A real antiwar movement would end our Iraq disaster. But the middle class doesn't care enough to protest, so the kids who go to community college will keep dying.
So now we wait for the end. The man who led America into the most disastrous war in its history has run out of tricks, out of troops and out of time. It is no longer a question of whether George W. Bush’s presidency will officially die, but when — and how many more Americans will have to die before it does.
We find ourselves, almost four years into the Iraq war, in a very strange situation. What do you do when it has become obvious that the leader of your country is — there is no kinder way to put this — a delusional fool? And that his weird fantasy war is hopelessly and irretrievably lost? Apparently, you just wait. The Democrats are raging and ranting, but they will not cut off funds. Still crippled by their fear of being labeled “soft on national security,” the majority party will watch the end from a safe distance, like survivors who quickly paddle away from a doomed ship to avoid being pulled down in the suction when it goes down.
It’s no mystery why the Democrats will not pull the plug. Cutting off funding for an ongoing war is a radical move, one that would expose the Democrats to familiar stab-in-the-back charges that they don’t “support the troops.” Now that the ugly end of Bush’s war is in sight, why on earth would the Democrats want to risk being blamed for losing it?
This makes a certain political sense, but it is deeply cynical. It implicitly accepts that more young Americans must die for a policy that has no chance of working. They must die so that a cowardly president can delay his day of reckoning a few more months. They must die so that Democrats can wash their hands of the whole mess.
The only thing that could move the Democrats to abandon this cold-blooded calculation and challenge Bush’s war directly is a clear message from the American people. Not just their disapproval of Bush and his handling of the war — that message was sent in the last elections, and in the recent CBS poll showing that only 23 percent of Americans support Bush’s war leadership. That disapproval has emboldened the Democrats — and some Republicans — enough that they have dared to criticize Bush, something they didn’t have the guts to do until now. But it isn’t enough to make them try to end the war. For that to happen, large numbers of Americans would have to actually protest the war. A real, broad-based antiwar movement would immediately put an end to the war — and put the Bush presidency out of its misery.
But there is no significant antiwar movement. And there isn’t going to be one unless Bush completely loses it and decides to attack Iran. (Insane as this idea is, Bush might see it as the only way to simultaneously destroy what he regards as a Nazi-like threat and save his shattered presidency.) This isn’t Vietnam, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. This is the new, post-draft America, where a subclass of poorly paid professional warriors does the bidding of a power elite. With some notable exceptions, Cindy Sheehan being the most famous, the warriors and their families, those who pay the price, do not protest. And the rest of the country, not facing death or the death of immediate family members, doesn’t care enough to.
The sad truth is that America is not one nation. We may not be Iraq, breaking up in hatred and a primeval battle for power, but the fissures are deep. There is one America that fights, and another America that doesn’t. The elites talk and the kids who go to community college get blown up. Sens. James Webb and John McCain are anomalies: Almost none of the politicians in Washington who are debating the war have children whose lives are on the line. Neither do the pundits and commentators.
The fact is, except for that comparatively small number of Americans who have fought there, Iraq is just a name on a map. The deaths there, too, are unreal. And if by chance their reality becomes undeniable, they happen to other people.
When America got rid of the draft, it also got rid of the ultimate check against presidents who lead the nation into foolish wars: people power. I am not advocating a return of the draft. But its absence is undeniably the single largest reason that there is no antiwar movement. People are capable of genuine concern for their fellow citizens, but self-interest is an exponentially more powerful driving force.
There are other reasons the antiwar movement fizzled out after the massive protest rallies that took place before the war. The number of American deaths has been extremely low by historical standards: About 3,000 troops have died so far, compared to 58,000 in Vietnam. At this rate, it would take 73 more years for Iraq to match Vietnam’s fatality totals. (It should be pointed out that these low death totals are in large part due to advances in battlefield medicine, advances that have allowed thousands of severely wounded troops, many of them now permanently disabled, to survive. These men and women, too, are victims of the war.)
There are also ideological reasons behind the absence of an antiwar movement. Bush’s “we’re fighting terror” justification for the war, while vigorously contested by the left and now exposed as not just hollow but also self-defeating, tapped into visceral emotions of patriotism, fear and a desire for revenge activated by 9/11, irrational passions that neither Congress nor the mainstream media, to their lasting shame, tried to check. To this day, we have never had a thoroughgoing national debate over Bush’s entire misguided “war on terror,” or America’s deeply flawed Middle East policies. As a result, for many Americans the premises behind the Iraq war remain unchallenged, and disagreements over that war are merely over the way it was executed. And it’s hard to get people to take to the streets over “de-Baathification” or insufficient force levels.
Finally, there’s the fact that American casualties have remained discreetly hidden from view. (To say nothing of the horrendous numbers of Iraqis who have been killed as the result of the war, which the U.S. government has callously avoided tallying.) The Bush administration has tried to keep the dead and wounded out of sight, and the media, cowed by “taste” rules and patriotism, has mostly played along. The result is an abstract war, a play war, a dream war.
Together, these factors mean there will be no serious antiwar movement here, which in turn means that Democrats will not muster the courage to stop the war. The fate of Bush’s last-chance gambit will be determined not by Ted Kennedy or Gordon Smith, but by Nouri al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr.
And that means more young Americans will appear on page A-3 of the paper, blown up or shot or burned to death because America’s political establishment decided that they should go door to door in Baghdad and Anbar province, trying to put the monsters that Bush unleashed back in the box. If there were any real chance that they could do that, it would be a job worth undertaking — if only because we owe that much, and so much more, to the Iraqi people whom we have so grievously wronged. (Yes, we removed Saddam Hussein. But a right can also be a larger wrong — an elementary moral finesse that many war supporters seem incapable of grasping.) But there is no longer any realistic chance of success — if indeed there ever was. Would you want your child’s tombstone to read “I died on Haifa Street trying to control a Sunni-Shiite power struggle my commander in chief unleashed”?
So now we must wait. Wait until there is no choice but to leave. Wait until the smoke and chaos and hatred have driven us away. Wait until we have asked another person’s kid to be the last person to die for a mistake.
But there is one thing we can do while we wait. We can stretch out our fingertips and imagination and try to at least make this unreal war real. We can truly support our troops, whom many of us will never know, by doing everything we can to end this war. We owe those who have died in Iraq, and those we are about to send to die, that much.
Poetry, perhaps even more than pictures, makes war live. We understand the true horror of World War I not because of newsreels, but because of the searing words of Erich Maria Remarque and Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. And Iraq has produced its own poet, Brian Turner, who was an infantry team leader there for a year. In 2005, he published a collection of poems, “Here, Bullet,” that is destined to endure long after the shrill arguments about the war have been forgotten.
In a poem titled “2000 lbs,” Turner opens with a description of a suicide bomber in Mosul’s Ashur Square, who is watching in his rearview mirror for a convoy. He writes of two men, an Iraqi taxi driver named Sefwan and an American Guardsman named Sgt. Ledouix, who are also in Ashur Square.
A flight of gold, that’s what Sefwan thinks
as he lights a Miami, draws in the smoke
and waits in his taxi at the traffic circle.
He thinks of summer 1974, lifting
pitchforks of grain high in the air,
the slow drift of it like the fall of Shatha’s hair,
and although it was decades ago, he still loves her,
remembers her standing at the canebrake
where the buffalo cooled shoulder-deep in the water,
pleased with the orange cups of flowers he brought her,
and he regrets how much can go wrong in a life,
how easily the years slip by, light as grain, bright
as the street’s concussion of metal, shrapnel
traveling at the speed of sound to open him up
in blood and shock, a man whose last thoughts
are of love and wreckage, with no one there
to whisper him gone.
Sgt. Ledouix of the National Guard
speaks but cannot hear the words coming out,
and it’s just as well his eardrums ruptured
because it lends the world a certain calm,
though the traffic circle is filled with people
running in panic, their legs a blur
like horses in a carousel, turning
and turning the way the tires spin
on the Humvee flipped to its side,
the gunner’s hatch he was thrown from
a mystery to him now, a dark hole
in metal the color of sand, and if he could,
he would crawl back inside of it,
and though his fingertips scratch at the asphalt
he hasn’t the strength to move:
shrapnel has torn into his ribcage
and he will bleed to death in minutes,
but he finds himself surrounded by a strange
beauty, the shine of light on the broken,
a woman’s hand touching his face, tenderly
the way his wife might, amazed to find
a wedding ring on his crushed hand,
the bright gold sinking in flesh
going to bone.
What does poetry have to do with politics? Nothing — and everything. It is too late to stop the fatal endgame of Bush’s war. But at least we can honor those who have died in that war, Iraqis and Americans alike, by refusing to look away from their deaths. Poetry, as the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, is a witness. And if we the living highly resolve, as we must, that these dead shall not have died in vain, the only way to do so is by ensuring that we never again launch an unjustified war.
On that subject, the poet should have the last word. Here is another Turner poem, whose title means “friend” in Arabic, prefaced with a quotation from Sa’di, the 13th century Persian poet.
It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer. More Gary Kamiya.
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