"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)
According to the Bush administration and its supporters, the Democrats and a majority of the American people are a cross between Benedict Arnold, Neville Chamberlain and Tokyo Rose. What set the Bushites off was a one-two punch from the Democrats — the bill that would require American troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq by Oct. 1, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement, “As long as we follow the president’s path in Iraq, the war is lost.” The words were barely out of Reid’s mouth when the Bush dead-enders — a peculiar group now consisting of less than a quarter of the American people, two GOP congressmen and two GOP senators — began Googling “great traitors of history.” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., called on Reid to resign. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the spending bill amounted to a “surrender” to al-Qaida. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, “Tonight, the House of Representatives votes for failure in Iraq, and the president will veto its bill.”
The right’s rank and file followed suit. “Dem Senate Votes for Retreat and Defeat,” screamed the headline on the conservative Web site Townhall. Prominent right-wing blogger Hugh Hewitt called Reid a “defeatist cheerleader.” Another conservative commentator, Rich Galen, said Reid is “invested in failure.” On the Free Republic, a post called on “fellow Freepers” to denounce Democratic “traitors” and “treason.”
In a column titled “Losers,” Iran-Contra rogue Oliver North, whose tireless efforts to assist the Contras apparently qualifies him as an expert on fighting terrorism, said America would reject the Democrat’s Iraq stance because Americans hate losers. “If the Democrats continue their current course, we may well lose this war — and they will have embraced defeat and all that comes with it,” North wrote. In a programmatic tactic of the Bush administration, Ollie rallied his argument around World War II. He quoted a soldier in Ramadi as saying, “Good thing this guy Reid wasn’t around in 1940 when Winston Churchill promised the people of Great Britain nothing but ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.’”
Bush supporters have been labeling war critics defeatists, appeasers and surrender monkeys ever since 9/11. Chickenhawk conservatives discovered they could attack even decorated war veterans with impunity, as the shameless smearing of triple amputee Vietnam War vet Max Cleland proved. Who could forget that glorious day when newly elected Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, attacked Rep. John Murtha, a war hero, by saying, “Cowards cut and run, Marines never do”? Congress and the media’s gutless reaction to these attacks is one of the main reasons they rolled over during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
But those who live by bogus patriotic fearmongering die by bogus patriotic fearmongering. Having cast its lot irrevocably with Bush, the GOP is now condemned to play out the dismal endgame in Iraq by his all-or-nothing rules. They have no choice but to pretend victory is at hand, attack those who say otherwise, and make up apocalyptic scenarios about what al-Qaida will do to us if we don’t stay the course.
The problem is, no one believes any of this anymore — probably not even the people who are saying it. The gap between reality and Bush spin, always large, has become a Grand Canyon. As a result, the Orwellian rhetoric so beloved of the Bush administration is rapidly becoming devalued. “War is peace” just doesn’t have that inspiring ring it once did.
Until this year, the Democrats were cowed into silence by the GOP’s attacks. No more. Like Murtha, who was the first Democrat to directly challenge the GOP’s fear-and-smear tactics, Reid and House leader Nancy Pelosi have realized that the best way to respond to a blustering bully is to hit him in the face. After Cheney attacked Reid, Reid not only defended himself but also gave Cheney a sharp kick in the snout. He called the vice president an “attack dog,” then added, “I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.”
The GOP’s overwrought response represents its realization of how potentially politically damaging his counterattack was. If Reid’s contemptuous dismissal of Cheney was allowed to stand, the Bush administration’s flag-draped aura of intimidation and invincibility — which is all that it has left — would be removed. This could not happen. Under no circumstances could the great and powerful Oz be exposed.
Riding to the GOP’s rescue was Washington Post columnist David Broder, the “dean of American political correspondents” — a epithet that apparently refers to his status as the Platonic ideal of establishment-unto-death thinking. Broder blasted Reid as an amateurish loose cannon and, incredibly, compared him to Alberto Gonzales. Reid’s act of lèse-majesté in saying “the war is lost” was too much for Broder, who as the voice of Beltway probity pronounced that it was unacceptable for the top Democrat in the Senate to state what most Americans believe to be true.
If the American public were still playing by the genteel Broder rules, the GOP’s attempt to demonize Reid and the Democrats might have worked. But it isn’t. Broder’s column, which was rebuked in a letter signed by all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus, has instantly became a symbol of the vacuity and conformism of establishment thinking. The previously irresistible force of patriotic conformity has run into the immovable object of democracy. The overwhelming majority of Democrats, and a sizable minority of Republicans, no longer believe anything Bush or Cheney say about the war. They believe it is lost, they want the United States to get out, and they want their voice to be heard. And more and more of them have had it with the rigged game in which the Bush administration is given carte blanche to issue one highhanded and false statement after another about the war, while the Democrats are expected to tug their forelocks, salute the flag, and speak in an manner approved by their betters.
Poll after poll has shown Americans’ exasperation. One of the most telling was a Newsweek poll taken right after Bush’s State of the Union address at the end of January. More than half the country, 58 percent, said they wished the Bush presidency were simply over. This group included 86 percent of the Democrats who responded, 59 percent of the independents, and even 21 percent of the Republicans. And 64 percent of Americans said they thought Congress had not been assertive enough in challenging Bush’s conduct of the war.
A die-hard Republican “security mom” named Marylee McCallister expresses the disenchantment felt by so many. McCallister told the Washington Post last summer that she voted for Bush because she believed him when he said that John Kerry was weak on national security. “‘I was dumb,’ she said. ‘Now, granted, they came here and rammed bombs into us, but I am afraid we have gotten into something full scale which perhaps did not have to be.’”
Throughout the Bush presidency, there has been one infallible rule: If someone starts talking about World War II, watch your wallet. Ever since Bush invaded Iraq, his supporters have been desperately trying to convince the American people that Iraq is the WWII of our time. They constantly invoke the Blitz, the invasion of Poland, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the fall of France, Pearl Harbor and other momentous events from the Last Good War.
Unfortunately for the GOP, Bush’s own words have rendered the Churchill comparison absurd. Churchill called for blood, toil, tears and sweat. Bush called for tax breaks for the rich and continued shopping. He didn’t raise taxes, or impose a gas tax, or institute a draft, or in any way put the country on a war footing. Asked by “The NewsHour’s” Jim Lehrer why he hadn’t asked Americans to sacrifice anything for the war, Bush replied, “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night … And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life’s moving on.” Yes, that certainly has the Churchillian ring to it.
Besides, if there are any legitimate analogies between Iraq and WWII, they aren’t ones that Bush wants Americans to think about. Iraq more closely resembles Stalingrad, where a delusional Hitler refused to cut his losses, or the Maginot Line — that heavily armed defensive wall that the Germans simply went around. The Battle of Britain, Iraq ain’t.
Despite all the bluster about World War II, military victory in Iraq simply isn’t possible — a fact confirmed by Bush’s top military man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. “There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq,” Petraeus said at a news conference in March. And it isn’t just a military victory that is impossible. Bush has defined “victory” in Iraq as the creation of a stable, democratic, pro-American nation — but, as retired Gen. William Odom noted in a piece titled “Victory Is Not an Option,” this war cannot achieve this goal. This isn’t just his opinion. The National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the consensus of American intelligence analysts, reached basically the same conclusion.
Equally divorced from reality is the GOP’s endlessly repeated claim that “if we don’t defeat al-Qaida there, they’ll follow us home.” Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke disposed of this ridiculous argument simply by giving it a name: the “puppy dog terror theory,” as in the puppy that will follow you home. In a piece in the New York Daily News, he wrote, “How is this odd terrorist puppy dog behavior supposed to work? The President must believe that terrorists are playing by some odd rules of chivalry. Would this be the ‘only one slaughter ground at a time’ rule of terrorism? Of course, nothing about our being ‘over there’ in any way prevents terrorists from coming here. Quite the opposite, the evidence is overwhelming that our presence provides motivation for people throughout the Arab world to become anti-American terrorists.”
Of course, the American people know that pulling our troops out of Iraq is not without risks. The greatest danger is that the country will be ravaged by a civil war far worse even than the one raging there now. And the regional consequences of a meltdown in Iraq, especially if the Bush administration continues to refuse to talk seriously with Iraq’s neighbors, could be far-reaching.
The American people know this. But they know that pursuing “victory” in Iraq — a victory impossible to define — is likely to have so many negative consequences that it will actually amount to a defeat. Among those consequences: the endless casualties, the continued taxpayer-financed training ground for jihadis, and the ever-growing hatred of the United States in the region. Unlike Bush, they are primarily worried about our actual enemy: al-Qaida. Bush’s exhortations to fight “radical Islam” or “terrorism” have been revealed to be incoherent and self-defeating abstractions. Americans may not know much about grand neocon theories, but they know those theories led us needlessly into Iraq, and they don’t want to have anything more to do with them.
And the American people also know who started this war. They know that the reasons the Bush administration gave were false. And they know that the Bush team never really discussed whether the war was even necessary — a fact confirmed once again by George Tenet’s book. To expect people to swallow all that, and still make a commitment that Petraeus all but admitted could last for decades, is like asking them to keep following Gen. Custer into battle.
War supporters are counting on a certain level of John Wayne war-movie immaturity on the part of the American people, a Technicolor conviction that America is ordained to be, must be, eternally victorious. But Americans are more grown-up than that. They know America, like every other country, sometimes loses. Many of them lived through Vietnam, and they know that the sky did not fall. They are quite capable of weighing the pros and cons of the Iraq war and making a rational cost-benefit calculation about whether it’s worth continuing to fight. They understand the concept of a tactical retreat, of cutting your losses, of losing a battle but winning the war.
Bush is talking like Churchill, but it’s an empty act. He’s a defeated man, searching for others to blame for his defeat. He’s stalling, hoping for a miracle that will save him and his bungled war. But the end is coming. The only question is how many more people will have to die before it does.
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)