Tuesday, June 06, 2006

That Vision Thing

On Memorial Day, the New York Times published a vaguely pro-war op-ed that still has me puzzled. I say vaguely not because the author (Owen West, a reserve Marine major, Iraq veteran, and founder of an organization called Vets for Freedom—no danger there of being confused with one of those organizations of vets who are againstfreedom, let me tell you) is vague about being pro-war—he clearly wants us to wage it against something, or someone, for some reason—but rather because his piece is relentlessly vague about precisely whom we are or should be warring upon, and why. An op-ed, being designed for purposes of argument or persuasion, usually has a fairly clear thesis or main idea: something that the author wants us to believe or do. West's thesis is far from clear, however, and, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I am starting to wonder whether his nebulousness might be intentional. A poster on Free Republic proclaimed West's "THE MOST IMPORTANT OP-ED ABOUT THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR," but rather than hold that against him, let's peruse West's op-ed together and see if we can figure out what he's up to. I'll emphasize bits that strike me as especially significant (all emphases are mine).

West's op-ed is titled "The Troops Have Moved On." Where from? Where to? Why? you may be wondering, like the generations of impatient schoolchildren who have wondered What old man? What sea?. Let's see if we can reconstruct these mysterious peregrinations.

It never hurts to begin with a pithy quote from a revered historical figure, and West does not disappoint:

"Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease."

So said Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, describing a war that put 11 percent of our citizens in uniform and had by that point killed nearly one of out every seven soldiers. That his words are relevant again now is a troubling indicator of our national endurance.

Hmm. There are a lot of words in Lincoln's second inaugural address; why choose these, and why are they especially "relevant again now"? Pay attention to that "the cause of the conflict" bit. I think it might have something to do with where the troops have supposedly moved on from.
We are at the outset of a long war, and not just in Iraq. Yet it is being led politically by the short-sighted, from both sides of the aisle. The deterioration of American support for the mission in Iraq is indicative not so much of our military conduct there, where real gains are coming slowly but steadily, but of chaotic leadership.

Somehow Operation Iraqi Freedom, not a large war by America's historical standards, has blossomed into a crisis of expectations that threatens our ability to react to future threats with a fist instead of five fingers. Instead of rallying we are squabbling, even as the slow fuse burns.

West's bipartisan generosity ("the short-sighted" are on "both sides of the aisle") is most welcome—his organization, Vets for Freedom, also seems refreshingly free of the all-too-common Either you're pro-war or you're a terrorist/traitor false dichotomy that pollutes so many minds on the right—but I fear that what he giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other. He wants us to be a fist, not just five fingers; he wants us to rally, not squabble. Squabble about what? Rally behind whom? What "slow fuse" is he talking about? What "long war," and against whom?
One party is overly sanguine, unwilling to acknowledge its errors. The other is overly maudlin, unable to forgive the same. The Bush administration seeks to insulate the public from the reality of war, placing its burden on the few. The press has tried to fill that gap by exposing the raw brutality of the insurgency; but it has often done so without context, leaving a clear implication that we can never win.
No, I'm not sure what two parties he's talking about, either. Let's see if the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM can help. So: one party is either too confident and optimistic or too bloodthirsty, I'm not sure which (both at the same time cannot be ruled out); the other party is too emotional. No, I don't understand the contrast, either. Optimistic about what? Emotional about what? What errors is the one party "unwilling to acknowledge" and the other party "unable to forgive"?

"Analysts expect voters to swing toward the Maudlin Party in November, but thankfully President Bush still has time to distract everyone with an attack on Iran, Brit."
West continues:
In the past, the American public could turn to its sons for martial perspective. Soldiers have historically been perhaps the country's truest reflection, a socio-economic cross-section borne from common ideals. The problem is, this war is not being fought by World War II's citizen-soldiers. Nor is it fought by Vietnam's draftees. Its wages are paid by a small cadre of volunteers that composes about one-tenth of 1 percent of the population—America's warrior class.
Aha, this op-ed is really a defense of national service, I thought as I read this the first time. That would fit with Memorial Day, and maybe "The Troops Have Moved On" means "We need to replace them, and here's how to do it." Though I opposed the Iraq war, I have generally been sympathetic to the idea of required national service. Provided that service requirements are equitable (no exemptions for the wealthy, alternatives for conscientious objectors, etc.), it seems reasonable to me that a state might require a reasonable amount of service from its citizens just as it might require a reasonable amount of taxes from them. We needn't get into this now, though, as West isn't heading this way, after all.
The insular nature of this group—and a war that has spiraled into politicization—has left the Americans disconnected and confused. It's as if they have been invited into the owner's box to settle a first-quarter disagreement on the coach's play-calling. Not only are they unprepared to talk play selection, most have never even seen a football game.

This confusion, in turn, affects our warriors, who are frustrated by the country's lack of cohesion and the depiction of their war. Iraq hasn't been easy on the military, either. But the strength of our warriors is their ability to adapt.

How exactly are Americans "disconnected and confused," and about what? The nebulousness returns. West has used the magic words as if, however; he's given us a metaphor. A metaphor is a comparison in which one thing (the tenor) is described in terms of another thing (the vehicle). Metaphors are very useful for building bridges between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, the understood and the mysterious. Let's see if we can figure out where West's bridge leads.

"It's as if they [Americans] have been invited into the owner's box to settle a first-quarter disagreement on the coach's play-calling." The vehicle is a football game which has just begun (it's only the first quarter); what is the tenor? What exactly is West comparing this football game to? The war in Iraq? The "war on terror"? The latter would fit with "first-quarter," I guess, and with the "long war" that we're only "at the outset of...and not just in Iraq" mentioned earlier. But then war on terror is itself a metaphor (like war on drugs and war on crime), as you can't wage literal war on an abstract concept. It's also, I might hasten to add, a very misleading metaphor, as it suggests that the kinds of actions appropriate for fighting entire nations (massive deployments of troops, militarization of the economy and the society, deficit spending, curtailments of civil liberties, etc.) are also appropriate for fighting scattered cells of malcontents hiding in ghettos and grottos across the globe. This is highly questionable. (Then again, if your primary interest isn't so much fighting terrorists as it is militarizing the country, emptying its coffers, and curtailing its freedoms, why, then it's a great metaphor.)

And who exactly is the coach? President Bush? Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld? The Joint Chiefs of Staff? The Project for a New American Century? And what does "invited into the owner's box" mean? Don't we own the team? Isn't it our damn box? Or is our place in the cheap seats, and our role to enjoy the spectacle and cheer on cue and otherwise mind our own business—and let the people in the owner's box mind the country's business? (How gracious of them to invite us rabble in for a moment.) I wonder how committed Major West is to this metaphor.

And what exactly is the "disagreement" about? The metaphor suggests that it must be about how the game should be played, but isn't the disagreement really about whether we should be playing this particular game at all? Those of us who opposed the Iraq war, for example, thought that this game was a really bad idea in the first place and that we should be playing a different game—and forgive me for saying that the course of events since April 2003 makes our side look pretty damn right. And most Americans would have wanted to play a different game, too, had it not been for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and that nonexistent connection to the 9/11 attacks.

But wait! We're not supposed to think about how we got led into this game anymore:

First, in battle you move forward from where you are, not where you want to be. No one was more surprised that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction than the soldiers who rolled into Iraq in full chemical protective gear. But it is time for the rest of the country to do what the military was forced to: get over it.
Aha! Is this what the troops have "moved on" from? The fact that the people who sent them into Iraq have been revealed to be, at best, tragically incompetent and, at worst, shamelessly mendacious? The fact that thousands of people are dead and billions of dollars are lost because of stupid decisions, insane convictions, and/or outright lies? The fact that, as a result of these things, our country is now mired in an expensive occupation that's swallowing up the very resources (troops and dollars) that would come in so handy in the fight against people who might actually threaten us? The fact that many of the architects of this debacle have not only not been fired, censured, or impeached but have instead been honored and promoted, while many loyal public servants who tried to stop this nightmare from beginning have been ridiculed, purged, and prodded to "move on" themselves? (Needless to say, not all of even Major West's military comrades have "moved on" from these unfortunate facts.)
If we can put 2003's debates behind us, there is a swath of common ground on which to focus. Both Republicans and Democrats agree we cannot lose Iraq. The general insurgency in Iraq imperils our national interest and the hardcore insurgents are our mortal enemies. Talking of troop reductions is to lose sight of the goal.
Put those debates behind you, America. Pay no attention to the incompetence, the insanity, the lying. Move on. Oh, but keep shoveling your soldiers and your dollars into this nightmare sold to you via incompetence, lunacy, and lies. Why? Because, dammit,
  1. "the general insurgency in Iraq imperils our national interest" [how, exactly?] and
  2. "the hardcore insurgents are our mortal enemies" [why, exactly?].
If you're waiting for some reason to accept these assertions, well, don't; West just makes them and, well, moves on. It's enough to make you think that he has no sufficiently good reasons, honestly. And check out where he goes next:
Second, America's conscience is one of its greatest strengths. But self-flagellation, especially in the early stages of a war against an enemy whose worldview is uncompromising, is absolutely hazardous. Three years gone and Iraq's most famous soldiers are Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, a victim and a criminal, respectively. Abu Ghraib remains the most famous battle of the war.
No, Abu Ghraib is not "the most famous battle of the war." What about the fall of the Saddam statue and "Mission Accomplished"? No, wait—those were the most famous photo ops. What about Fallujah and Haditha? Okay, bad examples. What about the capture of Saddam and the killing of his brutal sons? You'd be on firmer ground there, at least. And as for "most famous soldiers," what about Marlboro Man, the Face of Fallujah? Oh, wait—he's out of the service now and suffering from PTSD. (And I'd like to make absolutely clear that I don't find that funny. Not all irony is comic; far from it. Never forget that irony overlaps with tragedy as well.)

You know, I don't doubt that this war has seen many acts of both great heroism and great humanity. But do you, like me, get a cold chill (perhaps it's Willem Dafoe's hand at work again) as West nods afterthoughtishly at "America's conscience" and quickly dismisses concern about fundamental human rights violations as "self-flagellation"—all on the way to lamenting that, dammit, we remember too many bad things about this war?

Soldiers are sick of apologizing for a sliver of malcontents who are not at all representative of the new breed. But they are also sick of being pitied. Our warriors are the hunters, not the hunted, and we should celebrate them as we did in the past, for while our tastes have changed, warfare - and the need to cultivate national guardians - has not. As Kipling wrote, "The strength of the pack is the wolf."
Where are we going now? What "new breed"? Who's pitying whom, and for what? Is West making an allusion to Plato here? What exactly is he suggesting? He was talking about Abu Ghraib a moment ago; is he now suggesting that, to breed the best "guardians," our republic must look politely away as our "hunters" sharpen their fangs on helpless captives? What does hunting have to do with torture, anyway? Some of West's fellow "hunters" would seem to have a problem with this. It might be worth nothing, too, that Plato compares his ideal guardians not to wolves but to pedigreed dogs: spirited but not savage; gentle to the right people, terrible only to the wrong (see Republic 375b-e). It's not a terribly flattering comparison, either way. And as for "the strength of the pack," I can only quote a Freeper:
...I would submit that the strength of the pack is the "alpha male" (our President). He needs to constantly sell this war and that includes shaming anyone who beatches or complains (the way Murtha, Kerry and the rest do constantly).
If George W. Bush is the strength of our pack, then God help us. And no, I don't know what beatches means, either.

We're almost done with West's piece, and there's still no sign of a clear thesis. Let's see if the final paragraphs get us any closer.

Finally, today's debates are not high-spirited so much as mean-spirited. To allow polarizing forces to dominate the argument by insinuating false motives on one side or a lack of patriotism on the other is to obscure long-term security decisions that have to be made now.

We are clashing with an enemy who has been at war with us in one form or another for two decades. Our military response may take decades more. We have crossed several rivers and the nation is hoping that ahead lie streams. But if they are oceans, we should heed Lincoln's call: "With malice toward none, with charity for all ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

And that's it. With a further flourish of his lanky Illinoisan framing device, West brings things to a close. If you're wondering who precisely the enemy is that we've been at war with for two decades—Islam? Muslims? terror? terrorism? terrorists? most of these are abstract concepts, against which one cannot really wage war, and all of them have been around much longer than twenty years; it is possible that West himself isn't sure?—well, don't. West may not say so, but some in his cheering section clearly think that "the enemy" is Islam, and by extension all Muslims, as witness this comment by one Billll:
We are clashing with an enemy who has been at war with us in one form or another for two decades.”

Begging the Majors pardon, but we’ve been fighting these guys since our country was founded, as his own service anthem celebrates “The shores of Tripoli”.
We will continue to fight them untill the last American has become Muslim, or untill the last mosque is converted to a McDonalds.
Mmmmm. McRibs in Mecca.

And here I thought the Barbary Wars were about piracy, not religion. Guilt By Association: it's not just a fallacy; it's a way of life.

Are you any clearer now on what West's thesis is? I'm still not, but looking back at all the bold bits, here's the picture that forms; it's still fuzzy and indistinct, but given the paucity of good reasons for West's position, I fear that this nebulousness is intentional:

We're at war, never mind against what, whom, or why, so let's all stop thinking, arguing, and criticizing and pull together in this struggle against whatever or whomever, whyever.
Note that the "open letter" from the founders of West's organization, Vets for Freedom, echoes the themes—and the vagueness—of West's op-ed:
We are at the beginning of a long war that is hampered by the shortsighted. While our nation's wars have been populated by occasional confusion, today representatives from both parties and the media exhibit a limited focus that threatens the long-term success of an effort to end terror and tyranny that will go beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. Short-term frustrations have deteriorated a debate that should center on unifying, long-term goals. A new voice is needed. A voice of expertise. A voice of sacrifice. The voice of the veteran.
So we're actually at war with "terror and tyranny"—never mind that we cannot wage literal war on abstract concepts, or that it seems highly unlikely that we could ever actually eradicate such things, or that the harms involved in trying to do so might exceed the harms these things already cause, or that the upheaval of war might only produce more of both. Never mind that there are plenty of things we could do to protect ourselves against terrorists (the real threat, surely) that don't involve squandering lives and resources in manufactured wars that do nothing to make us safer. Oh, well; at least they only call it "an effort"—as if acknowledging a certain built-in futility.

George Santayana is credited with having defined a fanatic as someone who redoubles their efforts when they have forgotten their aim. Do we have a word for people who redouble their efforts without any clear aim in the first place?

Earlier West alluded to a famous Kipling quotation; here's the whole thing:

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
Now check out now the VFF founders' letter ends:
Today we ask you to join our ranks. Please join us in fighting for this noble cause.

The strength of the wolf is in the pack.

How about it, pack? Should we find some wolves with clearer vision—or keep following the astigmatic ones off the cliff?

He certainly got his Goebbels on!

16. Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
a. Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat

b. Propaganda must diminish anxiety (other than concerning the consequences of defeat) which is too high and which cannot be reduced by people themselves

17. Propaganda to the home front must diminish the impact of frustration.
a. Inevitable frustrations must be anticipated

b. Inevitable frustrations must be placed in perspective

18. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

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