The Heart of Darkness

“The website has become a stomach-churning showcase for the pornography of war – close-up shots of Iraqi insurgents and civilians with heads blown off, or with intestines spilling from open wounds. Sometimes photographs of mangled body parts are displayed: Part of the game is for users to guess what appendage or organ is on display. …

“A series of photos showing two men slumped over in a pickup truck, with nothing visible above their shoulders except a red mass of brain matter and bone, is described as ‘an Iraqi driver and passenger that tried to run a checkpoint during the first part of OIF.’ The post goes on to say that ‘the bad thing about shooting them is that we have to clean it up.’ Another post, labeled ‘dead shopkeeper in Iraq,’ does not explain how the subject of the photo ended up with a large bullet hole in his back but offers the quip ‘I guess he had some unsatisfied customers.'”

– “The Porn of War,” The Nation, Sept. 22, 2005

“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction….”

1984, George Orwell, 1948

I didn’t go to the big antiwar demo in Washington Saturday – and not just because I have the normal responsibilities of a middle-aged parent with a house, a mortgage, a dog, and a backyard that badly needs mowing. I could have evaded all of those things. I decided not to go because up I’ve been deeply conflicted about the morality of supporting a rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

That is, up until now.

I opposed the invasion of Iraq – from the moment, in the summer of 2002, when it became obvious Bush had made up his mind to overthrow Saddam’s regime. It didn’t take a degree in Middle Eastern studies to understand what a Pandora’s box of sectarian conflict and strategic instability Shrub was about to open, and you didn’t need to be a pacifist to see that the moral and legal case for war was deficient to the point of criminality.

It’s also been clear – since about, oh, four days after the fall of Baghdad – that the Cheney administration didn’t have (still doesn’t have) any coherent strategy for stabilizing, pacifying, or reconstructing Iraq, other than to pour money down Halliburton’s gullet. And while the campaign to export “democracy” to Iraq was sincere (at least on the part of many of those who participated) it was always doomed, as much by the deficiencies of democracy here in America as by the cultural and historical tragedies of Iraq.

So I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an apologist for the war, much less for the administration or – for that matter – the American people, who followed their leaders into an aggressive war with barely a peep of protest. I’m also not some born-again hawk, who’s suddenly discovered that the war was a noble cause after all, now that it’s opened the floodgates of Iraq to the kind of fanatical terrorists the ever clueless American public thought we were going to fight in the first place.

The truth is, I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the war on terrorism anymore – not when it’s set next to the agony the war in Iraq is inflicting on the people of Iraq. The American people chose this war, and whether it was out of ignorance, fear, or a blind, hysterical patriotism is really beside the point. In a democracy (even one as puerile and corrupt as ours), people get the kind of government they deserve. And so the American people deserve the consequences of failure in Iraq – whether it’s another 2,000 dead soldiers, or $10 a gallon gas, or the transformation of the Sunni Triangle into the world’s biggest terrorist training camp. We’ve earned them all, the hard way.

So if the only risk was that withdrawal would make America less secure – say by exposing the precious U.S. homeland to blowback from an al-Qaeda revival in Iraq or the collapse of the House of Saud – I guess I’d be down in Washington yelling bring the troops home now, and to hell with the consequences. America has no right to use Iraq as the bait in Field Marshal von Rumsfeld’s “flypaper” strategy.

(There is, of course, a cold-blooded strategic argument to be made for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, in which case the military justification for continuing the war is as questionable as the moral one. In that sense, I’m actually giving the hawks the benefit of the doubt.)

For me, the overriding moral question for me is this: Would a U.S. withdrawal make things better or worse for the Iraqi people? My personal opinion is that having started the war, and uncorked the bottle of religious fanaticism and communal savagery, America is morally obliged to do whatever it can to minimize the suffering and death its actions have caused – and will continue to cause for years to come.

To do otherwise would be (to recycle an analogy from an earlier post) treating the Iraqis like a small boy who mixes a bunch of red and black ants together to watch them fight, then gets bored with the whole thing and flushes them all down the toilet.

Like Juan Cole, I have a strong suspicion that at this point a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could be the starting gun (so to speak) for a more conventional civil war, one fought by battalions or even divisions, instead of death squads and suicide bombers. This would probably lead to ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, the collapse of anything even resembling a central government, and the crippling of what little is left of Iraq’s public infrastructure – schools, hospitals, power stations, waterworks, etc.

Given the chaos and destruction Iraq has already experienced, the result could resemble Somalia more than Lebanon. But Iraq’s highly urbanized population would in some ways be even more vulnerable to the horrors of civil war. Literally millions of people could die, or be brutalized, or turned into homeless refugees.

I’ve read and considered the views of those who argue the American occupation is provoking, not restraining, the march toward civil war, and that a U.S. withdrawal would lead to a reduction in violence, not an explosion of it. But to me, those arguments have always had a whiff of rationalization about them – of ducking the hard moral choices involved.

Some withdrawal advocates simply want to see American soldiers taken out of harm’s way, and are indifferent to Iraq’s future, which they believe was never our business to begin with. Others are trying to fit the war into an ideological template they’ve cherished since Vietnam, in which the U.S. is always the imperialist aggressor and the insurgents are always the people’s champions. Still others don’t want to admit that a neocolonial occupation could ever be the better alternative (or the least worst one, anyway) even for a fragmented Third World nation on the brink of civil war. Most, I suspect, are simply trying to find a path out of the swamp, and are picking and choosing the arguments that look like they might get us there without too many more deaths on our conscience.

As for me, I’ve largely kept silent on the issue – in part because I’ve been so conflicted about it, and in part because (I’m trying to be honest here) I’ve been reluctant to buck the overwhelming antiwar, pro-withdrawal sentiment on my side of the political fence, or give even the slightest aid and comfort to the war hawks on the other side.

It’s not that anyone should give a sh*t about what I think, but I’ve had enough experience with being selectively misquoted by right-wing bloggers to know how even a carefully worded argument against immediate withdrawal might be played – i.e., “lefty blogger admits Bush was right all along.”

Still, I haven’t felt right about avoiding the issue. So I’ve been promising myself for a while now that I would break cover and at least admit that I’m not sure withdrawing from Iraq is the morally right thing to do, and have deep doubts about the arguments in favor of it.

But something happened on my way to a confession: I came across the Nation article on nowthatsf*, which meant I had to take a good, hard look at the psychopathic side of the American spirit, and consider its implications not just for the war on terrorism and the occupation of Iraq, but its role in the emergence of an authentically fascist movement in American politics, one that feeds on violence and the glorification of violence and has found an audience not just in the U.S. military (where I think – or at least hope – it’s still a relatively small fringe) but in the culture as a whole.

I don’t have time at the moment to explain fully why and how this peek at the banality of evil changed my thinking, although I’ll try to cover it in a future post. Suffice it to say that my visit to nowthatsf* was a reminder of the genocidal skeletons hanging in the American closet. It left me with the conviction – or at least an intuitive premonition – that an open-ended war in Iraq (or in the broader Islamic world) will bring nothing but misery and death to them, and creeping (or galloping) authoritarianism to us.

We have to get out – not because withdrawal will head off civil war in Iraq or keep the country from falling under Iran’s control (it won’t) but because the only way we can stop those things from happening is by killing people on a massive scale, probably even more massive than the tragedy we supposedly would be trying to prevent.

Defeat, in other words, isn’t the only alternative to failure. It could also lead to the kind of warfare that CIA counterinsurgency specialist Michael Scheuer warned about in his book Imperial Hubris:

“Progress will be measured by the pace of killing and, yes, by body counts. Not the fatuous body counts of Vietnam, but precise counts that will run to extremely large numbers. The piles of dead will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms.

“Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertile plants and grain mills – all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. Land mines, moreover, will be massively reintroduced to seal borders and mountain passes too long, high, or numerous to close with U.S. soldiers, As noted, such actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugees.

“Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.”

There was a time when I would have argued that the American people couldn’t stomach that kind of butchery – not for long anyway – even if their political leaders were willing to inflict it. But now I’m not so sure. As a nation, we may be so desensitized to violence and so inured to mechanized carnage on a grand scale that we’re psychologically capable of tolerating genocidal warfare against anyone who can successfully be labeled a “terrorist.” Or at least, a sizable enough fraction of the America public may be willing to tolerate it, or applaud it, to make the costs politically bearable.

I don’t know this for a fact, but after a stroll through nowthatsf*, or reading the genocidal lunacy routinely on display at Little Green Footballs or – or your average redneck watering hole for that matter – I can’t rule it out.

Which means I should have gone to Washington on Saturday after all. Because we really do need to get the troops out of Iraq – before hell is the consequence.