Friday, September 21, 2007

The Warmonger Within -- Finis

"How many of you think war will be fun?"

Three quarters of the room raised their hands, punctuated by a few grunts and whoops.

"How many of you think war will be exciting?"

Same number of hands; same sounds.

"Outstanding. Problem is, those who raised your hands are full of shit!"

The burly drill sergeant laughed, as did the four other drill sergeants beside him. All but one --my drill sergeant -- had seen action in Vietnam, and each took a turn describing the horror they had experienced, horror that they felt was militarily justified, but savage all the same. What it's like to blast off part of a man's head at close range, the smell of it, the sound of his throat gurgling blood. What it's like to lie in tall grass with dead and dying men around you. What's it's like to eat cold rat meat and rice, a delicacy in the field, amid all the killing. The knuckleheads who cheered, most of whom were rural whites, were suddenly subdued and chastened. I was glad that I didn't raise my hand. I was all for the Army, and would fight if necessary, but war as "fun"? Even my 19-year-old mind knew that was a stupid question.

Sadly, my 42-year-old mind wasn't as nimble or as perceptive. The thought of Afghan jihadists having their bodies ripped to shreds made me smile. Fuck them, fuck their friends, cousins, brothers, fathers, and especially fuck their Imams. When friends protested that this mindset would only insure that more young men would join jihad and keep the war going for who knew how long, I replied, echoing Hitchens, Bring It On! If those primates wanted to die under the American boot, then let's make their holy dreams come true. Hell, given their love of death and faith in a virgin-crowded afterlife, we'd be doing them a favor.

To say that I was out of my mind back then would be understatement. The bile, the hatred, the lust for violence and death drowned me. My wife was appalled and a little afraid of what I was becoming. My kids were younger and more or less oblivious to this, especially since I rarely said such brutal things in their presence. So I still possessed a scrap of decorum as far as they were concerned; but for everyone else, the new me was locked and loaded on martial fervor.

Then came Iraq. Hitchens kept telling me that an invasion was inevitable, that his Beltway sources assured him the wheels were in motion. The Taliban were hiding in the mountains, al-Qaeda was scattered and off-balance, so now it was Saddam's turn. While he hoped for a large Ba'athist body count, he insisted that the invasion would go smoothly, that there would be token resistance, that the now anti-imperial U.S. military would occupy Baghdad and usher in a progressive, secular re-birth in the heart of that long-suffering region. It all sounded good -- too good, in fact, but I seriously entertained the idea of backing this as well. What if Hitch was right? What genuine progressive could dismiss a possible democratization of Iraq? Maybe things had really changed. Maybe this was a crucial historical turning point. Wouldn't I want to be on the right side of such an important moment in time?

While on the cusp of bellowing for another U.S. invasion, a small but steady voice inside my head pleaded with me to stop. Like the proverbial splinter in the brain, this voice irritated me, nagged at me, insisted that I seriously re-think everything I had been advocating, and was about to endorse. I thought back to the lead-up to the first Gulf War, went through all my old files, pieces of talks that I gave, articles I had clipped for reference, transcripts of various debates. I felt as though I was examining a dead man's earlier life, piecing together his political outlook via notes and papers he considered useful and inspirational. Then I found an old Harper's cover piece from January 1991, written by the same man who was nudging me to share his pro-invasion position. I sat and read it for the first time in ages, and when I got to the end:

"The call [to war] was an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold. An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad, and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others."

That small, irritating voice in my head suddenly became crystal clear. Back the Iraq invasion? What the fuck was I thinking? This was merely the next phase of the same regional war, conducted for the same, geopolitical reasons. Democracy? Pluralism? Christ, we barely have that here, so why in hell would we give the Iraqis something that we're curtailing at home? And anyway, how do you "give" someone democracy? This was lunatic rhetoric used to cover a time-honored, blood-coated shell game. The old Hitchens was absolutely right. The new Hitchens was a willing, well-paid, imperial stooge. I knew which side I was on, all right, and I decided to tell Hitch the bad news and hopefully try to change his mind.

Well, clearly that never happened. There's no need to rehearse my break-up and disillusionment with Hitchens, but I will say briefly that he was at first surprised, then testy, then angry, then haughty and dismissive before finally severing all ties. I had collaborated with the enemy, which meant I was lost, and therefore technically dead. Hitchens had another war to promote, and doubtless a few more after that, and since I was on the Other Side . . .

My waking up before the Iraq debacle led me to reconsider my support for the Afghanistan campaign. After the initial euphoria, at least here in the West, about how wonderful things were in that battered country, and how it could only get better, the reality of that war began to emerge. A massive famine may have been averted in the early days, but people were still starving, living under conditions that we wouldn't allow our house pets to endure, while their children were dying of dehydration and disease at an astonishing rate. For all the hype about schools being opened and kite flying allowed, nothing had really changed. Yes, the Taliban were bombed out of power, but not out of the country, nor out of the lives of those Afghans who still support them, or are terrorized into giving them shelter. While the Taliban was backed and solely recognized by Pakistan, they remain part of Afghanistan, and didn't materialize out of thin air. We can bomb, and bomb, and bomb, but they'll never go away, which of course gives us further pretext to bomb and bomb for years on end. And our bombing gives the Taliban, and others like them, an immediate pretext to set-off car bombs and IEDs for as long as they have access to explosives and weapons, which in Afghanistan, with all of its arms smuggling, will be a very long time. So cluster bomb casualties lead to car bomb fatalities back to more cluster bomb casualties, and on and on it will go, maybe a decade, maybe more, while the Afghan poor continue to die, and Kabul is run by kleptocrats, hustlers and mercenaries. Democracy was never on the agenda, and after six years of pounding, the very word is an obscenity uttered over a fully-functioning, open mass grave. Here are more thoughts on the matter from last year, and as you can see, my sick romance with that war ended a while ago.

So, the warmonger within me is, if not dead, then back under wraps, and I hope he rots there. He's a twisted man, filled with fear, anger, vengeance, and a bizarre but seemingly all-American hunger for violence, pain and murder. I feel ashamed to have ever given him the room to breathe and operate, and writing about this whole episode in my life has been cathartic, but embarrassing as well. I don't know if I'll ever live it down. Still, what can you do but go on?

As for the global capital/religious war that may expand into Iran and elsewhere, it appears that we're locked into this mad reality for perhaps the rest of our lives. I sincerely hope that's not the case, but the signs aren't terribly hopeful, are they?

As for alternatives, there's much talk about withdrawal and redeployment; yet, perhaps the best advice I've recently heard came from, of all people, my old employer, Bill Maher. Bill conceded that this war will never be won militarily (an opinion I heard from an Afghan combat vet through a close friend of mine who wishes to remain nameless), that our only hope is to convince those inspired to blow up themselves, and as many others as possible, to not strap on explosives in the first place. This will take imagination, courage, and yes, a change in foreign policy. That also means changing minds both here and overseas. It's a big job, perhaps an impossible task, but the alternative is more death and more destruction.