The event on the House floor Wednesday afternoon was monumental — the first major congressional debate about U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since lawmakers authorized the invasion of that country in autumn 2001. But, as Rep. Patrick Kennedy noted with disgust on Wednesday, the House press gallery was nearly empty. He concluded: "It’s despicable, the national press corps right now."
Sure enough, the Thursday edition of the New York Times had no room for the historic debate on its front page, which did have room for a large Starbucks ad across the bottom.
Despite the news media and the lopsided pro-war tilt on Capitol Hill (reflected in the 356-65 vote Wednesday against invoking the War Powers Act), antiwar organizing has a lot of hospitable terrain at the grassroots. National polling shows widespread opposition to the Afghanistan war effort — a far cry from the dominant lockstep conformity in Congress.
"Apparently, as with many issues in Washington," Congressman John Conyers said in a written statement hours before the vote, "those who are forced [to] bear the costs of war are the first to recognize a flawed policy, while those who profit from perpetual war do their best to blunt any change in course."
Yet the three-hour debate was a step forward, offering a basic clash of assumptions. Cogent eloquence came from many who spoke in support of the antiwar resolution, introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich. The 65 votes for it should serve as a floor to build on.
But among the obstacles are snappy wooden constructs of language and attitude. Consider how a glib phrase now in vogue among Pentagon boosters and journalists — "government in a box" — mirrors the jaw-dropping arrogance of imperial power.
At the outset of its March 8 cover story "Taking on the Taliban," Time magazine recounts that Gen. Stanley McChrystal developed a clever plan for the U.S.-led counterinsurgency forces taking Marjah: "He described how these troops would protect the town while a ‘government in a box’ — a corps of Afghan officials who had been training for this moment for months — would start administering the town."
Three pages and 19 paragraphs later, the article gets around to a less uplifting fact: "It can hardly be reassuring to the residents of Marjah that their newly appointed mayor, Haji Zahir, has only recently returned from 15 years of living in Germany."
That’s "government in a box" for you — akin to the illusion that war can be sequestered in some kind of container — the sort of feat that’s possible only in fantasies.
Martin Luther King Jr. aptly likened the Vietnam War to a "demonic suction tube." And demonic suction tubes can’t be boxed. In the real world, war’s ripple effects lead to a kaleidoscope of terrible consequences, near and far. You can’t keep a war in a box any more than you can deliver a government in a box.
With enthusiasm for war thriving on abstraction, its facile backers are eager to cheer on activities that bring terror, anguish, and death as a matter of course.
That’s what Congresswoman Barbara Lee was driving at when she spoke for a minute on the House floor just before the blank check for carnage in Afghanistan sailed through Congress with only her vote dissenting. "As we act," she said, "let us not become the evil that we deplore."
More than 100 months later, watching video of her prophetic statement may be enough to make you weep.
And it might strengthen your resolve to help end the military occupation that she tried to prevent.