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False positive: Iraq, April 2003 [David Leeson]

Iraq : Genesis of a Fatal War, pt. 1
How to Dismember Life, Liberty and The Law

This is the first in a series of related essays appearing this week to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. The series expands on a lecture delivered on March 17 at a teach-in on the war by Joe DuRocher and the Social Outreach Committee of Orlando’s Unitarian Universalists.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is the clockwork-orange name of a 21 st century crime against humanity exceeding by far the tallies of 9/11—in lives lost, but also in the dismemberment of two societies: the literal dismemberment of Iraq, the constitutional dismemberment of the United States. This is the tally today, on the fourth anniversary of the launching of the war: 3,475 “coalition” dead in Iraq, 3,218 of them American or would-be American (the number of immigrants fighting to win citizenship, and dying before they do, is one of the many untold stories of this war), and between 59,000 and 65,000 Iraqi civilians. No need to go with the Lancet study that puts the tally closer to 650,000. This isn’t to discredit it necessarily, but to point out that even the 59,000 deaths documented by Iraq Body Count’s extremely conservative method is crime and catastrophe enough. That lowest estimate is more than the United States lost in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975. For a nation of 26 million, it’s the equivalent of 680,000 killed in a nation as populous as the United States , or more deaths than all the dead and missing of the American Civil War.

The notion that Osama bin laden could have possibly disrupted life as we knew it in the United States or the west was only as preposterous as we would allow it to be. Which, of course, we have. Life in the United States has been disrupted. It’s become less free, more selfish, less knowledgeable, more simplistic about the world, less accommodating of foreigners and immigrants, less lawful from the highest levels, more violent—in crime but more especially and criminally in police conduct—less democratic, more fearful, more cowardly, and much more stupid, too: sizeable minorities still buy the Bush administration’s old storyline about Iraq and 9/11, about al-Qaeda and Iraq, about radical Islam out to “get” America. All those disruptions aren’t Osama’s. They’re almost exclusively President Bush’s doing, with the abetting of a Congress, even now, and a nation that would not dream of laying off the “war on terror” mentality of fearful self-aggrandizement no matter how colossal the icebergs of our America’s own creation. To quote Bernard Chazelle writing here a few days ago, “the divide in Washington is between people who want to rearrange the chairs of the Titanic and those who argue that our highest priority should be to change the wallpaper.”

It’s not that proofs of acts meriting impeachment and life in prison (capital punishment being a barbaric act too far) by George Bush and members of his administration won’t eventually be produced. They will. In Bush’s own words and the words of his connivers. But what’s cause for impeachment one day is relegated to an unsigned, inside-page brief the next. This is how irrefutable indictments of war’s criminal conductors finally trickles out years after the fact: On February 15, 1997, the New York Times ran an unsigned brief (less than 300 words long) on an inside page, reporting on two telephone conversations on May 27, 1964, in which Lyndon Johnson admits to McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, then to a Richard Russell, his friend and Democratic senator from Georgia, that the Vietnam War was lost — but he wouldn’t stop fighting it for fear of being impeached. Six months earlier he’d won the presidency by a landslide by calling Barry Goldwater a warmonger. Less than a year later Johnson would launch own troop surge that, under the guidance and lies of Gen. William Westmorland among others, would eventually reach more than half a million soldiers. In the conversations, Johnson called the war “the biggest damn mess I ever saw […] I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out.” Why not? He worried about his own skin: “They’d impeach a President, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?” A preposterous, if face-saving claim: In the 88 th Congress between 1963 and 1965 Democrats controlled 66 Senate seats to Republicans’ 34. In the House the Democratic majority was just as crushing (259-176). They’d have had to impeach him had they found out that he thought what he did yet did nothing about it.

It’s just as astonishing that once the Johnson Presidential Library released the tapes, the Times didn’t think the revelation remarkable enough to give it its own front-page treatment. What was on Page One that day? “Clinton and Gore Received Warnings on Asian Donors,” a 2,000-word story; “New York Delays Sewage Release at EPA and Whitman’s Urging.” Two stories about Clinton ordering striking American Airlines pilots back to work. And a 1,200-word opus on the entirely forgotten Alexis Herman, a Labor Secretary nominee whose lucrative real estate investments were raising questions. The Lyndon Johnson revelation? Page 12. Leave it to Russell Baker a month later to say the obvious in a column: “Sometimes the most startling stories barely make it into the papers,” although he gives credence to LBJ’s fears of impeachment: “In 1964 he had good reasons to think so. These lay in the long, savage political wars of the 1950’s. Starting with their investigations of Communist influences on the Roosevelt and Truman Governments, Republicans found it politically rewarding to accuse Democrats of being ‘soft on Communism.’ Richard Nixon was famous for his pioneering toil in this vein, and Democrats hated him for it forevermore. By the 1950’s anti-Communism had become the glue binding an otherwise divided Republican Party in brotherhood. And, oh, how powerful were its juices!”

No sense retelling the untold stories of the Vietnam War. But that glue now doesn’t just bind Republicans, but Democrats, too, to Republicans. Here we are on the fourth anniversary of the war, and something as clearly unrelated to the war on terror as Iraq manages to give both parties the same kinds of felonious shivers withdrawing from Vietnam did LBJ, even though withdrawal is only viable political, military and, not least but always last, humane solution. Of course, the “war on terror” is no longer related to the war on terror, either. What began in late 2001 as a barely legitimate response to the attacks of 9/11 (it should never have been a “war,” but the concerted and relentless operation of two hundred nations policing every cave, every back-alley, every gutter every day for every al-Qaeda operative who’d dare show so much as a whisker) has metastasized into the cancerous parody of a war with no more legitimacy than the war in Iraq.

The two wars are in that regard related, twins of mendacity and exaggerations. They’re creations of bloodletting “over there” for political gains over here. To shed the Bush warmongers’ famous phraseology of its false airs, “We fight the ‘terrorists’ over there so we don’t have to fight the liberals over here.” It works, too, and will continue to work well past the 2008 election, a milestone encrusting with much too much meaning. We’ll be disappointed. The war in Iraq remains the daily murder and corrosion that it is for Iraqis. But it is no longer a great loss for Americans, most of whom, one has to assume (if one assumes that most Americans aren’t dolts) have known since 2004 what LBJ knew about Vietnam in 1964: the war was lost long ago. What remains as far as America is concerned are the two obsessions with face-saving choreography and whatever workable compromise will keep at least some American paws on Iraq ’s oil wells. Beyond that, Americans really don’t give a pig’s tail what happens to Iraq anymore than they give a pig’s tail what happens in Darfur or Lapland.

The indifference, of course, is what enabled the war to start with four years ago, and what enables the war’s consequences — and its enabler-in-chief — to reap the grim harvest ahead. The American death tally in Iraq may not be that high, relatively speaking and as Iraq war lovers are so fond of pointing out every time bloody milestones are reached. It’s still nowhere near the tallies of Vietnam or Korea , let alone World War II. The same can’t be said of the Iraqi death tally. Nor can be it said of the tally at home in the United States , which has very little to do with the dead, and everything to do with an idea that should have never been allowed to die. The heart went out of Rome ’s Republic, too, many years before the Caesars ripped it out for decoration along with their laurels. What heart beats still in the American republic is as diseased as, appropriately, the hearts that make the disease the number one killer in the United States . The dismemberment of America ’s constitutional system of checks and balances, of effective congressional dissents and independent judges, may be Bush’s creation. Its undoing may not precede America ’s own. What wasted vitality. What wasted promise.

Iraq, April 2003 [David Leeson]
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