Depressing Thoughts on Our Victory

by Stanley Meisler

April 29, 2003

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others...The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.”

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

I have some depressing thoughts about our victory in war:

1. Those of us who opposed the war were probably right. Iraq posed no danger to Americans. It had few, if any, prohibited weapons ready to strike. No link with terrorism was ever proven. No doubt Saddam Hussein was a despicable tyrant but we have always tolerated - and still do - a globe full of them. But none of this really matters. We might as well, like Lear, rail at the wind and storms. History belongs to the victors. Only they can gloat. We started the war in 1898 on a pretext, and 200,000 Filipino civilians died after we liberated them from Spain. But, what matters in school textbooks, is that Teddy Roosevelt roared up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders and the war christened the United States as an imperial power. The other stuff belongs to dissertations and footnotes. It will do little good for opponents of the war to shout we were right. That debate is over.

2. Yet it is well for us to remember how depressing the war was and to work hard to make the dissertations and footnotes right.

3. An anthropology professor at Columbia University told war protesters that he hoped for “a million Mogadishus.” That was a heartless hope from a foolish man. But I think I understand some of the motivation behind his stupid hyperbole. There never was any doubt that American military might would lay Iraq low. Arab intellectuals elsewhere in the Middle East told journalists they wanted Saddam Hussein to fall but to bloody America’s nose as he fell. In a sense they hoped for a handful of Mogadishus. Some anti-war Americans may have felt a little bit like that. When television’s retired generals and colonels drew their arrows and circles and moved their toy tanks on massive maps, it was possible to think of the war as a game and understand why critics of the war might hope that a few checks here and there would temper the arrogance of the Bush Administration. Yet, what a terrible and depressing thought! Once television switched from the studio to the war, it became obvious what “a few checks here and there” really meant. It meant that bewildered American kids would die, kids who joined the Army or the Marines after high school to learn a trade, many poor, many black, many Hispanic, all steeled by duty and patriotism. You could not wish them harm. My heart sank when some did fall.

4. Yet I felt just as depressed when Iraqis fell, and many, many more did. The civilian casualties were terrible, of course. But I even felt depressed at all the talk about our bombers “softening” units of the Iraqi army. I could imagine soldiers from poor peasant families cowering in their barracks in fear while we rained missile after missile on them. Of course, once war begins, we cannot expect our soldiers to refrain from killing. But Congress has called on the Bush Administration to “seek to identify families of non-combatant Iraqis who were killed or injured or whose homes were damaged during recent military operations, and to provide appropriate assistance.” I wish we would do more. I would like us to rid ourselves of all the fogging euphemisms, own up to all the Iraqi civilians we killed, and express honest compassion and regret. But I suppose I am what Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard calls a “casualty-weenie.”

5. Think tanks, European governments and humanitarian outfits want us to turn conquered Iraq over to the United Nations, but that is not likely to happen. To do so might prove wise: It would give our adventure some sort of belated international legitimacy and demonstrate that we came to conquer but not colonize. Moreover, as proved in Somalia and Haiti, we are powerful enough to bend any UN peacekeeping operation to our will. Under pressure from Tony Blair, President Bush has promised that the UN will have a vital role in the future of Iraq. But vital is one of those two-cent words that sound as if they are worth a lot more. Hot dog vendors are “vital” for baseball games. But a myriad of other people are more vital. Bush and his aides have a sneering disdain for the UN. The president, after all, branded it as irrelevant in the pre-war machinations. The ideologues around him look on the UN as an infringement of American sovereignty. They want post-war Iraq to be an American show. As a senior administration official told the New York Times, “We are in control on the ground and creating facts on the ground. Iraq will not be put under a UN flag. The UN is not going to be a partner.” Rather than give the UN something to do, their first step will probably be to take something away. They do not want the UN to keep administering the oil-for-food program. They want Iraqi oil to pay for the American-imposed reconstruction. Of course, if things fall apart, and American reconstruction looks like a disaster, Bush might call on the UN to take over and absorb blame. But that’s a long way off.

6. True believers run the Bush Administration. That is an odd development in a world that has largely given up ideology. About the only true believers left in the world these days are incorrigible communists, the zealots around Osama Bin Laden, and, in more measured and reasonable tones, the zealots around Bush. Europe gave up ideology even before the Cold War ended. The US seemed to give it up with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy more than 40 years ago. His coterie preached pragmatism. They scorned shibboleths. What worked, worked. But we are now ruled by a set of ideologues ruled by dogma. We are just beginning to make this out. In foreign affairs, they believe in divinely-ordained American power and the need to wield it. If others go along, fine. If not, not. God set us on earth as a model for all, and we have the right to impose that model for the good of all. They are not mad. They do not intend to fight everyone at once. But they have faith in the wonderful ripple effects of American power once the world knows we are unafraid to wield it. The world would have been far more orderly and democratic, in their view, if we had not been hesitant about using it before. As Lt. General Jay Garner, the American czar of the new Iraq, told the New York Times, we failed in Vietnam because we were not bold. “We should have taken the war north instead of waiting in the south,” he said. “Just like here. If President Bush had been president, we would have won.” The Bush zealots promise a future even more wonderful than communism promised. We conquer when necessary, breathe fire at a frightened world, and tyrants fall, terror dies, rogues disarm, democracy flourishes, order prevails, and peace reigns. It’s hard not to wish them well. After Vietnam, intellectuals talked about the arrogance of power. But there is also a power in arrogance. President Bush has shown us that believing in something wholeheartedly and preaching it incessantly gives you enormous strength - no matter how outrageous the belief. Ideology, as the 20th century taught us, is dangerous and difficult to dislodge.

7. We are furious with France. The French are weasels and surrender-monkeys, their wine deserves boycott, and their fries (which are really Belgian) need a new name. What angers the Bush people most is that the French not only announced they would veto war at the UN but campaigned so hard for their position that we could not muster a majority of the Security Council to our side. The Bush Administration has firmly planted the notion that the French acted out of greed. I do not believe that is so. It is true that France received almost $2.5 billion worth of contracts, more than any other country, to supply Iraq with goods under the UN oil for food program from March 1997 to January 2001. But, if greed were paramount, France’s wisest course would have been to rally around Bush’s war early. If not greed, what? I think there are two motives for France’s policy. First, Chirac and Dominique de Villepin really did believe that our case against Saddam on weapons was woefully inadequate and therefore a flimsy pretext for preemptive and personal war. But principle alone would not have powered the French. The second motive was a lingering French feeling (rooted in the era of De Gaulle) that the world needs some kind of European counterweight to American power – especially now that the end of the Cold War has left Russia weak. Since Europe has little military might, France could do no more about the Iraq war than attempt to block us with UN maneuvering. It is easy to sneer at such posturing. Europe seems too squabbly and peaceniky to ever counterweigh us. Yet we must not forget that Europe is as rich as we are and that Chirac’s anti-warmongering hit a chord with most Europeans. If Europe were united as one nation, Chirac would probably have been elected its president, burying Tony Blair in a landslide. Our sneering and chest thumping is kind of childish. In the long run, we are better off with France and Old Europe on our side. Generosity, rather than contempt, strikes me as the wisest course. But Bush seems intent on schoolboy punishment. When he attends the world economic summit in the French resort of Evian later this Spring, he plans to snub his hosts by sleeping in a hotel across the border in Switzerland. Take that, you dastardly Frenchies!

8. It is tempting now to play Cassandra: A fundamentalist Muslim state is forming in Iraq, allied to the ayatollahs of Iran. The hatred of the Arab street in the Middle East is so great that a thousand Osama Bin Ladens are emerging. The United States will never regain its lost prestige. Iraqi scientists are loose selling the secrets of mass destruction to terrorists. Iraq will break and bleed like Yugoslavia. We must leave in three months. We must stay for five years. In fact, those of us who once warned that war unleashes unforeseen consequences must accept that the consequences are still unforeseen. We do not know where a conquered Iraq is going and how it will impact the Middle East. The great newspapers of America - the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times - did a wonderful job covering the war, creating order and context and meaning out of the circus chaos we witnessed on television. Now, while the American public gradually loses interest, our great newspapers must do an even better job at monitoring the peace. That is much to ask - especially if those gloating over victory ignore what is written. But it is crucial to our understanding of this depressing adventure and its aftermath.

April 29, 2003
Washington D.C.

see also:

Removing Tyrants
October 4, 2004

The Chaos of Iraq
June 7, 2004

Democracy: One Man, One Vote, Once
November 14, 2003

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

A Frightening Performance on Iraq
October 16, 2002

Impasse in Iraq
December 11, 1998

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