Here’s the Smell of the Blood Still

The following essay is adapted from Norman Solomon’s new book Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.

When Martin Luther King Jr. publicly referred to "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government," he had no way of knowing that his description would ring so true 40 years later. As the autumn of 2007 begins, the reality of Uncle Sam as an unhinged mega-killer haunts a large minority of Americans. Many who can remember the horrific era of the Vietnam War are nearly incredulous that we could now be living in a time of similarly deranged official policy.

Despite all the differences, the deep parallels between the two war efforts inform us that the basic madness of entrenched power in our midst is not about miscalculations or bad management or quagmires. The continuity tells us much more than we would probably like to know about the obstacles to decency that confront us every day.

The incredulity and numbing, the frequent bobbing-and-weaving of our own consciousness, the hollow comforts of passivity, insulate us from hard truths and harsher realities than we might ever have expected to need to confront – about our country and about ourselves.

Of all the words spewed from the Pet Crock hearings with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, maybe none were more revealing than Petraeus’s bid for a modicum of sympathy for his burdens as a commander. "This is going on three years for me, on top of a year deployment to Bosnia as well," he said at the Senate hearing, "so my family also knows something about sacrifice."

There’s sacrifice and sacrifice.

"It is as bad as it seems," longtime activist Dave Dellinger told a gathering of protesters outside the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach as it prepared to re-nominate a war-criminal president. "We must achieve a breakthrough in understanding reality."

I listened, agreeing. But it was, and is, easier said. How do we truly grasp what’s being done in our names, with our tax dollars – and, most of all, with our inordinate self-restraint that tolerates what should be intolerable?

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From an Oval Office tape, May 4, 1972: "I’ll see that the United States does not lose," the president said while conferring with aides Al Haig, John Connally and Henry Kissinger. "I’m putting it quite bluntly. I’ll be quite precise. South Vietnam may lose. But the United States cannot lose. Which means, basically, I have made the decision. Whatever happens to South Vietnam, we are going to cream North Vietnam…. For once, we’ve got to use the maximum power of this country … against this shit-ass little country: to win the war. We can’t use the word, ‘win.’ But others can."

By mid-1972, U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were way down – to around seventy thousand – almost half a million lower than three years earlier. Fewer Americans were dying, and the carnage in Vietnam was fading as a front-burner issue in U.S. politics. Nixon’s withdrawal strategy had changed the focus of media coverage.

The executive producer of ABC’s evening news, Av Westin, had written in a 1969 memo: "I have asked our Vietnam staff to alter the focus of their coverage from combat pieces to interpretive ones, pegged to the eventual pull-out of the American forces. This point should be stressed for all hands." In a telex to the network’s Saigon bureau, Westin gave the news of his decree to the correspondents: "I think the time has come to shift some of our focus from the battlefield, or more specifically American military involvement with the enemy, to themes and stories under the general heading ‘We Are on Our Way Out of Vietnam.’"

The killing had gone more technological; from 1969 to 1972 the U.S. government dropped 3.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, a total higher than all the bombing in the previous five years. The combination of withdrawing U.S. troops and stepping up the bombardment was anything but a coincidence; the latest in military science would make it possible to, in President Nixon’s private words, "use the maximum power of this country" against a "shit-ass little country."

In December 1972, Nixon delivered on his confidential pledge to "cream North Vietnam," ordering eleven days and nights of almost round-the-clock sorties (Christmas was an off day) that dropped twenty thousand tons of bombs on North Vietnam. B-52s reached the city of Hanoi. During that week and a half, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg later noted, the U.S. government dropped "the explosive equivalent of the Nagasaki A-bomb."

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Visiting Baghdad near the end of 2002, I looked at Iraqi people and wondered what would happen to them when the missiles arrived, what would befall the earnest young man managing the little online computer shop in the hotel next to the alcohol-free bar, who invited me to a worship service at the Presbyterian church that he devoutly attended; or the sweet-faced middle-aged fellow with a moustache very much like Saddam Hussein’s (a ubiquitous police-state fashion statement) who stood near the elevator and put hand over heart whenever I passed; or the sweethearts chatting across candles at an outdoor restaurant as twilight settled on the banks of the Tigris.

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That winter, movers and shakers in Washington shuffled along to the beat of a media drum that kept reporting on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a virtual certainty. At the same time, millions of Americans tried to prevent an invasion; their activism ranged from letters and petitions to picket lines, civil disobedience, marches, and mass rallies. On January 18, 2003, as the Washington Post recalled years later, "an antiwar protest described as the largest since the Vietnam War drew several hundred thousand … on the eve of the Iraq war, in subfreezing Washington weather. The high temperature reported that day was in the mid-20s."

The outcry was global, and the numbers grew larger. On February 15, an estimated 10 million people demonstrated against the impending war. A dispatch from Knight-Ridder news service summed up the events of that day: "By the millions, peace marchers in cities around the world united Saturday behind a single demand: No war with Iraq." But the war planners running the U.S. government were determined.

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During one year after another, the warfare intensified in Iraq. And an air war kept escalating. The U.S. media assumed that almost any use of American air power was to the good. (Exceptions came with fleeting news of mishaps like dropping bombs on wedding parties.) What actually happened to human beings every day as explosives hit the ground would not be conveyed to the reputedly well-informed. What we didn’t know presumably wouldn’t hurt us or our self-image. We thought ourselves better – incomparably better – because we burned people with modern technology from high in the air. Car bombs and detonation belts were for the uncivilized.

One of the methodical quirks of U.S. Air Force news releases has been that they consistently refer to insurgents as "anti-Iraqi forces" – even though almost all of those fighters are Iraqis. So, in a release about activities on Christmas Day 2006, the Air Force reported that "Marine Corps F/A-18Ds conducted a strike against anti-Iraqi forces near Haqlaniyah." The next day, it was the same story, as it would be for a long time to come – with U.S. Air Force jets bombing "anti-Iraqi forces" on behalf of missions for "Operation Iraqi Freedom" in order to "deter and disrupt terrorist activities."

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In my kitchen is a dark-red little carpet with black designs, imported from Baghdad. I bought it there one afternoon in late January 2003 at the bazaar (not so different, to my eyes anyway, from the market I later visited in Tehran). My traveling companion was a former high-ranking U.N. official, Denis Halliday, who had lived in Baghdad for a while during the 1990s before resigning as head of the "oil for food" program in protest against the draconian sanctions that caused so much devastation among civilians. Denis was revisiting some of the shopkeepers he had come to know. After warm greetings and pleasantries, an Iraqi man in his middle years said that he’d heard on the BBC about a French proposal for averting an invasion. The earnest hope in his voice made my heart sink, as if falling into the dirty stretch of the Tigris River that Denis and I had just hopped a boat across, where people were beating rugs on stones alongside the banks.

Often when I look at the carpet in the kitchen I think that it is filled with blood, remembering how one country’s treasures become another’s aesthetic enhancements. I had carted home the rolled-up carpet and less than two months later came "shock and awe." Now, more than four years afterward, the daily papers piled up on the breakfast table a few feet away tell of the latest carnage. I don’t think the rug has ever given me pleasure since the day it unfurled across the hardwood floor. It hasn’t been cleaned since presumably it soaked up the Tigris water during its last washing. There’s blood on the carpet and no amount of trips to the dry cleaners could change that.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1: "Out, damned spot! out, I say! … What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? … What, will these hands ne’er be clean? … Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."