Things We Have All Known

Three things, this week—a television show, a newspaper article, and a book—have brought home to me once again just how appalling the U.S. failure in Iraq has been, how duplicitous, how poorly planned, and how ignorant.

Incredibly, there are still those who support U.S. presence in Iraq, even going so far as to argue the absurd position that the U.S. has to stay—and that some good can still come of this. Some of these, emotionally unable to recognize the extent of the failure, just babble inanities about “supporting the troops” (when all else fails… ).

Like so many others last Wednesday, I watched Bill Moyers’ Buying the War with incredible frustration. There was nothing new there—like the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, one of the only groups in the commercial and professional Washington news media not drawn in, and like millions of other Americans, I knew the war was entered on trumped-up grounds even before it started. Though it’s nice to get a little confirmation after the horror and frustration of those days in 2003, the show added nothing to my knowledge—unless it was a confirmation that the press still hasn’t learned anything, for all the people who perpetuated this hoax on us are still being used as reporters and experts.

What’s worse than a mistake is compounding it, is not recognizing that something really wrong was done and that we who made the mistake (taking the “we” as the U.S. as a nation) cannot be part of the solution. We blew it; it is time to get someone a little more competent (right now, the argument could be made that that could be anyone) to step in.

On so many level, we have shown that we cannot handle the needs of Iraq. There’s an article in todays’s The New York Times by James Glanz entitled “Rebuild Iraq Projects Found Crumbling.” In in, Glanz writes:

Exactly who is to blame for the poor record on sustainment for the first sample of eight projects was not laid out in the report, but the American reconstruction program has been repeatedly criticized for not including in its rebuilding budget enough of the costs for spare parts, training, stronger construction and other elements that would enable projects continue to function once they have been built.

Apparently, we have learned no lessons from the years of development and rebuilding projects we’ve been involved in over the past fifty years and more. You don’t drop something off, start it up, and leave—and expect to return anytime later and find it still running. Either you build the thing using local resources (both goods and people) or you make sure you train local people in repair and maintenance and make sure they have an affordable and reliable venue for parts.

In terms of the needs of Iraq, we are incompetent. We can’t provide security, we can’t build infrastructure, we can’t install an effective government (the Maliki government we created is really no government at all, as Frank Rich points out today).

And we don’t think.

Last night, before going to sleep, I picked up a slim volume of selections from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History called War and Civilization. One of the chapters is called “The Failure of the Saviour with the Sword.”

It made me want to cry.

The sword is only wielded in the hope of being about to use it to such good purpose that it may eventually have no more work to do; but this is an illusion; for it is only in fairyland that swords cut Gordian knows which cannot be untied by fingers. ‘All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword’ is the inexorable law of real life; and the swordsman’s belief in a conclusive victory is an illusion.

Yet we are still acting as though we believe in the sword—saying all we really have needed is a bigger sword.

Why is it that a disintegrating society cannot, after all, be saved by the sword even when the swordsman is genuinely eager to return the weapon to its scabbard at the earliest possible moment and to keep it there—unused and unseen—for the longest possible period of time? Is not this twofold action of drawing and sheathing again a sign of grace which ought to have its reward? The warrior who is willing to renounce, at the first opportunity, the use of an instrument which he is only able now to lay aside because he has just used it so successfully must be a victor who is also a statesman, and a statesman who is something of a sage. He must have a large measure of saving common sense and at least a grain of the more ethereal virtue of self-control. The renunciation of War as an instrument of policy is a resolution which promised to me as fruitful as it is noble and wise; and, whenever it is taken with sincerity, it always arouses high hopes.

Why are these seemingly legitimate expectations doomed to be disappointed[…]. The answer to this agonizing question has been given in an Horatian ode by an English poet[…]. A poem which purports to be a paean in honor of a particular victory sounds the knell of all Militarism in its last two stanzas:

But thou, the War’s and Fortune’s son,
March indefatigably on;
And, for the last effect,
Still keep the sword erect.

Besides the force it has to fright
The spirits of the shady night,
The same arts that did gain
A power, must it maintain. [Andrew Marvell]

The only success we can find in Iraq through our military force is a continuation of our use of force.

To me, that very idea that we are doing just so is an abomination.

An instrument that has once been used to destroy life cannot then be used to preserve life at the user’s convenience. The function of weapons is to kill; and a ruler who has not scrupled to ‘wade through slaughter to a throne’ will find—if he tries to maintain his power thereafter without further recourse to the grim arts which have gained it—that sooner or later he will be confronted with a choice between letting the power slip through his fingers or else renewing his lease of it by means of another bout of bloodshed. The man of violence cannot both genuinely repent of his violence and permanently profit by it. The law of karma is not evaded so easily as that. The saviour with the sword may perhaps build a house upon the sand but never the house upon a rock. [my emphasis]

Our Congress, of course, is likely to cave in to the administration this week and continue funding of this occupation without real string. Its leaders will proclaim success, a move towards ending this fiasco.

But even that will be no success at all, but a continuation of the failure that is pulling our nation and our culture into a hell of its own creation.

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