We expected Bill Kristol and the usual neocon suspects to dismiss the atrocities committed by U.S. troops at Haditha as nothing to get too excited about. After all, these guys don’t believe in any morality but that which comes out of the barrel of a gun. So what else is new? Yet there are, perhaps, a few among us not me, however who somehow expected a little less knee-jerk defensiveness from the likes of liberal Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic. Alas, no:
“This horrible story from Haditha powerfully underscores the liberal vision, which is this. We are not angels: without sufficient moral and legal restrictions, and under conditions of extreme stress, Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What’s makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That’s how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don’t just assert it. We prove it. That’s the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it’s what we need right now in response to this horror.”
To begin with, all meaningful moral and legal restrictions on American behavior were swept aside with the illegal and immoral invasion and occupation of a country that had never attacked the United States, and represented no threat to us. Having embarked on a war of aggression, it wasn’t too long before we began to slide down the slippery slope all the way to the bottom, wherein dwelled the subterranean horrors of Abu Ghraib [pdf].
Now more monsters from the American id are uncoiling, and we stand, aghast, in horror. All except Beinart, who sees this as the perfect occasion for a little self-congratulation. Certainly his sense of timing is off. He comes off as almost a caricature of the archetypal Ugly American, a poster boy for the unselfconscious display of American arrogance.
Secondly, I see that we’re running up against the “extreme stress” exculpatory syndrome again, one first given voice by Rep. John Murtha as he sought to explain although not excuse the Haditha massacre. What is it about the word “stress” that gives it for Americans, at least a magical power of absolution? A postal worker goes ballistic, kills a dozen people, and the whole thing is “explained” by “stress.” A mother of five drowns her children in the bathtub, and, again, we hear about the debilitating effects of “stress” from her defense lawyer. I’m sure if Lee Harvey Oswald had survived to face trial, we would have heard the same B.S. “stress” made me do it! I have news for the stress-ophobes most of life in the rest of the world take place under extremely “stressful” conditions. Imagine having an income of a few hundred dollars a year, no access to medical care, and little prospect that your children will escape a legacy of grinding poverty and hopelessness. Now that’s stressful!
But I digress. Let us get to the core argument of the liberal apologetics for American terrorism in Iraq: the loopy idea that American atrocities are somehow different in kind from those routinely committed by the Osama bin Ladens of this world. American bombers strafe the Iraqi countryside, killing hundreds of innocents in the course of the war; U.S. soldiers routinely fire on Iraqi civilians with little or no provocation, they drown them, they torture them and yet, our atrocities are somehow different. Nobler. They even “underscore the liberal vision”!
Jeezy-peezy, you can’t make this stuff up. What the heck is Beinart babbling about? He is wrong when it comes to the facts. His contention that the U.S. government is freely “acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again” is simply not true. If it weren’t for Iraqi human rights activist Taher Thabet, who videotaped the immediate aftermath of the Haditha atrocities, the cover-up engineered by local commanders (and possibly others higher up the chain of command) would have succeeded. When Marine units arrived at Haditha in the wake of the massacre, they found women, children, and an old man, shot dead not victims of a roadside bomb, which was and still is the official story. As Tom Ricks points out in the Washington Post,
“Despite what Marine witnesses saw when they arrived, that official version has been allowed to stand for six months. Who lied about the killings, who knew the truth and what, if anything, they did about it is at the core of one of the potentially most damaging events of the Iraq war, one that some say may surpass the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.”
And now we have these reports:
“Marine commanders in Iraq knew within two days of the killings in Haditha in November that gunfire, not a roadside bomb, had killed Iraqi civilians but they saw no reason to investigate further, The New York Times reported on Saturday.”
The first response from U.S. military authorities was denial and cover-up. And it was only by the grace of outside investigators meaning outside the U.S. that the horrors of Haditha came to light. And it isn’t just Haditha. In Hamandiya, U.S. Marines stand accused of kidnapping and murdering an unarmed Iraqi civilian, and planting an AK-47 and a shovel near him to make it look like he was an insurgent planting a bomb: and in Ishaqi, 11 villagers were slaughtered after American troops packed them into a small room, burned three vehicles, killed a herd of livestock, and then ordered an air strike on the house so as to bury all evidence of their crime. The military has just announced their “exoneration.” This “underscores the liberal vision,” all right but only in the Bizarro World of Beinart and his neocon buddies.
The big debate between Beinart and the neocons is over what constitutes the true “American exceptionalism.” What “proves it,” says Beinart, is that we move quickly to punish evildoers in uniform, and make sure that “justice” is done. Except when it isn’t, in Ishaqi, for instance and even if the eventual triumph of truth is made possible by non-American investigators, such as the heroic Mr. Thabet. For Kristol, however, all this is irrelevant:
“What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don’t need to ‘prove’ we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this ‘proves’ nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to ‘prove’ that we are ‘different from the jihadists.’ The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.”
Here the essentially Soviet flavor of neocon ideology comes to the fore. According to the old Commie view, actions were to be judged not by some objective code of morality, but according to a “class-based” criteria. Mass murder committed by the evil capitalist top-hat-wearing West was “terrorism,” whilst the “liquidation” of the kulaks and others by the millions was winked at. This “revolutionary morality” was defended by Leon Trotsky, in his mildly famous essay, “Their Morals, and Ours,” who denounced as “moralizing Philistines” anyone who considered Lenin’s crimes equivalent to the czar’s. Then all is permitted?, asked the “petit bourgeois moralizers.” We stand for liberty, brayed the founder of the Red Army or, in his exact words, “That is permissible, we answer, which really leads to the liberation of mankind.”
The Red Army didn’t have to “prove” anything, according to the Trotskyists of old: the “proof” was in their sheer firepower. Today’s neocons who count, among their earliest intellectual ancestors, more than a few Trots have merely transplanted their “revolutionary morality” to the “right” side of the political spectrum.
Our reaction to the recent revelations of widespread atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq must not I quite agree with Kristol on this lead to a bout of what he calls “liberal hand-wringing.” Beinart’s sappy ode to “American exceptionalism” is a conceit that will soon be dissipated by the sheer brutality of the shocking details, as the story of what happened one bloody day in Haditha comes out. It will shortly become readily apparent that that we don’t need to institute sensitivity training for occupation forces: the problem goes deeper.
The problem isn’t a lack of “sensitivity,” a blindness to the subtleties of the “battle for hearts and minds,” or a lack of oversight by commanders in the field: the problem is the occupation. It must end.
Popular sentiment in favor of a withdrawal from Iraq has been building for quite some time, and the Haditha massacre may be the tipping point that translates poll numbers into policy. As news of one horrendous atrocity after another leaks out of Iraq, the suspicion that this couldn’t have been any other kind of war that U.S. soldiers are being asked to do the impossible: “liberate” a people against their will and do it in a humane manner will ultimately defeat the War Party, and bring our troops home. The question is: will it happen in time, that is, before the neocons get us started on the next episode of their continuing series on the “liberation” of the Middle East?
It looks like that, but looks can and often are deceiving. That, however, is a subject for a future column
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I have to add, however, that the narrowness of the Beinart-Kristol “debate” over the meaning of Haditha dramatizes the very narrowness of “left” and “right”-wing opinion when it comes to Iraq, and foreign policy matters in general. Beinart is the author of a recent book summarized in this op-ed that takes “the left” to task for “anti-Americanism” in tandem with an alleged lack of hardheadedness when it comes to national security issues. This is supposedly exemplified by their growing reluctance to buy into this whole business of invading other countries on false pretexts. Beinart and his “liberal” brethren over at TNR supported the invasion of Iraq indeed, the magazine had spent years crusading for it, just as TNR has crusaded for every American war since 1917. Now that domestic support for the war in Iraq is crumbling, especially on the left side of the aisle, Beinart has set himself the task of single-handedly bucking up “pro-American” (i.e., pro-war) liberalism, whose exemplar is the beleaguered and bedeviled Joe Lieberman.
As the backdrop for this struggle, he conjures up the battle between the Truman Democrats and the Henry Wallace faction of the party. The triumphant “anti-Communist liberals” jumped on the Cold War bandwagon and joined with Republicans in constructing a national security state that has, today, ballooned into a global monstrosity, with tentacles in nearly every country most recently extended into Iraq. Beinart’s goal is to salvage this interventionist consensus, which is being battered by the roiling debate of the Iraq disaster, and, while he gets an “E” for effort, the exercise doesn’t quite pass muster.
Beinart’s tale of how heroic “liberal anti-Communists” stood up to the pro-Soviet Wallace-ites, and saved the Democratic Party from falling into the hands of “defeatists,” falls apart with even a cursory examination of the facts. (Wallace enthusiastically supported the Korean War, for example). What was saved was not the soul of liberalism, but our interventionist foreign policy, which had been supported by both parties since the end of World War II. It was John F. Kennedy, after all, who declared that we must “pay any price, bear any burden” and it was precisely this hegemonic view of America’s role in world affairs that led to Vietnam, and now has us mired in Iraq.
Beinart’s view is not fundamentally different from Kristol’s. Both operate within a Cold War paradigm that almost comically equates the widely dispersed and largely unorganized support for al-Qaeda and allied terrorist organizations with a nation that occupied most of the Eurasian landmass, commanded the allegiance and active support of millions outside the USSR, and possessed a nuclear-weapons arsenal at least equal to our own.
What is telling, however, about Beinart’s historical account is that it valorizes precisely those “anti-Communist liberals” who, in large part, are today’s neoconservatives or their close relatives. The alleged debate between the neocons and the “sensible” “centrist” Democrats of Beinart’s ilk is really just a family squabble in which there is more camaraderie than conflict.