"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Forget “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Put down “The Shining.” Retire that dog-eared copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear.” If you really want to feel the cold fingers of fear running up and down your spine, pick up David Frum and Richard Perle’s “An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror.” It’s the scariest book since the novel Saddam Hussein reportedly wrote while his underlings pretended to work on those nonexistent weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities — you remember, the ones the authors and their friends in the White House used to justify invading Iraq.
“An End to Evil” is like Bush on crack. It’s a kind of neocon orgy, a Bohemian Grove weekend for militaristic moralists, a chance to get naked and do tribal, Lord of the Flies dances — “Invade Iran! Kill Yasser! Drink Kim’s blood!” But if its recommendations are a little too extreme even for the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney-Paul Wolfowitz triumvirate, its underlying worldview is identical to theirs. It’s a kind of CAT scan of the Bush administration’s collective brain, an entity so weird it should be cryogenically frozen so future scientists can study it. Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and author of a recent encomium to his ex-boss, presumably represents the right brain, glibly spinning and selling, while neocon guru Richard Perle provides the left-hemisphere gray matter. With its trademarked combination of chipper propaganda, bullying bluster, intellectual dishonesty and radical policy prescriptions, “An End to Evil” offers a guided tour of the mind of George W. Bush, as filtered through the higher-grade neurons of its authors.
Here are some of the authors’ policy recommendations:
Their domestic policies are equally arresting:
The remarkable thing about these ideas is that, just a few years ago, they existed only in the feverish fantasies of wack jobs at extreme right, virulently pro-Israel think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. But then came Sept. 11, 2001, and an ill-starred roll of the dice that brought together superhawks Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, hard-line Likud supporters Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith (and Richard Perle, offstage), and a devoutly religious, intellectually overmatched, politically shrewd president who embraced a permanent war on terror as if God had spoken to him (and as the only way to salvage his disastrous presidency). The result: Not only were these radical ideas given respectability, they actually became U.S. policy.
Not all of them, of course. One of the few interesting things about this insufferably smug, intellectually shallow book is trying to predict which of the authors’ wilder policy recommendations will actually be implemented, and which will remain mere gleams in the right wing’s Cyclopean eye. In fact, none of their dreams are likely to become reality. The U.S. is not going to invade North Korea, thereby condemning tens or hundreds of thousands of Koreans (from both North and South) to death. Nor will it invade Iran: After the Iraq debacle, even the most ignorant, deluded neocon is probably beginning to realize that toppling the mullahs will not guarantee that a U.S.-friendly regime would follow.
And invading Iran would exacerbate the worsening political crisis in Iraq, where the Bush administration is desperately running again to the despised United Nations to bail out the U.S. plan for rigged elections, which were put in place to prevent an Iranian-style theocratic Shiite state emerging. Typically, Perle and Frum, who wax eloquent about bringing democracy to the Arab world, have not a word to say about this — although every knowledgeable commentator warned of this danger before the invasion. (Similarly, they make much of their concern for the woeful plight of women in the Arab world, but ignore the fact that women in Iraq now face the likelihood of being forced to live under Islamic law — a fate they escaped under Saddam’s secular regime, dreadful as it was.) It is not even likely to whack little Syria, which poses no conceivable threat to the U.S.
And one other piece of bad news for Richard Perle, in particular: No one is going to install your pal Ahmad Chalabi as president of Iraq. In one of the book’s most egregious passages, the authors write, “But of all our mistakes, probably the most serious was our unwillingness to let the Iraqi National Congress, Iraq’s leading anti-Saddam resistance movement, form a provisional government after the fall of Baghdad.” If only those camel jockeys at State and in the CIA had let the neocons’ favorite puppet and his little toy army enter Baghdad before the Americans, everything would have gone so much better! These kind of absurd claims may settle some old scores, but they do nothing to enhance the authors’ credibility.
Their domestic agenda is unlikely to fare much better. Despite their hyperbolic, fear-mongering claim that “the terrorist threat” menaces “our survival as a nation,” Americans are not going to put up with draconian security measures like national identity cards any more than they did Adm. John Poindexter’s TIA program. Even Bush knows you can only play the fear card so far before it backfires.
But this isn’t to say that the authors’ militarist, triumphalist, unilateral, self-righteous, black-and-white ideology will not continue to drive the Bush administration’s beliefs and actions. Rejecting international treaties and institutions, embracing an unprecedented and deeply un-American doctrine of preventive war, insulting the U.N. (except when we need it to bail us out), eschewing diplomacy for force, bigfooting everybody who dares to oppose us, and above all, treating the “War on Terror” as a kind of divinely inspired crusade against “evil,” which only a heretic could oppose: These are the bedrock beliefs of the Bush team. They also just so happen to be the heart of its reelection strategy, aimed at Americans who didn’t know the difference between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and trusted their government when it told them they represented the same threat.
The shelf life of this screed is likely to be brief. Many Americans, to a certain degree understandably, are still locked in a vengeful, unreflecting, reactive stance toward terrorism. As such, they are open to fear-mongering books like this one. But sooner or later they will learn the lesson painfully learned by the British, the French, the Israelis, the Russians and other strong nations that have found themselves locked in no-win battles against weak opponents who are willing to die for their cause: There is no military solution to terrorism, particularly not in an open society in an age of easily concealable weapons.
They will eventually realize that not all terrorists are the same, and our approach to all of them need not, indeed must not, be the same. They will come to understand that political solutions are more powerful and lasting than military ones, that a United States that is hated and feared by most of the world (which is what Bush’s policies have achieved) is less safe than one that is respected and admired. And they will learn that a policy of continuously demonizing the Arab/Muslim world and smashing it in the face will not — in the words of the book’s ludicrously overreaching title — bring about “an end to evil,” but rather the reverse.
Like President Bush, who crudely smeared Democrats in his State of the Union address for giving up on the war on terror, the authors try to paint those who don’t agree with their radical doctrines as appeasers and cynics. At “this dangerous moment,” they write, “many in the American political and media elite are losing their nerve for the fight. Perhaps it is the political cycle: For some Democrats, winning the war has become a less urgent priority than winning the next election.” Leaving aside the obvious fact that the political cycle washes both reds and blues (Bush’s trump card in the election is his touted leadership in an eternal war on terror), it’s necessary to answer such vulgar attacks directly.
No, “some Democrats” (actually at least half the population of the country, with that number likely to rise every day) are not “losing their nerve for the fight.” They realize that fighting terrorism is necessary. They realize it sometimes may even require military action to take out a rogue state that shelters international terrorists, as was the case with Afghanistan. But they simply don’t accept the Bush administration’s infinitely expansive definition of the war on terror. They believe that Bush unforgivably squandered the outpouring of support for the U.S. after 9/11. They believe that international alliances and diplomacy are good for this country, not bad. They believe that Saddam Hussein was a terrible tyrant, but that he did not represent a threat to the U.S., and that the Bush administration cooked the intelligence to justify a war that neocons like Perle and Wolfowitz had been advocating for years. They believe that invading Iraq was a risky distraction that actually weakened the real war on terror, which is against al-Qaida. And they believe that by treating every problematic nation as an enemy in a hysterical war against an abstract entity, and treating every movement that uses terror as if it were al-Qaida, the Bush administration is actually making the world, and America, much less safe.
The most dangerous aspect of Bush’s war on terror is its failure to distinguish between national and international terrorism — a distinction, with a slightly different emphasis, that is also at the heart of the debate over Iraq. In his important “Incoherent Empire” (published last year by Verso), Michael Mann argues the U.S. should avoid attacking merely national terrorists that don’t threaten us, because by so doing we needlessly turn them into our enemies — and because we are then forced to fight the war on their terms and in their country, where they are almost impossible to defeat. National terrorists, he points out, are found all over the globe: “Terrorists all begin as national ‘freedom fighters,’ seeking to liberate their own land from what they see as alien oppressive rule.” On their own turf they can thrive “like fish in the sea,” in Mao’s famous formulation about guerrilla war. Our fight is not with them, but with international terrorists like al-Qaida. “The fundamental strategy of America’s war against terrorism should therefore be to separate international terrorists from any national support base, forcing them to fight in more exposed international conditions and not as genuine guerrillas,” Mann writes.
The Bush administration’s score card here is not encouraging. Destroying the Taliban regime helped separate al-Qaida from a national support base, but thanks to our lack of follow-through (for which the gratuitous Iraq adventure is mostly to blame), Afghanistan is slowly edging toward becoming a failed state, the favorite hidey-hole of international terrorists. By invading Iraq, the Bush administration may have helped create another failed state, and the invasion, along with the U.S. refusal to take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, has increased Muslim and Arab rage against us — although there has as yet been no upsurge in anti-U.S. terrorism except in Iraq.
Still, there is one encouraging fact. The U.S. has not yet made the fateful decision to attack national terrorists: We aren’t hunting down Chechens, Pakistanis in Kashmir, Basques in Spain or Palestinians in the West Bank. When and if we do, we will have succeeded in expanding the list of people who want to blow us up.
Perle and Frum want us to. For them, as for the Bush administration, the enemy is Muslim terrorism — the one-size-fits-all bogeyman of “militant Islam.” For them, militant Islam is so anomic, irrational and evil that it trumps all other factors. Just as, in the eyes of U.S. Cold Warriors, a Nicaraguan or Vietnamese peasant who happened to be a communist could not be seen as fighting for national liberation or economic justice, but only as a cog in the Red Menace, so Perle and Frum see all Islamist terrorists as identical: The Hamas terrorist who attacks Israelis is identical to the al-Qaida terrorist who attacks Americans. In fact, their real bogeyman isn’t even Islamist terrorism, but the even broader specter of Arab/Muslim terrorism — whatever that is. This helps explain their insistence, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaida.
Determined to demonize, Perle and Frum simply refuse to examine the varied historical contexts and causes of terrorism. From the lofty heights of their bully pulpit, they ignore the messy moral realities of human violence. As has frequently been pointed out, terrorism is the weapon of the powerless; and it is a truism that one man’s freedom fighter — or defender of a homeland — is another man’s terrorist. Israelis regard Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who carried out terrorist attacks during Israel’s struggle for independence, as freedom fighters, just as Palestinians regard Yasser Arafat, whose Fatah movement has carried out many terror attacks, as the leader of a national liberation movement.
Any serious book about political violence must deal with such moral ambiguities. Terrorism is appalling, but it is simply not as morally clear-cut as we would like to believe — for the simple reason that the world can be appalling. Take state-sanctioned slaughter. States use the mass killing of civilians to achieve their purposes: Germans referred to the strategic Allied bombing of cities like Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne, which killed 600,000 civilians, as “terror bombing.” U.S. planes firebombed Tokyo, killing 85,000 civilians in one night — an appalling slaughter forgotten now except by military buffs. Yes, it took place during wartime. But does the existence of a piece of paper really alter the ethical issues involved in intentionally dropping magnesium-filled incendiary bombs on a huge city built almost entirely of wood? Perle and Frum, like most of us, would presumably defend such wartime actions by using an ends-justify-the-means argument: It was worth killing 85,000 Japanese civilians because it shortened the war, a war started by Japan. But once the Kantian categorical imperative is suspended and such justifying goals are invoked, one must also examine the justifying goals used by terrorists — which Perle and Frum, suddenly becoming pure Kantians again, refuse to do.
It is both an American virtue and vice to insist on allocating praise and blame, to decide who is the hero and who the villain. But as both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and postwar Iraq have shown, the world does not always divide itself up like that. The American West was settled as the result of what was essentially an undirected campaign of genocide against its native inhabitants. Racist pronouncements and bloviations about “manifest destiny” did not justify this massive crime, but neither did it mark Americans with eternal guilt. A mature historical perspective sees both sides: Mere moralizing is not enough.
To say this is not to justify the atrocities carried out by Osama bin Laden, or any terrorist attacks. But it is to try to understand what motivates them, so that we can take intelligent steps to avoid future attacks — and work to “drain the swamp” to eliminate the underlying conditions and grievances that helped create terror. In the case of bin Laden, most of what drives him is indeed so anomic and apocalyptic that there is no way we could or should do anything to avoid his attacks: The modern age would have to end, Israel cease to exist and time run backward to the end of the Ottoman Empire, if not all the way back to the first caliphate, to make him call off his jihad. But there are certain obvious moves we can make — and have indeed already made. One of the few smart things the Bush administration has done since it began its war on terror is withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia. Their presence, of course, was one of the triggers of bin Laden’s rage.
In the end, defusing bin Laden’s rage is not possible or desirable: Such implacable enemies must simply be defeated. But defusing the rage of the rest of the Arab and Muslim world is possible, contrary to the pessimistic views of ideologues like Perle and Frum. More than anything else, it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and America’s one-sided support for the heavy-handed policies of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, that has turned Arabs and Muslims against the U.S. Along with ending its support for autocratic and corrupt Arab regimes — which Perle and Frum, to their credit, argue for — helping broker a just end to that conflict would be the single most important thing the U.S. could do to win the war on terror. It would be good for Israel, good for the Palestinians and good for our relations with the Muslim and Arab world. But on this subject, Perle and Frum, like the Bush administration, are frozen in dogmatic extremity.
Their attitude becomes clear in the book’s second paragraph. “The war on terror is not over. In many ways, it has hardly begun. Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas still plot murder, and money still flows from donors worldwide to finance them.” One might wonder why they didn’t write “Al-Qaida, the Basque ETA and the Tamil Tigers still plot murder.” After all, none of these groups except al-Qaida attack Americans. (In 1983 Hezbollah blew up 241 Marines in their barracks in Lebanon, as well as the U.S. embassy, but only after American troops blundered in there and foolishly took the Phalange/Israeli side in the Lebanese civil war. Hamas has never targeted Americans: Its quarrel is with Israel.)
But in defiance of all the facts, Perle and Frum maintain that there is no difference between Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida. They write “Hezbollah has attacked Americans in the past and will almost certainly do so in the future” — a prediction that has a somewhat ominous ring, since the only plausible scenario that would result in Hezbollah attacking Americans would be a U.S. invasion of Syria or Lebanon. (It worked so well in 1983, let’s try it again!) Ignoring the completely different causes that animate these groups, and the fact that attacking Americans would be suicidal for Hamas and Hezbollah, they argue that they are all the same because they are all subscribers to militant Islam.
Islamist terrorism is unique, they argue, because it flows from Islam itself. “The roots of Muslim rage are to be found in Islam itself. Unlike Christianity, Islam offers its believers rewards on earth as well as in heaven … The Islamic world has lagged further and further behind the Christian West … These defeats and disasters have been more than a wound to Muslims: They directly challenge the truth of Islam itself.” Enraged, humiliated, sexually frustrated, young Muslim men turn to militant Islam.
This is, of course, the pathological collision with modernity explanation advanced by historian Bernard Lewis, a favorite of neocon polemicists because he conveniently downplays or ignores specific Muslim/Arab grievances, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem with Lewis’ thesis isn’t that it isn’t true, but that it isn’t the whole truth. Yes, if the Israelis withdrew from the Occupied Territories tomorrow, the Arab world would still be appallingly backward. The region would still be subject to all the woes that Lewis, Thomas L. Friedman, Kanan Makiya and others have accurately chronicled. Nor would Islamist terrorism come to an immediate end. But if the U.S. helped heal that festering sore, as only it can do, only good things would follow. Such an intervention would immediately prove to the Arab/Muslim world that the U.S. can indeed be an honest broker. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Arabs and Muslims in and out of Iraq currently regard with great suspicion because they doubt that the U.S. has honorable intentions, would be seen in a radically different light. This would not assure that that high-risk adventure would succeed, but it certainly would not hurt. Arab reformers would be strengthened; sclerotic regimes would no longer be able to maintain power simply by blaming America or Israel. The Arab world would be forced to do something it has long avoided doing: look inward, and acknowledge that it must set its own house in order.
Perle and Frum reject this argument because, astoundingly, they deny that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source, or even a source, of Arab and Palestinian anger at Israel and its ally and protector America. “The greatest — indeed the sole — obstacle to peace is the feeling among many people in the Arab and Muslim world that anything that was once theirs can never legitimately be anybody else’s. It would be as if the Greeks felt themselves entitled to blow up school buses in Turkey until the Turks returned Constantinople. The Arab-Israeli quarrel is not a cause of Islamic extremism; the unwillingness of the Arabs to end the quarrel is a manifestation of the underlying cultural malaise from which Islamic extremism emerges.”
One scarcely knows what to call such an argument: To label it arrogant, ahistorical, dismissive and callous seems insufficient. The brazen historical simile is particularly striking, although it would perhaps be more convincing if Constantinople had been seized in 1967, not 1453. But when you’re dealing with crazed ragheads, 500 years here or there doesn’t mean anything — they live in the world of eternity! It is also worth noting the authors’ slippery conflation of “Islamic extremism” with Palestinian resistance, which until fairly recently was secular in nature. (Just as the U.S. foolishly helped create Osama bin Laden — a fact the authors naturally gloss over — so the Israelis helped create Hamas, which they saw as a way to weaken Arafat’s secular Fatah.) But a non-Islamic resistance at the heart of the Middle East’s most crucial conflict does not sit well with their thesis that religious fanaticism, not a political grievance, is behind it. (That the authors believe the Palestinians have no legitimate grievances whatsoever is made clear when they casually refer to the current bloody conflict as “the Oslo war” — like Sharon, they believe everything began to go wrong when the peace process started.)
Above all, their proposal to abandon any idea of a Palestinian state is fantastic: The idea that the Palestinians, and the larger Arab and Muslim world, would ever consent to such an arrangement is pure fantasy. And any attempts to implement such a policy by force (i.e., the involuntary “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Occupied Territories into neighboring states, an idea long popular with the Israeli right) would take the world to the edge of a nuclear abyss. So why do they even bring it up?
The authors’ extreme line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes well beyond official U.S. policy. (Actual U.S. policy is another matter: As Salon columnist and Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn recently noted, the U.S. has now completely abandoned the road map and the peace process and given Sharon almost unlimited authority to do what he wants.) Indeed, it goes beyond much opinion in Israel. That fact, and the contorted lengths they go to to argue that Hamas and al-Qaida are one and the same thing, raise a by now familiar question: To what degree are the authors’ ideology — and, by extension, the Bush administration’s — driven by attachment to Israel?
In fact, Perle and Frum bring the question up themselves. “We write these words [arguing against the creation of a Palestinian state] fully aware of how some readers and critics may react to them. According to the BBC’s flagship documentary program, ‘Panorama,’ ‘a small and unelected group of right-wingers … have hijacked the White House.’ The members of this ‘close-knit’ group, according to Business Week, ‘have been called extremists, warmongers, American imperialists — and even a Zionist cabal.’”
In response, the authors raise the bloody flag of anti-Semitism. Anyone who dares suggest that the (indisputable) attachment to the Israeli right wing of so many prominent White House policymakers and advisors (including Perle) may have played a role in their policy decisions about the war on terror is tarred as a bigot, one step up from a crank waving the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The authors also bizarrely assert that the “myth of the neoconservative cabal” results from Bush-haters who “simply could not accept that it was the president’s determination that was pushing the war forward. Somebody else had to be responsible.” Finally, they lamely argue that “the neoconservative myth offers Europeans and liberals a useful euphemism for expressing their hostility to Israel.”
Perle and Frum’s attempt to dismiss the “neoconservative myth” backfires. Their arguments are crude and unconvincing; they protest too much. One need not assert that “world events are directed by a Jewish conspiracy” — to use their smearing formulation — to argue that ideological attachments inevitably play a role in the shaping of policy. It would simply be naive to dismiss the fact that the Bush administration is dominated, on its intellectual wing, by pro-Likud hard-liners whose view of the Arab and Muslim world is shaped by their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, this entire book is the clearest possible example of that. For these figures, the welfare of Israel and the welfare of the United States are axiomatically linked. There is no “Jewish conspiracy” at work, because there is a convergence of shared opinion between the Likudnik neocons like Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith and the hard-line paleocon hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld. Bush’s fervent evangelical Christianity — and his desire to get evangelical votes — disposes him toward a similar worldview.
Unfortunately, fear of being accused of being anti-Semitic, and the daunting complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have all but prevented a reasoned discussion of this issue. The question is not whether “they did it for Israel,” but to what degree the policy prescriptions advanced by figures like Perle, and implemented by Bush, are correct. In that vitally needed civic discussion, the central Israeli-Palestinian issue must come up.
Whatever its origins, the world imagined by Perle and Frum is a strange combination of Hobbes and Popeye. It is a world in which a mighty, hulking America walks about with a huge stick, smiting enemies like boardwalk frogs who conveniently never pop back up, with allies who never interfere, backed up by an economy able to write endless blank checks. “Will we need to go after a terrorist camp in some remote village in Indonesia? Or raid Syria to retrieve or destroy weapons of mass destruction that may have been sent there by Saddam Hussein for safekeeping?” the authors breezily ask. “Or strike a decisive blow against a North Korean facility about to produce nuclear weapons for a terrorist customer?” Who the heck knows? Maybe those frogs could do with a taste of the lash, too.
And despite its handy veneer of Wilsonian idealism, it is essentially a selfish world, a world without altruism or any higher purpose beyond city-on-a-hill banalities about American greatness. Now that the weapons of mass destruction have turned out to be a fraud, apologists for the war have become fond of touting their humanist credentials: We saved the Iraqi people from Saddam. But it rings false, just as does Bush’s sudden pose as a grand humanitarian. Strip away the authors’ moral pretensions and you find a philosophy of pure realpolitik, naked self-interest.
The authors are fond of hinting that “most Americans” are unflinching, heroic opponents of evil like themselves. But I doubt that most Americans really want to inhabit the America — and the world — depicted here. Fighting an intelligent war on terror is one thing. But when you think about it, the endless, obsessive, solitary war they recommend looks strangely self-destructive — almost, one might say, like the mission of a suicide bomber.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)