Friday, December 29, 2006

Tightening the noose

"They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town"

—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row (1965)

Despite assurances that television coverage will be “tasteful” in the U.S., the videotape of Saddam Hussein’s impending execution may be broadcast over Iraqi television and, inevitably thereafter, over the internet. Think YouTube, or if executives become attuned to the commercial possibilities of the event, even Pay-Per-View. Nor is it hard to imagine Fox News endlessly replaying the fatal plunge, to the strains of patriotic music (as in the opening salvoes of Shock and Awe) while the crawler recaps the latest NBA scores. The music pauses, perfectly timed so we can hear the distinctive rupture of cervical vertebrae, which some have likened to a broomstick snapping in half while wrapped inside a wet towel.

The exact method of hanging hasn’t yet been disclosed. Will the Maliki government inflict maximal suffering by using piano wire instead of the traditional hemp rope, as Hitler ordered for the plotters who failed in their attempt to assassinate him in 1944*? Will Saddam be stripped naked to add humiliation to the extreme suffering of this form of execution? Will Saddam’s many enemies, like Hitler before them, watch the video over and over, laughing and gloating with their friends? If a hemp rope is used, will the hangman—perhaps deliberately—tie the noose so sloppily that Saddam will slowly strangle? In the atavistic spirit of the times, will Saddam's head be displayed on a pike on the highway from the airport to central Baghdad?

Given the traditional respect for human life in the U.S., as evidenced by our great restraint in executing only 1,057 prisoners in recent years, celebrations will be discreet and subdued. In his most private moments, though, it’s easy to imagine a grinning George Bush extending a few high fives over the demise of the man who plotted the assassination of his father.

Saddam’s execution will also eliminate a delicate problem: if he had been given a life sentence, how could his eventual escape from Iraqi custody—and even an unthinkable return to power—be avoided? Now it appears that the Iraqi government won’t even be trusted to manage Saddam’s execution. The U.S. will retain custody up to the final moment, although the task itself will undoubtedly be outsourced to an Iraqi hangman and his assistants.

Supporters of the death penalty, in the U.S. and elsewhere, will look on in envy at the rapidity of the Iraqi judicial process from judgment to execution:

The trial judgment was not finished when the verdict and sentence were announced on November 5. The record only became available to defence** lawyers on November 22. According to the tribunal's statute, the defence attorneys had to file their appeals on December 5, which gave them less than two weeks to respond to the 300-page trial decision. The appeals chamber never held a hearing to consider the legal arguments presented as allowed by Iraqi law. It defies belief that the appeals chamber could fairly review a 300-page decision together with written submissions by the defence and consider all the relevant issues in less than three weeks.

This unseemly haste, though apparently consistent with Iraqi law, compounded the problems of a trial that many observers consider unduly influenced by the Shiite government and, by implication, the U.S.:

The momentary elation over Saddam's demise among those who suffered under his regime will not outweigh or outlast the loss of a unique opportunity to establish a clear record of his regime's criminality. The flawed trial and a fast-track execution send a clear signal that political interference is still very much a feature of the judicial process in the new Iraq.

So our culture gears up for another exercise in the necrophilia that Chris Hedges so ably describes as part of the "pornography of violence" and its "dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque."

No doubt the administration will spin the execution of Saddam as one of its—and the Maliki regime's—rare "successes" in Iraq. But it should also give George Bush pause to reflect on one possible fate of tyrants who engage in wars of aggression and crimes against humanity.***


*For a detailed account of Hitler's brutal response to the July plot, I highly recommend Marie Vassiltchikov's Berlin Diaries: 1940-45.

**My proofreader insists that I point out the following: this quote is from the London Guardian and the Brits spell "defence" with a "c." Noah Webster's spelling reforms never took root on the other side of the pond. I read, though I forget where, that English-speaking students spend 30% more time studying spelling than their peers in other countries.

***Some Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Reid, have already rallied around the proposal for a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq. Maybe the new majority party should devote some of its energies to evaluating the conduct of administration officials through the prism of the Nuremberg Principles and other standards of international law.

UPDATE (January 1, 2007)

Once again I've learned that one should never underestimate how much things can go wrong for the U.S. in Iraq. I at least expected Saddam's execution to proceed with a crisp patina of professionalism. As recounted by the New York Times and others, however, it was quite the opposite. It degenerated into a shouting match between Saddam and the Saddrist witnesses and executioners, resulting in the release of the trap door just as Saddam was reciting his final prayer. Not to mention the last-minute "workarounds" of Iraqi law that allowed the hasty execution to proceed with minimal preparation, as described by Glenn Greenwald.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The blame game

Claiming, a month after the November elections, that "now is the time to speak up," Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon denounced the administration's handling of the Iraq war and stated on CNN:
"And I felt I had to speak out because if we're going to be there, let's win; if we're not, let's -- let's at least fight the war on terror in a way that makes sense."
As if "winning" is a “choice.”

In such statements, we're already beginning to see the opening rounds of the political wars and recriminations that will rage in the wake of the U.S. catastrophe in Iraq. Who will write the history of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and on what terms? The basic outlines of that debate are visible in the “back-stabbing” mythologies that evolved decades ago (and continue to this day) around the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. For example, one "ex soldier" writes to the London Telegraph:

" must recognize that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam because of a lack of will, not a lack of ability to win, and that the consequences of retreat were horrific for the people of Southeast Asia. The lesson to be learned is that we must NEVER retreat, but on every front fight on until we are victorious... The defenders of Western Civilisation - America, the U.K., Australia et. al. are the GOOD GUYS. Keep the big picture in mind, and never lose the will to win!" [Note the writer’s assumption that a continued war, lasting for many more years, would’ve somehow been less “horrific” for the people of Southeast Asia, while producing a better result.]

Four decades before the Vietnam debacle began, Nazi propagandists and other nationalists promoted the notion that the "November criminals" had betrayed the allegedly "undefeated" German army by signing both an armistice and the oppressive treaty of Versailles that ended World War I in 1919. This Dolchstosslegende ("stab-in-the-back legend") became a powerful instrument for blaming Weimar politicians, communists, Jews and liberals for the German defeat and subsequent economic collapse.

This "back-stabbing" slander, which has since been refined and extended, has many advantages for its proponents, including:

  1. It attributes a nation’s defeat to failures by one’s political enemies—usually incompetent and possibly treasonous politicians—rather than a lack of military prowess. In one variation on this motif, blame can also be extended to a civilian population that is allegedly indifferent to the conflict or unwilling to sufficiently “sacrifice” to support it.

  1. It perpetuates the notion of one’s ultimate moral and military superiority over the nation’s enemy in the face of a humiliating and possibly emasculating defeat.

  1. It tries to deter and isolate antiwar critics by suggesting that they embolden the enemy and undermine morale. George W. Bush, for example, has stated: “These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will... As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.”

Lack of will, to the Greeks, was akrasia— the inability to conform behavior to the principles or values one professes. “Will” is often presented as an abstraction, usually as one aspect of strength of character. But the verb “to will” is transient: it’s directed towards something. It can’t be separated from the motivation and values that generally animate our conduct. These values, depending on their importance to the warmaking elites and ordinary citizens, determine the level of “will” or motivation that a nation brings to a conflict.

The motivation to wage war is highest, of course, when a nation is directly attacked. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the first direct assault on U.S. territory by a foreign invader since the War of 1812—was a powerful stimulus to mobilization and the drive for final unconditional victory. The connection between Al Qaida and the Taliban government of Afghanistan was sufficiently clear to generate strong support for a retaliatory invasion after the attacks of September 11th.

The perception that Iraq was also an imminent threat to the U.S.—strengthened by Colin Powell’s forceful presentation on WMD’s to the U.N.—generated an upwelling of early support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. So did the widespread but counterfactual belief that there was some connection between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida. The WMD rationale evaporated early in the war, and successive justifications have become increasingly untenable. At this writing, 70% of respondents in an ABC/Washington Post poll disapproved of Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

The assumption behind the back-stabbing hypothesis is that military success is a function of the quantum of “will” that each opponent brings to a conflict. “Will” is seen as evidence of the strength of character necessary to persevere in the face of the inevitable hardships inflicted by a protracted military conflict.

By this standard, did a "weak" Lyndon Johnson and Democratic leadership “choose” defeat in Vietnam? A sufficiently large U.S. force, perhaps double the 500,000 troops committed by 1968, might have held off the Vietcong and North Vietnamese for another dozen years or even indefinitely. Given the political "will" to persevere, the American advantages in air superiority, armor and technology could’ve limited the scope of any military successes by the Vietnamese. At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine any conclusive victory against a nationalist movement that enjoyed the active, and probably growing, support of a large portion of the Vietnamese population. It’s also difficult to imagine the devastating effects of an even longer war on the Vietnamese people.

It’s an old axiom of guerilla warfare that the insurgents only need to survive—they don’t need to win. An even longer war of attrition in Vietnam, against a highly motivated opponent, was politically unacceptable in the U.S. A hundred or more combat deaths per week, and a continuing military draft, were too high a price for a war with unclear objectives and a diminishing sense of any real threat to the U.S. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, faced with the reality that military victory was not possible, finally opted for a political settlement in 1973 on essentially the same terms that were available to the U.S. when secret negotiations began in 1969.**

Can George Bush choose victory in Iraq, if only the rest of us would do enough moral calisthenics to strengthen our “will” to win? The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq can easily be overstretched*, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation where either side could achieve a decisive military victory in Iraq. As in Vietnam, the U.S. would likely prevail in setpiece battles between conventional forces. So the insurgents will avoid them and continue their strategy of relatively low-intensity but widespread guerilla attacks using technologies that date to World War II and earlier.

With or without the proposed "surge" of U.S. troops, there can be no military solution to the war in Iraq for either side. No administration will commit a half-million troops for another decade, or more, to end a threat that the American public can no longer perceive. Even such a massive infusion of U.S. troops might not produce anything that could seriously be called a long-term “victory.” The likely result is an expanded war of attrition, similar to what we see already, and further devastation of Iraq and its people.

War is an instrument of policy. The final test of success is whether the political goals that animate military action have been achieved. If not, victory in battle is nearly as irrelevant as Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at New Orleans fifteen days after the end to the War of 1812 had been negotiated.

Behind the provocative rhetoric of people like Senator Smith, there are just two likely results for the war in Iraq. The first would be an immediate U.S. withdrawal, regardless of the consequences, on the theory that the Iraqis have shown themselves incapable of taking the opportunity—so generously given to them by us—to rebuild a country whose destruction we precipitated. The second would be a political settlement of some kind that will be highly unfavorable to U.S. “interests”—which are rarely described in detail, but can easily be imagined—in Iraq and the region.

The rest is wilfull fantasy.


*One critical difference: in Vietnam, the U.S. had no trouble identifying its negotiating partners, despite early disputes about the shape of the table for the Paris peace talks.

**On November 3, 1969, Nixon addressed the nation and asked for support from "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans" for his Vietnam strategy. He said: "...the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris...North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."

UPDATE: As noted in an excellent analysis ("Surging to Disaster") in the American Prospect, Fred Kagan's trendy proposal for a "surge" in U.S. troop is called "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq."

GRAPHIC: Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, 1815 (Engraving by H. B. Hall after W. Momberger.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

By the numbers

While official Washington awaits its imagined deliverance in the form of the Baker-Hamilton commission report, nine American troops were killed in Iraq this weekend, bringing the total for the war to 2,900. An additional 21,572 American troops have been wounded since March, 2003. 92% of all fatalities suffered by Coalition forces were Americans. 346 foreign contractors, mainly Americans, have also been killed.

Estimates of Iraqi deaths vary wildly, from a controversial high estimate of 655,000 to a very low (from the Shiite government of Iraq) of 24,418. By the Iraqi government's estimate, 66% of all Iraqi deaths have occurred since February of 2006. I've found few attempts to document or even estimate the number of wounded Iraqis.

In Afghanistan, 356 American troops have been killed and another 962 wounded to date. So far this year, 187 Americans have been killed there, the highest total by far since the war began late in 2001. 70% of all Coalition fatalities in Afghanistan have been Americans.

Estimates of Afghan casualties are very outdated and therefore low, though by one account the combined total for Iraq and Afghanistan is 717,381 killed and 1,376,559 "seriously injured" as of November 13th.

Numbers, like words ("civil war"), have become highly politicized. Those who acknowledge the full cost of the war are accused, like "Nightline" in May of 2004, of making an ideological statement.

But even the enormous numbers described above understate the effects of war. Each one of these numbers represents not only an individual victim but also a family and a circle of friends whose lives have been changed forever. With no end in sight.

In Iraq, each violent death and injury has a profound ripple effect on those thousands of family members and friends, and across their society, generating hatred and a desire for vengeance against the country that brought a war of choice to Iraq. The U.S. will be dealing with the effects of those ripples for generations.
Source (except as noted by links): Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (which also includes Afghanistan). This site is extremely detailed and well-documented.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Return of an urban legend

On September 10th, The Oregonian published a story by reporter Seth Prince under the headline "Once a protester, now a supporter of troops." The story itself was an account of the purported transformation of a former protester against the Vietnam and Iraq wars into a "supporter of the troops," as if those were mutually exclusive positions.

It's unlikely that Mr. Prince wrote the headline, and there was little hint that he considered any of the implications of his story. But the headline and his story combined to offer yet another variation on a nauseatingly familiar theme: war protesters don't support the troops in Iraq, encourage their enemies and undermine morale.

This is a classic straw-man argument: those who oppose the war necessarily, and even deliberately, undermine our troops. Fortunately, a majority of American voters have now rejected George Bush's manipulative suggestion that questioning the war endangers the troops in Iraq.

Over the last forty years, I've attended numerous demonstrations against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and at each one the overwhelming majority of protesters expressed unequivocal support for American troops while challenging the flawed policies and assumptions that placed them in harm's way. In my experience, admittedly a long series of anecdotes, nearly all antiwar marches were led by protesters holding a large banner that read "Support Our Troops - Bring Them Home Now" (or some variation of that sentiment).

This is not to deny that some U.S. troops have demonstrably participated in atrocities, both in Vietnam and Iraq. Still, I have yet to hear an opponent of either war express anything short of full support for American troops and a strong desire to bring them home quickly and safely. The real lack of support has come from the Bush Administration, which has provided nothing to the troops but flawed assumptions, inept leadership and inadequate forces and equipment.

We can only hope that returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts will receive better treatment from politicians, the Veteran's Administration and their fellow citizens than their predecessors in Vietnam, who faced widespread indifference.

Yet the myth persists that the worst abuses of Vietnam veterans came from war protesters, who purportedly spat on them and called them "baby killers" at airports when they returned home. In Rambo: First Blood (1982), the title character states at one point that he returned home from the war and saw "all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby killer..."

Even if such incidents occurred, I'm convinced that they were extremely rare. Bob Greene, a veteran, claims to have documented 63 spitting incidents in The Homecoming, his 1989 book. But the underground newspapers of that period are full of articles and letters expressing unqualified sympathy and support, to the extent of providing assistance to AWOL soldiers and deserters (like at Portland's Shelter Half).

Other journalists have taken a close look at this question and concluded that the "trashing" of the troops never happened at all. Chris Clarke, in an angry article for Counterpunch in 2003, called the myth a "damned lie." In his 1998 book, The Spitting Image, Vietnam Veteran Jerry Lembcke confronted the myth directly and found no evidence whatsoever to support it, concluding that it's an urban legend.

Perhaps researchers will eventually determine whether Vietnam veterans were, in fact, confronted or abused by antiwar activists--and if so, on what scale. Popular films like Rambo, The Deer Hunter and Forrest Gump seemed to help create a false historical memory that has evolved into a common assumption, perpetuated primarily by the right, that is intended to drive a permanent wedge between the antiwar movement and the rest of the country. The result is a myth that has little or no factual basis and is, to many of us who challenged the war, deeply offensive.

Meanwhile, such tired arguments from four decades ago continue to be thrown in the face of those who oppose the Iraq war while supporting the U.S. troops who wage it. George W. Bush partied through the Vietnam war
at least when he wasn't campaigning for Republicansand Dick Cheney had "other priorities," as he admitted. So the rest of us, especially our troops in Iraq and their families, have to pay the price while they relearn the lessonsand repeat the mistakes--of forty years ago.