As turning points go, last week was a humdinger. There was the sight of all the rats -- congressfolk and commentators alike -- jumping from the sinking ship that is the Bush administration's Iraq war policy, the pleas from the president and his enablers to stay the course drowned out by the clamor for the lifeboats.
With the ship taking on major water and the lifeboats filling up, it seems appropriate to take stock of where we've been, where we are and, most importantly, where we're going.
Still, I suppose I have been like a lot of people because I grasp at straws: A week without a major suicide bombing in Baghdad. A downtick in U.S. casualties. Tribal chiefs in Anbar still turning against Al Qaeda. Praise the Lord! But soon the ammunition gets passed, the calm is shattered and I'm reminded that the Mess in Mesopotamia is not the political circle jerk that the mainstream media focuses on.
It is a war and wars are about death.In Dispatches, one of the great books to come out of the Vietnam experience, Michael Herr ponders the disconnect created by an officialdom and media complicitous in evading that signal truth.
Anyone who spent any time in Vietnam and didn't have their head up their ass will tell you that there was an hallucinatory quality about the experience. Judging by Paul Rieckhoff's great and gut-wrenching Chasing Ghosts and other street-level accounts, Iraq is much the same.
Very much unlike the two world wars and very much like Vietnam in that the rationales for being at war in a country that neither threatened nor invaded the U.S. have kept changing. (This is known in the vernacular as "mission creep.") It is not difficult to understand why a Marine gunner at Khe Sanh in 1967 or an Army civil affairs officer in Amadiyah Province in 2007 would wonder what the f*ck they're doing there.The lines between real and surreal became so blurred in Vietnam that war correspondent Herr's non-fiction sometimes is indistinguishable from Tim O'Brien's fiction. (And that is a compliment to both writers.)
O'Brien, whose Waiting For Cacciato sits atop the pantheon of Vietnam novels, was a grunt, while Herr wrote a series of articles for Esquire magazine on the real Vietnam War that became Dispatches. (Rieckhoff, meanwhile, led a light infantry platoon in the Adamiyah district of Baghdad.)
Herr wrote the closing lines of Dispatches in the early 1970s, but as happens when the grievous misjudgments of earlier conflicts are repeated by another clique of arrogant leaders years later, his message is even more pertinent today:
"Somewhere on the periphery of that total
issue, lost in the surreal contexts of television, there was a story as simple as it had always been, men hunting men, a hideous war and all kinds of victims. But there was also a Command that didn't feel this, that rode us into attrition traps on the back of fictional kill-ratios, and an Administration that believed the Command, a cross-fertilization of ignorance, and a press whose tradition of objectivity and fairness (not to mention self-interest) saw that it all got space. It was inevitable that once the media took the diversions seriously enough to report them, they also legitimized them. The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world, and if much of it was sharply queried by the press, all of it got quoted. The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about it. The most repulsive, transparent gropes from sanctity in the midst of the killing received serious treatment in the papers and on the air. The jargon of Progress got blown into your head like bullets, and by the time you waded through all the Washington stories and all the Saigon stories, all the Other War stories and the corruption stories and the stories about brisk new gains in ARVN effectiveness, the suffering was somehow unimpressive. And after years of that, so many that it seemed to have been going on forever, you got to the point where you could sit there in the evening and listen to the man say that American casualties for the week had reached a six-week low, only eighty GIs had died in combat, and you'd feel like you'd just gotten a bargain." Vietnam
It finally dawned on me the other day while I was out mowing the back 40 that the reason the U.S. response to the incident that marked the turning point in Iraq -- the onset of civil war following the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006 -- was so understated: Because the White House thought that denying that there was a civil war would make it so, and enough smoke could be blown up the collective American backside to enable the Republican Party to skate through the mid-term elections and maintain its grip on power. Shame on them. And shame on me.With the president still shouting that "victory" is attainable to the folks queuing up for the lifeboats, it is considered to be impolitic if not unpatriotic to talk about how to try to contain the chaos and minimize the loss of life when the inevitable withdrawal of those 135,000 troops and, let us not forget, an equal number of private contractors and camp followers, begins in earnest.
As it is, an argument can be made that the conference involving Secretary of State Rice and representatives from Iraq and its neighbors in Egypt last month was the diplomatic equivalent of laying the groundwork for an exit strategy, or at least the regional component of one. That the conference even happened is a backhanded acknowledgement that the end of the American occupation is near. Conference participants agreed to establish working groups focused on border security, refugees and other potential crises.
But forming committees and passing the hat isn't going to begin to pay the rent for this house of cards.The most sensible prescription for shaping an exit strategy that I've seen is offered by Rick Moran, a rare conservative blogger with the capacity to see what a bloody farce the administration's war policy is (while taking gratuitous swipes at the Democrats for not saving the president from himself).
Moran, writing at his inaptly named Rightwing Nuthouse, says:
Moran concludes that:
"Clearly, this is not going to be Saigon circa 1975 with desperate Iraqis clinging to the last helicopter leaving the American embassy (even though many liberals would dearly love to see that scenario play out). And it is just as clear that not all of our troops will be coming home. We will stay and train the Iraqi army while keeping up the pressure on al-Qaeda in Iraq who will find themselves more and more facing off against the Iraqis anyway. And I suspect we will have some kind of 'tripwire' force in place to prevent mischief by Iraq’s neighbors in case they get a hankerin' for military adventures against the very weak government there.
"But it is just as clear that our days of nation building and democracy promoting are over – at least as far as our military can be of service in those areas. What is very unclear at the moment is how best to disengage. For that, the President will be forced into negotiations with the Democrats. . . . There’s no getting there from here while avoiding the worst of the consequences flowing from our withdrawal unless the two sides can sit down and try and do what’s in the best interests of the United States."
"For now however, our concentration should be on getting the troops redeployed with a minimum of casualties. They have earned far more than our respect and thanks in these difficult years. They have earned our fierce admiration. They have done all that has been asked of them with a dedication and professionalism that has been awe inspiring. And the sacrifices they and their families have been forced to make have been born with a singular fidelity to the highest traditions of military service.There is no greater irony that the Mess in Mesopotamia has been a gift to Osama bin Laden and every swinging jihadist dick on the planet, a goodly number whom flocked to a once terrorist-free country at the crossroads of the Middle East to wage holy war against the American infidels.
"And in order to validate their service and sacrifice, we must examine every action taken by our military and political leaders that has led us to this point and make sure that history holds those accountable who failed both them and the United States in this conflict. There will be other battles in this war. Learning the lessons from this fiasco will make sure that we will win through to ultimate victory in this war against Islamic extremism."
The upshot of the Iraq war has been a diversion of bodies, resources and focus that is a setback of incalculable magnitude in that war against Islamic extremism.
It was the slowly dawning awareness that most Iraqis want the U.S. out of their country now, which undercuts in one fell swoop the administration's argument for staying.Oh, yes, there was one other incident last week that should be noted: The insurgent ambush of seven U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi Army interpreter near Mahmudiyah in that hotbed of violence south of Baghdad quaintly known as the Sunni Triangle. (So much for the Fertile Crescent.) Five men are dead and three missing and possibly captives of Al Qaeda, but it is not yet known what happened to whom because the five bodies were burned beyond recognition.
What will happen to Iraq is now pretty much out of the control of anyone, and the same is true about what happens at home.
For the vast majority of Americans, Mahmudiyah has no more meaning than Munderf, which is a tiny burg in Pennsylvania. But for a few of us, the name was familiar.
That is because Mahmudiyah is where 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi was stalked, repeatedly raped and, along with her parents and sister, murdered in March 2006 by a small group of 502nd Infantry Regiment soldiers led Steven Green, a very sick 21-year-old man-boy who would never have been in Iraq had the Army not been so desperate for bodies that it scarfed him up while dragging the bottom of the societal barrel.
A cover-up of the rape-murder might have stuck, but on June 13 of last year President Bush did a fly-by of Baghdad in which he boasted about how most excellently his adventure was going. On cue, three days later insurgents offered their own assessment of the state of the war by kidnapping, torturing, beheading and booby trapping the bodies of two of Green's comrades -- Kristian Menchaca and Thomas L. Tucker.
One year and two or three strategies later, it is business as usual in the Sunni Triangle. Nothing has changed.
Did I mention that Iraq is a war and wars are about death?Being of a certain age, I remember very well that what transpired following the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 was in some respects as awful as the war itself, and I'm not just talking about all of the atrocious memoirs written by the movers and shakers of that era. (This time around, we've been gifted books by Bremmer and Tenet. I can't wait for the impenitent reflections of Rumsfeld, Cheney and the Son of the Son of God himself. Why do I think that none of them will even come close to doing a McNamara?)
Rick Moran is being uncharacteristically naive to say that the bravery of our fighting men and women must be validated by holding responsible these very men.
How? War crimes trials? Suspending their borrowing privileges at the Bush presidential library? Twenty lashes with a wet noodle? Let's get real, okay?Our troops in Vietnam fought no less valiantly than our troops have in Iraq, but that validation was lost in the orgy of finger pointing, name calling and self recriminations that reverberated inside the Beltway and throughout the U.S. for years. And will again.
This collective national gut wrench would have been a good thing had it resulted in lessons being learned and mistakes not being repeated.
But it is beyond obvious that no lessons were learned, conspicuously including the need for the Army to put counterinsurgency warfare at the top of its must-learn-to-do list (something that General Petraeus seems to be finally doing) and the consequence of a government lying about a war's casus belli is that everything that comes after is tainted.
America today is a far more divided and far angrier place than it was in the 1970s. Its standing in the world at low ebb and its allies praying for the end of the Era of Bush without further catastrophe.
And the darkest days, my friends, are yet to come.
Hat tip to Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque for Herr quote