Thursday, January 11, 2007

Apocalypse soon

“He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.”

—General Corman describing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now

Perhaps the most salient quality of George Bush’s speech on Iraq was its paucity of imagination. There were no real surprises, nothing that hadn’t been foreseen weeks ago. It reads like an internal memo that had been jazzed up slightly for the Thursday morning press briefing in the Pentagon Press Room.

And it contained no evidence that Bush had altered his policies one iota in response to the election, the Iraq Study Group report, the decline in his approval ratings, the dismal failures of past strategies or anything else that might influence a rational political leader. To return to the theme of an earlier posting (December 13th), the man is plunging forward into the abyss, bringing our troops and the Iraqis with him, on sheer force of will. This tendency recalls more lines from Apocalypse Now*, spoken here by the demented Col. Kurtz as he describes a fictitious atrocity** committed by his enemy against a group of Vietnamese children:
“And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God... the genius of that. The genius.*** The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure…You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us… The horror…the horror…”
Bush now proceeds “without judgment,” and in so doing he ignores the judgments of so many others. He strives for a will that is “perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure…” As if all he needs is a will to persevere greater than his enemy’s. Except, for Bush and Cheney, the object of all their willing has been downgraded considerably since the war began: The men who wanted to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome would be content to avoid a humiliating defeat and withdrawal before their term ends. Even that is likely beyond their reach.

The specifics of the speech are hardly worth repeating, with a few exceptions. One obvious flaw in the Bush plan is set forth in this excerpt:

“The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi Army and National Police brigades across Baghdad’s nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi Army and National Police brigades committed to this effort — along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations — conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.”

“Door-to-door?” We can only imagine how Baghdad residents, whether Shiite or Sunni, will react to armed men, of uncertain allegiance, knocking on their doors—especially the “local police.” As for the brigades assigned to this new campaign, a much smaller number of “committed” Iraqi units never materialized for the recent failed offensive in Baghdad. I’m reminded of the last days of the Third Reich, when the German leadership in their bunker mounted a fantasy defense of Berlin that relied on a dramatic rescue by whole divisions that no longer existed.

More briefly:

  • Bush also plans to “increase the embedding of American advisers in Iraqi Army units,” which will inevitably expose those advisers to intense house-to-house fighting, with a higher risk of death, injury or capture.
  • The strange proposal to ease de-Baathification laws may be too late to have any effect whatsoever, especially on the Iraqi military and police.

  • An “additional carrier strike group” also seems irrelevant to the war, unless F-16’s are going to start carpet-bombing Iraqi (or maybe Iranian and Syrian) cities.
  • The speech assumed that an amicable relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi governments will magically emerge, despite evidence of deepening conflicts.

So the “bipartisan working group” proposed by Bush will have a tough assignment, and so far the only obvious choices for such a group are John McCain and Joe Lieberman. If Bush hopes that the "Author of Liberty" will salvage the situation for him, it looks like he could have a long and unrewarding wait while the rest of us plunge into the Heart of Darkness.


*Maybe it's time to see Apocalypse Now once more, after many years. When I first saw it right after its release, I was disturbed by the emphasis on abstract "will" and, more broadly, its implications for the history of the Vietnam conflict. If the argument is "you just have to believe strongly enough in order to prevail," the question needs to be: "Believe in what?" The same question can be asked about another quality often attributed to George Bush: "discipline." Neither is an end in itself.

**As far as I can tell, the atrocity descibed in the film never occurred during the war. (A disclaimer of some kind during the credits would've been appropriate.)

***Admittedly this may be one of the few times that anyone has ever hinted that George Bush might possess any form of “genius.” I doubt that I’ll ever repeat it.

GRAPHIC: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

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