news and I want to cry.


Anonymous said...

I agree that in hindsight that the war was an unthinkable mistake but how do we pull out now?? How would all those families feel knowing that their children died in vain?


Anonymous said...

As usual I'm in 99.9% agreement with what you say, David. Where we part company is that I would NEVER vote to put the Shrub on MY county commission. We have enough local incompetence right here in New Mexico without importing a bigger and better variety from Texas! As a famous governor of New Mexico once said, "Pity New Mexico. So far from Heaven, so close to Texas."

Anonymous said...

I suppose you will pull this, since you've pulled other comments you don't agree with.

I wonder if you care one wit about the thousands of Iraqis who were killed by Saddam? The Kurds who were gassed by him? The women who were subject to 'rape rooms'? Men who were forced to watch the thugs kill their children? People who were torn apart by industrial meat grinders?

I suppose you are inured to that, thinking that Moslems are less worthy than our 'precious children'. You have no sympathy for those of other lands? How hard hearted are you?

It is an admirable goal, do you not think, to deliver a nation from the iron fist of a sadistic monster? No?

The fact that the war has not gone perfectly does not deny the admirableness of the effort.

What other nation would seek to help a nation, with no design on increasing its wealth or status among nations. Only the US

Anonymous said...

I'll bet for all your weepy mumbling about President Ford, you voted for the peanut farmer.

Why don't you stick to CLL?

David Arenson said...

To the last commenter first: If you don't like reading my non-CLL posts, skip over anything with "OT" for "Off Topic" in the title. And yes, I voted for the peanut farmer. I was co-chair of his campaign in Santa Cruz County, California, as a matter of fact. But I never disliked Ford, and I thought he did deserve credit for helping heal the wounds of the country.

As to the third comment: It is noble to remove tyrants, but at what price and when? (Why stop with Iraq? Hey, let's invade North Korea!) Other interests and concerns need to be balanced when nations make decisions about war. Would you give your life for the sole purpose of removing a tyrant in a foreign land? Would you sacrifice your son's life or your daughter's for that purpose? It is so easy to say, so hard to do. And therefore must be done when the totality of national interests are overwhelmingly at stake.

Betty, your comment is priceless.

As to the first comment, from LK, this one goes to the heart of why this war is a nightmare and a tragedy: What do "we" say to the families who have lost their children? Did they die in vain?

Did the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam died in vain? As John Kerry once asked long ago, how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

What do we do now? There is no elegant answer. Could we get the UN to send a peacekeeping force to Baghdad? Redeploy our forces to the borders to stop Al Qaeda types from entering the country? Start bringing our troops home?

Chisel on the White House and Congress this saying: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Anonymous said...

As far as ridding the Northern Korean people of Kim Jong Il, boy would the left go apoplectic if we did use military force there! (Of course, so might the Chinese, so this goes under the category, biting off more than we can chew.)

Yes, I would risk my life removing a man like Hitler or Saddam from power. OK? My children would have to make their own decisions, now wouldn't they?

Thanks for bringing up the shameful actions of the Democrats in Congress would wouldn't even fund the South Vietnam military so they could fight the North Vietnamese communists. Millions have been estimated to have been killed in the ensuing take over of the south.

Is the the honor liberals such as yourself seek to cover yourselves with? The blood of millions of innocents?

Is not democracy a worthy goal for others? Should we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others? Ignore the screams of the tortured? Walk by the whimpers of the children?

I guess you'd say...Yes!

Anonymous said...

What do you suggest we do about the Fundamentalists, Iran, Syria, and the terrorists? What do you think our solution should be if we pull out of Iraq?

David Arenson said...

The South Vietnamese government was weak and lacked popular support. The fact is that the North represented nationalism as well as Communism, and that part of their intent was to drive foreigners (French, then the US) out. Had the Democrats funded troops for Vietnam in 1975, the result would have been the same, just delayed another year or two -- only more people would have been dead. "Millions" were not killed after the South was defeated. That's ridiculous. You may be confusing Vietnam with Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge managed to gain ascendancy after Nixon destabilized the country by invading it.

As to what to do about Iran and Syria, I think the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton) has some worthy ideas.

I think the US would be wise to turn its attention back to Afghanistan as the Taliban is in something of a resurgency and Bin Laden is lurking there or nearby.

In Iraq, I think we should concentrate on getting at Al Qaeda as we draw down and step back, and as we demand that the Iraqis (Sunni, Kurds, and Shia) get back to a meaningful power and resource-sharing arrangement with each other. What happens in Iraq ultimately depends on them, not us. Military power has its limits and cannot be the solution to all things.

Marc said...

Great post David! I hadn't been keeping up with your blog lately, but I'm happy I came across this post.

Better late than never, I always say. I even plan on putting a link to this post on my blog.

I did want to make one comment to the first anonymous poster who asked "How would all those families feel knowing that their children died in vain?"

I would ask him/her, so you want to see more Americans die so that those who went before didn't die in vain?

At what point will you say enough is enough? When another 3000 Americans die? or maybe 5000?

Becky said...

Great post and I agree with you unlike some who have posted.

The question that was posed regarding Kurds being killed. I pose "How many innocdent Iraqis have died since we entered Iraq? Are you so arrogant to assume there are none?

My son was in Iraq. He's a heavy equipment operator in the CB's. He was put behind the wheel of a hummer with a bullet hole still in the windshield from the previous driver. Equipment that didn't meet the requirements to perform properly in the desert. My nephew was there for a year (as a reserve)and his mother had to buy the insert for his flak vest on Ebay! All the while American civilians making thousands, living in the gated dwellings that were once Saddams', won't pick up a box because it violates an OSHA standard.

My son goes where he is told and I am proud of him, but that doesn't mean I am unpatriotic for questioninig those that sent him there as there motives are more than questionable.