When the Only Way is Through

Some suggestive juxtapositions:

A&L notes Gerard Alexander’s Baathed in Blood: Chronicling the horror, and scope, of Saddam’s tyranny”, a review of Le Livre noir de Saddam Hussein, edited by Chris Kutschera. Put beside this, the news from Iraq, mixed as it may be, seems a good deal more hopeful. Surely, it is in such a context that we should view the overall optimism of Gen Barry McCaffrey’s 2006 report; it is usefully (and as always thoughtfully) compared to his observations in 2005 by Wretchard.

The juxtaposition of the review & analysis reinforces Wretchard’s first lines of commentary:

Whatever one thinks of McCaffrey’s 2005 and 2006 Iraqi memos, the observation that “armies do not fight wars – countries fight wars” should be non-controversial. One of the themes of the 2005 memorandum, re-emphasized in 2006, was that while military systems have adapted, two key political systems — the political and economic reconstruction mechanism; and public diplomacy, including the press — have not.

I suspect these “nonadapters” have lost history, forgotten context – both the immediate past (described by Kutschera’s writers) and the longer past (contrasting, say, the Marshall Plan with UN aid to the Palestinians).

Our context is limited when we have insufficient history, insufficient proportion, insufficient imagination. Now, we see Chavez and we listen to those who find him heroic; we know we’ve been down this road before. We hear that Zimbabwe will need assistance & we think of why it is no longer an exporter but now an importer of food. And all the times we let comments slide, comments like, well, “Communism is a great ideal; it is just that people haven’t been good enough,” we’ve made it possible to listen to the next Chavez, the next Mugabe seriously. When we read

Economic collapse is rapidly impoverishing every strata of society, save for the corrupt elite around Mr Mugabe. Critics say police operations targeted on the urban poor make the crisis even worse.

we need to remember that the ideas that got him there need to be addressed, debated, scorned wherever they appear. And if we are struck by the empty spaces within Pinter’s work, its ability to move, we still shouldn’t give him a pass when he utters what is not just silly but potentially evil. We should argue, point out – as almost every mention of Pound does – the flaws of his vision.

Indeed, as Alexander argues, passivity & navel gazing has led us to a “soft bigotry”,

not of low expectations but of no expectations. This suggests that only Westerners have moral agency. To deny a person the capacity to initiate evil is to deny them the capacity to initiate good, or anything in between.

The result is a vicious cycle in which many educated people engage easily with the storylines they already know, and are unsure what to do with the unfamiliar. Most infamously, members of the world’s intellectual and journalistic classes have a habit of not denying Communist atrocities but of knowing almost no details about them and never volunteering the topic.

This is pride and arrogance of a large order – a lack of proportionality, an unwillingness to see the unique spirit & unique responsibility others have.

And, to juxtapose with those remarks, are those “Living the Creed.” In it Nathan Smith praises Bush, while believing that his immigration bill is unlikely to pass and likely to screw his approval rating. (Though surely it can’t get much lower.) He believes Clinton, like Eisenhower, was “a feel-good president. He radiated complacency. . . . kept the divisive issues below the radar, and reaped a huge harvest of popularity for it.” He continues

Not Bush. Bush thinks Iraqis deserve to liberated, undocumented workers legalized. Why? His arguments that it serves US self-interest (war on terror, border security) never quite make sense. His real reason is that he believes in “the dignity of every individual.” That’s what’s so subversive about Bush. We all mutter that “all men are created equal.” Bush really believes it and tries to live by it, and his push for a better world is making a lot of people upset.

The sequel to the complacent 1950s was the volatile, angst-ridden 1960s, when idealists took center stage and ripped the national consensus apart. It’s happening again.

And it is Bush, not Mugabe, that demonstrates how a man acts who does see all men as equal. I for one don’t want to relive the sixties – nor the seventies. But I do wish we could learn from them.

A week-end or so ago, half-listening to Book-TV, I found myself drawn to sit down, listening to a woman retelling, in a quite moving way, stories of her time in post-war Afghanistan, where she taught English. She repeatedly railed against Bush, the U.S. intrusions into Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. Then she would return to describing her women students, eager to learn, eager to get out of their houses, eager to prepare themselves for the future. Shortly after, I was struck by a turn of phrase which captured a thought; ironically, it was made before 9/11 & by that almost obsessive anti-Bushite, Kevin Phillips. How easily we lose context and how narrowly we define it. (And whether their views or mine are narrower, I’m hardly in a position to say.)

Surely the war on terrorism in the end is not Bush’s – and is not even, in the end, America’s. Did we seriously think all would be solved in a couple of years? But we can all be thankful that that particular little black book is closed & Saddam is in the brig. That is not nothing. And, already, the responsibilities and losses are much more often others than ours. Remembering that past, they try to find a path that doesn’t follow the traditions & feuds of their neighbors, that moves toward the rule of law, a rule that liberates, that appeals to the universal & not the emotional tug of tribe. (And so, now, as they try to transcend those divisions, Biden suggests a divided Iraq.) Bush brought us clarity, shook us from the phony complacency of the nineties, but, then again, he had little choice.

Perhaps there were other ways around the three wars Phillips describes, around Iraq as well, but in the end, when no one found that path around the only way was through — through war. Phillips’ concludes:

Even triumph, of course, cannot fully lionize three civil wars or their formative role in English-speaking history. Including as they did the two bloodiest one-day battles ever fought on British or American soil—Marston Moor in Yorkshire in 1644 and Antietam in Maryland in 1862—the three conflicts generated great bitterness and unhappy memories.

There is also a certain disrepute simply in elevating war. To call campaigns and battles the principal building blocks of militarist Persia, Sparta, Rome, or Prussia will provoke no great debate in Britain and the United States. But as architects of English-speaking political emergence, we would like to hold up some better angels: liberty, democracy, the rights of man.

Perhaps, but the barons of England went armed to achieve the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the Declaration of Independence came from a wartime meeting, and the Gettysburg Address was delivered at the consecration of a war cemetery. Force is not always aimed at bloodshed. Even the better angels often require a military escort. Such are the realities (609)

1 thought on “When the Only Way is Through”

  1. The teacher seems to be a wonderful illustration of the disconnect of the “Bush=Evil” idiocy. Evil man started bad war etc., followed by ecstatic comments about the women in school and looking forward. It never seems to strike her(or she ignores it) that without the war, those women would be covered with burkhas and isolated, and beated or killed if they stepped out of line.

    War is always terrible; and sometimes it’s also the only way there.

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