November 11, 2006

Naming the Crime: No Time for "Politics as Usual"

In a number of essays, I have discussed the tragic fact that almost no one in our governing or pundit class, with only a couple of exceptions, is willing to acknowledge that the invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are completely immoral and utterly unjustified at their foundation. It is not that this war of blatant aggression was executed "incompetently" or that it was "bungled." It was, is and always will be wrong, in the most damning sense of that word. One of the primary reasons our governing elites are unable and unwilling to acknowledge this truth is because they refuse to give up the myth of "American exceptionalism": the belief that we and only we represent and embody the "ultimate" successful answer to human life and civilization.

The failure and refusal to name the truth for what it is, even and especially when it is a deeply unpleasant, repugnant one, exacts still further costs. If we are unable to identify with precision the nature of what we have done and why it is so terribly wrong, we cannot proceed to make amends for our errors (to the extent we are able to do so) -- nor we will be able to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. To the contrary, by refusing to acknowledge the truth fully and shorn of the comforting equivocations most of us prefer, we ensure that future disasters will occur. I've written about the constellation of errors and myths that led us into the humiliation of Vietnam, and about how our inability to learn the lessons so painfully demonstrated there led to the destruction of Iraq only a few decades later. In all the most important ways, the dynamics were the same in both cases.

And now, all the indications are that we still refuse to learn these lessons. Some of us may prefer to think that many Democrats won this past week because they represented an "antiwar" position. Tragically, this is very, very far from the truth, although it may have been "antiwar" sentiment in a general sense that moved many voters. But that is not what most of the individuals they voted for represent. It is not the case that these politicians are "antiwar": they are simply opposed to losing. Noting Bush's still-plummeting approval rating, Billmon recalls this quote from the film, Patton:
"Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans." -- Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North, Patton, 1970
We saw this dynamic played out in an especially pathetic and transparent manner in this past week's Meet the Press, in the following exchange involving Elizabeth Dole and Rahm Emanuel:
SEN. DOLE: The Democrats appear to be content with losing because they’re to...

REP. EMANUEL: I really...

SEN. DOLE: No, no, I, I want to finish what I’m saying here because...

REP. EMANUEL: I, I, I, no, no, you made yourself—Senator, wait a little sec, Senator...

SEN. DOLE: No, I, I’m going to finish this.

MR. RUSSERT: That’s a very strong statement.

SEN. DOLE: It is a strong statement.

REP. EMANUEL: Yeah, senator, senator, you, you...

MR. RUSSERT: Senator, that’s a very strong statement. I think he, he deserves a right to respond, no, no, no.

REP. EMANUEL: Senator, that is not fair.

SEN. DOLE: Yeah, it is, but I would like to finish why...

MR. RUSSERT: You—I’ll let you back, but I’ll tell you, when you make a statement like that...

REP. EMANUEL: Senator, senator, senator.

SEN. DOLE: ...why, why they appear to be content to lose.

MR. RUSSERT: Excuse me. When you make a comment like that, I got to give the other side a chance to respond.

SEN. DOLE: But I do need to explain what I mean by that.

REP. EMANUEL: Senator. Senator, you, you, you said something that’s wrong.

SEN. DOLE: Osama bin Laden and, and, and they...

REP. EMANUEL: Democrats, Democrats have provided—wait a second, Senator. I’ve—I understand some. I will not sit si...

SEN. DOLE: No. Rahm, I want to finish what I said.

REP. EMANUEL: ...I will not sit idly by with an accusation that Democrats are content with losing.

SEN. DOLE: They appear to be content to lose...

REP. EMANUEL: We want to win and we want a new direction to Iraq because after three, three years—I’m—Tim...

SEN. DOLE: ...because when you pull out, this is losing. That we know that it becomes a breeding ground...

MR. RUSSERT: All right, hold on. Hold on. Time out, time out, time out.

REP. EMANUEL: Forget about it.

MR. RUSSERT: Time out. Time—time out. Time out, please.

SEN. DOLE: ...a breeding ground for terrorists. We’ve got Iran and Syria sitting there on each side of Iraq...

REP. EMANUEL: That, that’s wrong. You should take that back, Senator. We’ll have differences, but we do not disparage you like that, Senator.
We "will not tolerate a loser." To call someone a "loser" is the worst insult in American politics, and in American culture. "You should take that back," whines Emanuel, like a spoiled schoolyard brat. And we are incapable of admitting that we as a nation have "lost." The blatantly obvious truth that all these political propagandists ignore is that, because of our determined, unshakable ignorance about Iraq, its peoples, its culture and its history, we lost before the first American soldier set foot in that country.

As I pointed out in "Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam," this connects in another way to the view of our own "exceptionalism" -- and leads to the following result, among others:
Put it another way: no other country and no one else at all can ever defeat the United States. Only we can defeat ourselves -- which is precisely what Steyn himself says. It should be obvious how this leads into a messianic conception of the United States' role in human affairs: we are gods on earth -- or at least God's representatives on earth -- here to bring enlightenment to the inferior cultures and peoples who surround us. This conception of ourselves is not only dangerously wrong, but dangerously destructive and brutal: if we and only we have the key to humanity's future, then what are the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of inferior people -- or even the deaths of millions? If the world is to be saved, no price is too great and no pile of corpses, no matter how high, should deter us from our mission.
In a column that I recommend you read in its entirety, Robert Shetterly speaks to these issues very powerfully:
Before the votes were even counted, a strange chorus arose, like toads from the swamp, from every point on the Democratic compass --- so persistent, one might even think it choreographed --- croaking in a dire basso, "Now’s the time to work on fulfilling the Democrats agenda, not the time to hold anyone accountable for the massive corruption or the extraordinary lies that got us into this mess." Let’s be moderate, let’s be wise, the toads all intoned, let’s don’t disintegrate into partisan bickering about who’s responsible. And, pullleeeease, don’t even utter the word impeachment. No, no, no, let’s repeal the tax cuts for the rich, raise the minimum wage, enact universal health care, raise the mileage on our cars, sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, reduce the debt, fund our schools, fix social security, and work in a bi-partisan way toward an exit strategy from Iraq. All very sensible. Every single one of those things needs to be fought for if we want to have economic and social justice.

But, that’s not enough. I thought one of the corner stones of our democratic republic was the rule of law. Transparency. Accountability. ...

Massive crimes have been committed. Our administration has ridden roughshod on our Constitution as though it were a hobbled and blind cow. What-might-have-been looks like a bomb crater. So irresponsible and massive are the crimes that the perpetrators have changed the laws to avoid being held accountable for crimes against humanity. ... Hundreds of thousands of people are unnecessarily dead, many more hundreds of thousands maimed and wounded. The incredible debt undermines our economy and will plague our children. When is a crime so great that it shouldn’t be acknowledged? Or prosecuted? Do we pat Rummy & Dickie & Georgie & Connie on the butt and send them to the bench with a, “Nice game, kids. Let’s all be good sports and let someone else have a go at it”? Live and let live.


Arrogance, deceit and blatant crime are responsible for these crises. Not poor execution. Accountability is the way out. There is no reason why we can’t pass fair, life-saving legislation at the same time. We can walk and chew gum. We have grown so accustomed to living in a world of euphemism and double speak, so accustomed to not calling reality by its name, that we think there is no reality except what we can get away with, the reality that sells the product or “develops the resource.” Not true. Nature won’t be fooled. And we only imperil ourselves and our cherished institutions if we don’t hold ourselves accountable. It’s not about partisan revenge, it’s about naming the crime. Some very bad people have broken our laws, dashed our hopes, mortgaged our futures, broken our hearts, and betrayed our country. They need to pay the piper. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will we allow to hold us accountable for making things right?


[R]esponsibility demands an accounting, demands an earning back of national integrity by investigating the depth of the crimes. That’s called maturity. Our leaders have inflicted an enormous trauma on Iraq and on us. We will all be much healthier if we heal by inquiry and justice rather than repression.
I will have more to say in the next several days about what I think the highest priorities should be for the new Congress, but Shetterly captures a very large part of my perspective here.

If you want to prevent future crimes, you must name the crimes that have been committed. You must identify them comprehensively, accurately, and leaving nothing out. And you must apportion guilt and responsibility as the facts require.

What we have done in Iraq represents an unforgivable war crime (in fact, an endless series of war crimes), and a crime against humanity. If we wish to reclaim any vestige of our national honor and begin to restore our country's integrity, we must not simply point out a few of the errors, hold only the least powerful accountable, and "move on." We have seen that pattern with those abuses that we know about, as in the case of Abu Ghraib. We have seen how such falsehoods fail to stop atrocities, and permit the horrors to continue.

To stop them finally and at long last, we must tell the truth -- all of it, sparing no details and leaving out none of the particulars. Then we will be able to proceed into the future. We will still not have redeemed ourselves or earned forgiveness; that is not possible now or for many years to come, not after what we have done. But we will have honored the truth, and the dead and injured -- and we will have begun to make real a commitment to never again permitting ourselves the commission of such acts.

Some may object that such a course is not politically "smart," or that it will endanger the Democrats' chances in 2008. To such objections, I simply ask: Where in God's name are your priorities? Hundreds of thousands of innocent people are dead, tens of thousands are horribly injured, countless numbers have been and are being tortured, and the horrors still continue, day after blood-drenched day.

The United States government has committed acts of great evil. There is no other word for it. If we genuinely wish to get past this terrible moment in our history, we must tell the truth. All of it.

If we won't, we are playing at the edges, and deliberately ignoring the most vital and profound considerations of all. And we thereby guarantee that we will do it all again, just as we have demonstrated yet another, awful time. Can't we stop these horrors at last? I hope to God we can.