The Ugly Truth

The complete absence of Iraq’s fabled “weapons of mass destruction,” the “flawed” intelligence that supposedly fooled U.S. government officials into believing their own propaganda, the lies and skullduggery that are now being exposed, have raised the question: well, then, why did we go to war? What, after all, was the point?

Certainly not “democracy,” as George W. Bush and his more credulous apologists insist: not when we’re closing newspapers, imposing a “constitution” at gunpoint, and trying awfully hard to avoid direct elections. Why, then, are American soldiers dying?

They are dying, in large part, to get the American public used to the idea of taking casualties in an overseas war. As neocon military “expert” Max Boot, complaining about the lack of American deaths in Afghanistan, put it:

“This is not a war being won with American blood and guts. It is being won with the blood and guts of the Northern Alliance, helped by copious quantities of American ordnance and a handful of American advisers. After Sept. 11, President Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, push-button war, but that is precisely what it has been.”

If Boot wants “American blood and guts” then he certainly has it. American casualties are skyrocketing so fast that any number I cite is bound to be obsolete hours – or minutes – later. Boot must be ecstatic. He is, unfortunately, not merely a lone ghoul: there’s a whole gang of them out there, none of whom (as far as I can tell) have ever served in the military in any capacity.

And they aren’t just on the conservative side of the aisle, but also infest the liberal camp. Lawrence F. Kaplan, a senior editor of The New Republic, avers that the American aversion to casualties is a “myth.” Kaplan claims that Americans have responded to increased casualties in wartime with increased bellicosity, not a propensity to “cut and run.” It isn’t the people – who love war – but the decadent elites who are flinching:

“The greater challenge for Americans will not be persuading themselves to stay the course in Iraq. It will be persuading the very elites who have been lecturing them. In recent years the public’s unwillingness to tolerate battle deaths has become canonical among America’s leaders. But the impression is largely self-serving. The point may seem obvious, but the public does not choose causes worth dying for; elites do it for them. Or do not.”

Kaplan cites a survey that found:

“Military leaders consistently show less tolerance for casualties than civilian leaders, who in turn show less tolerance for casualties than the public at large. (In Iraq, the survey showed the public would tolerate, as a mean figure, 29,853 American fatalities; civilian elites would tolerate 19,045; and their military counterparts would tolerate 6,016.)”

In other words, the closer we get to anyone who has actually fought in a real battle, and I don’t mean on the op ed pages, the further away we get from the barbaric idea that mass murder can be “tolerable.”

Oh, but we mustn’t listen to those weak-willed lily-livered pansified military leaders, who have obviously been brainwashed by Noam Chomsky, or worse. Echoing Norman Podhoretz’s unforgettable critique of the peacenik mentality during the Vietnam War – which he ascribed to a homosexual desire to preserve the supply of seduceable youth – perhaps these military leaders are secretly in love with their own troops.

On the other hand, maybe they know something the rest of us don’t.

The public “takes its cues from above,” says Kaplan, yet the elites are falling down on the job: to rationalize and articulate whatever it is the government wants us to do, or not do, at any given moment, and especially to rally us to the flag in wartime:

“When leaders telegraph the message that America’s sons and daughters are dying for nothing – as Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton did – there follows an understandable reluctance to place those sons and daughters in harm’s way. This is why it’s so important that President Bush broadcast his determination in Iraq.”

My liberal-leftie readers may be astonished by the inclusion of Reagan on that list of flinchers, but Kaplan and the neocons hate the Gipper because he “cut and run” after the bombing of Beirut. The reason, clearly, was because we had no dog in that fight, we had no business being in Lebanon, in spite of Israel’s determined efforts to drag us in – an effort on their part, by the way, that continues to this day.

Death. Chaos. Spreading unrest, and – always – more wars on the horizon. These horrors are life and breath to the neoconservative ideologues who long agitated for this war, and have now finally gotten their wish. Iraq on the rack represents their heart’s desire: an Arab nation subjugated and writhing under the American boot. The idea is to apply “shock and awe” not only as a military tactic but generalized into a larger regional strategy. For the neocon crowd, Iraq is just the beginning, the first in a series of future wars stretching off into an illimitable distance.

Shock and awe worked on the American people, at least for a while. 9/11 certainly intimidated critics of government policies into an uncharacteristic silence for far too long. But now that the meaning of that seminal event, and even the exact circumstances in which it occurred, are both in dispute, criticism of Bush’s drive to war, far from being verboten or muted, is in the ascendant. Not all of it can be ascribed to election season partisanship, although that’s how this administration would like to frame it. Polls rate Bush’s handling of Iraq in the low forties: it seems like only yesterday when it was at 60 percent and higher. The pollsters all underscore numbers that indicate a majority still thinks it was “the right thing to do,” but those kinds of conclusions are not really solidified yet, either in fact or in the public consciousness.

Kaplan is right when he avers that public support for a war collapses when political leaders and the elites that serve them fail to articulate a convincing rationale for the conflict. It’s indisputably true that people tend to resent their sons and daughters “dying for nothing.” Yet Kaplan never tells us why this war is worth 630-plus dead, so far, and over 10,000 maimed. Beyond exhortations to “stay the course,” he never does get around to defining or in any way describing the noble crusade we are embarked on in Iraq.

Forget about Iraqi WMD, Al Qaeda, “democracy,” or even the price of oil as the real reasons for this war: the ugly secret of the War Party is that the casualties, both American and Iraqi, are an end in themselves, sacrifices on the altar of the war god. The idea is to get the American public, and a squeamish elite, used to the bloodshed, to toughen them up and ready them for the new era of American global hegemony. Iraq is meant as a short course in Imperialism for the American people, who have so far disdained empire-building in favor of tending their own garden. In an effort to forestall questions about what we’re fighting for, the War Party raises the cry: “Don’t cut and run!” The recent incident at Fallujah was grist for their mill, as cries of vengeance rend the air.

How does it serve our national interest to mediate the demands of the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Turkmen, and pay for it all besides? Our war birds have no answer to that question, and so they shriek “traitor!” and “appeaser!” at anyone who dares ask why the national interest is being betrayed – and by whom. Yet the questions are getting louder, the questioners bolder.

Five months after 9/11, when the War Party was riding high, Podhoretz gave a speech at the annual American Enterprise Institute dinner in which he warned the attendees not to be fooled by their own triumphalism, and, as I said at the time, he was right: the opposition to our foreign policy of global interventionism – global madness, really – is reasserting itself, just as he said it would, even stronger and earlier than during the Vietnam era. The neocons, desperate to stem the tide of protest, are now reduced to raising high the banner of bloodlust, and – inadvertently – revealing the ugliness of their own souls.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I have an article on the Richard Clarke brouhaha in the upcoming issue of The American Conservative. Say, what? You haven’t subscribed yet? Look, bud: forget about outmoded labels like “liberal” and “conservative,” “left” and “right,” and get with it! Isn’t it time you treated yourself to a subscription?

I’ll be in the Big Apple on April 24, speaking at the Libertarian Party of New York convention. This is one speaking engagement I’m really looking forward to: the modern libertarian movement was born in New York – in Murray Rothbard‘s Upper West Side living room, to be precise – and it’ll be great to be back. If you’re in the area, you might want to stop by and check it out. The convention will be at the Holiday Inn Martinique on Broadway (49 W 32nd St.), in Manhattan, and I start speaking at 1 p.m.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].