Monday, November 20, 2006

AS IF ON CUE

The previous Post mentioned General Abizaid’s visit to the Kennedy School of Government, wondering – in the process – if there are a few too many main stream media types who seem to enjoy being seen talking to Men in uniform.

The very next day I came across Lawrence F. Kaplan’s “The Troops and Us” in the online “New Republic” (www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?I=20061127&s=diarist112706). I am not one for coincidences, and so I must proceed as if on a mission from … elsewhere (var. Elsewhere).

He opens by establishing his Man creds: having dinner with “a senior Army officer”. Senior in relation to what rank? A Sergeant? A Captain? A Major-General? But we are quickly brought up to speed: this officer “commanded thousands” so, he’s a general officer (unless they are reely reely getting to the bottom of the barrel on the Eastern front). And he’s “too often, lifted their remains into helicopters”. Now that’s a scenario that gives pause: a helicopter is kinda a tactical thing, and generals being out where the tactics fly is kinda … not. Of course, it’s a scenario that let’s you know two things: a) Kaplan is much-man and seriously connected and b) the modern major-general weeps for his troops (alas, “he did for them all with his plan of attack”).

This officer confides to Kaplan that looking at news reports of Iraq nowadays “I don’t even recognize it”. Well: either it’s changed one hell of a lot and this general doesn’t know why or it hasn’t changed and this general or Kaplan or both are not just blowing smoke but laying it down like destroyers. But of course, Kaplan isn’t buying the scampi so that the general can embarrass them both by discussing how things went south. Nor is the general munching the scampi only to wreck his career prospects by dessert. No, Kaplan is here on a mission of mutual benefit: he proves his creds and gets grist for his particular mill, and the general gets to plug his kind as compassionate and reely powerful, and he gets the scampi and free liquor as afore-noted (if Kaplan tried this with a 17 year-old … well, they’re not promoting quite that fast on the Eastern front … yet, anyway).

The author had met this officer in Iraq, and that’s OK, because as Kaplan himself goes on to mention, there are a few too many professional commenters who don’t seem to have ever been in-country over there; not – again as Kaplan rightly observes – that such ignorance stops them from going on, and on and on.

These two – getting back to the preliminary scene-setting – are drinking (but of course; it’s what Men do), in a “grubby” joint where, for all we know, the mustachioed Italian bartender spits to polish the glasses in best 19th-century frontier style. There is a television above the bar (this is reely reely a joint). And, by propitious coincidence, it happens to be Election Day night and the drama is unfolding just over the horizon of the ice cubes. I cannot help but by amazed by the ‘coincidences’ that are presented to readers and viewers these days: one recalls – say – advocates for or against working-mothers who gushingly recount how their tyke delivered a poignant, acute and grammatically complex observation precisely supporting their position, out of the blue one day, which prompted (fill-in-the-blank having to do with this cause, this book, this show, or etc. etc. etc.). In this case, our two revelers muse upon a comment that the election will “doom the U.S. enterprise in Iraq”.

First off, let me say that I think the commenter was inaccurate: s/he should have said the U.S. enterprises in Iraq, since there are so many of them, emitting more than a whiff of the commercial, and their multiplicity, as well as the bald fact of their existence and the awesome incompetence with which they have been pursued, constitute a major factor in the military mess. Nor, could a reasonable person infer, might the military and the commercial be considered merely as sub-facets of the same overall plan, any more than –say – the SS commandeering of freight trains for transporting Ukrainian Jews could be considered merely as a professional collaboration paralleling the Wehrmacht project of trying to win the campaign in Russia.

Kaplan deftly notes that few commenters have actually gone to Iraq and gotten to know the situation. He’s right. And yet he knows he’s right. After all, his tours of the front have enabled him to be sitting here in this dive with some general. There seem to me to be a lot of Kaplans around; they all have more or less the same take on things, and I recall the Robert also prides himself on getting right in there with the … men in uniform. It was the Robert who, in 1996 interviewed young Majors at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth where one of them – perhaps also over brewskis in a local dive – confided cockily that the real manly men in the program were looking forward to the day when “we go domestic”. Kaplan (the Robert) seemed quite pleased to be graced with such a professional confidence, moving right along (the Kaplans are nothing if not crisp and efficient) without ‘unpacking’ that confidence: its content was truly disturbing, even more so in 1996 than a decade later. Deploying the Army domestically? One might have been forgiven for imagining that it would only be against sex-offenders, they being at that time the replacement for the recently-dissolved Soviets in the national demonology. But it appears now that the Army was thinking about Posse Comitatus and Habeas Corpus and the far-too-extensive rights of citizens long before 9-11.

Kaplan (the Lawrence) rightly casts a shadow on another (conservative) journalist’s sniffing that an actual trip to Iraq probably wouldn’t make him much the wiser. Even taken at face value, the comment tugs the jaw downward. You wonder just how many journalists actually know much about things they ‘report’ on these days. Then again, there isn’t much investigative reporting capability left any more. It appears that the new M.O. is to pick an obvious target, put a few scary but suggestive headlines out there, and wait for the ‘tips’ to come in. Or better: the horror-stories. Then you report yourself stenographizing the story and, with more or less lurid inferences, let the lower appetites of the readership/viewership take it from there. Given the number of people these days who seem to operate on the assumption that Feeling is as much of a decent day’s work as Figuring out the true state of affairs … well, you can run a paper, keep a show on the air, and professionally surf that crowd for quite a while.

But then again, it all depends on what aspect of Iraq one is concerned with. Someone who goes on about the morale of the troops without going in-country deserves no attention (which hardly means s/he won’t get it). Someone who doubts the legal or moral legitimacy of the military validity of the war and its strategy in the first place … there’s no demonstrable imperative to go over and talk to the troops (senior to others or not so). In fact, chumming with the little people (and may they be blessed) might distract that someone.

Loyalty and enthusiasm are wholly secondary virtues: their ‘goodness’ depends on what one is being loyal-to and enthusiastic-about. There are film clips extant of a parade field on a cloudy day, bright-eyed, fresh-scrubbed young men in faultless uniforms and crisp haircuts, concentrating intensely at their task under the barking eyes of senior NCOs. All music to a certain ear, and not wrongly so. But these were young SS bandsmen, perfecting the maneuvers they would exercise at the massive parade in honor of their Fuhrer’s 50th birthday.

So too then, hanging out with the troops in the front isn’t necessarily going to give you a clarity about the larger issues of a given war. In fact, this is precisely why a certain genre of mawkish slipperiness is a perennial at certain types of newspapers or in certain broadcasts: the I-couldn’t-oppose-this-war-because-I-met-little-(fill in the blank)-who’s-trying-to-win-it. Thus, chronological adults – and Citizens - allow their judgment to be swayed by the sentimental goop which some of the troops munch on for a quick pick-me-up. Adults who hang around youngsters and adopt their lifestyle and thoughts … that type of behavior nowadays is on certain police checklists. The French didn’t call it the ‘infanterie’ for nothing; they’re the youngsters. Yes they’re our youngsters, and they’re putting their lives on the line. But since we let them get sent over there in the first place, we aren’t doing them or ourselves any favors by giving up our judgmental capabilities and taking our emotional cue from them.

Troops at the front: just how reliable are their ideas about ‘stuff’? Are they going to tell you just what they figure you want to hear? After all, if they don’t like the war and they tell you that, you might tell their bosses (with whom you trade boozy insights in grubby dives) and they’d catch hell once your well-wiped ass gets back on a plane to the world. Or, if they do put on blinders and refuse to consider the wider implications or complications of said ‘stuff’ just so that they can get through the (increasingly) endless days, then just how valid is such (hugely understandable) ‘thought’ about the said ‘stuff’? But such ‘reporting’ seems to be the Kaplan (the whole of them) schtick.

Are we as The People going to allow our assessment of a war to be determined by the youngsters we send to fight it? It’s an iffy course to pursue in the best of wars, but in this one it’s a betrayal of ourselves as The People; a dereliction of the duty assigned to Us in the Great Scheme of the Republic. We’ve already let the thing get started, and now it’s going south. Now we want to make our initial failures worse by taking our guidance from the youngsters we sent over to live in the deforming furnace of battle? We as adults and as Citizens and as The People owe them so damned much more than that.

This bad stupid misadventure is going south. And it’s threatening, like a sinking liner, to take our troops with it. It’s already taken more than died in the 9-11. It’s taken 4 or 5 times as many again in physically wounded. It’s taken we-don’t-know-how-many in psychologically deformed. And how many will not be emotionally and spiritually deformed for life? This is not the Good War, people. Its own perpetrators now openly call it “the long war” and they apparently figured that it would be so long before they shared that thought with Us. This thing promises to get endless. And it is asymmetrical and it is frequently urban: there are no front-lines, therefore no ‘safe’ rear areas; only – with savage ironies – forts where the cavalry can hole up while ‘the Injuns’ control everything else. Enduring bases. We will all be enduring them for a long time, in consequences of our quick handing of the hot potato of 9-11 to ‘the National Command Authority’. Too quick.

We did this to those kids over there (who can even begin to comprehend what we have done to the Iraqis?). We failed to hold our horses and those horses ran away with the government wagon. Nicely, there is a plot being worked out in this year’s season of “Superman”: young Clark Kent, through his own impatient exploration of his powers and of his true nature and calling, allowed a passel of super-baddies, evildoers even in their own super-worlds, into our world. Now he’s trying to round them up before they kill any more than they already have. And despite the urgings of all his (few) loved ones and confidants that it’s not his fault if he ‘didn’t mean to’, he insists that the mess is his responsibility and continues his lonely and dangerous task of making things right as best he can.

We’ve let loose the dogs of war. We elected that stunning bunch in Washington City, twice. Nor have we allowed ourselves to complain. Here’s a mental exercise: imagine that a race of aliens arrives tomorrow (a less overtly religious variant of a vision that is presently ‘reality’ for a disturbingly large fraction of this population); they go around the galaxy and help worlds by holding them to their stated ideals and laws, and they’ve just dropped by. They neutralize all the weaponry and set up a Court to judge the Iraq war by this-world laws that were/are in effect. How do we explain ourselves? Not how Bush or the generals or the diplomats will spin themselves. How do we as a people, as The People, explain how it was that we allowed what we allowed with so pitiably little dissent? How is it that after the example of 1933 we allowed ourselves to behave so much like … well, Germans. Is it any surprise that our Army has taken to certain of the less-pleasant German attitude and tactics, since its People have assumed the vigorously supine position of the German people of 1933? Is it any surprise, more immediately, that our government is demonstrating some of the same characteristics as that government of 1933? (No, I am not making an equivalence, but I am noting some irrefutable similarities).

You do not easily commit your young to war. You do not do it because any – ANY – journey through the blood-dark valleys of Ares Ferox and Ares Atrox is going to leave a mark on soldiers. It was not just a pious custom that in early Christian times soldiers returning from wars were not permitted to receive Communion until they had gone through a period of cleansing. It was ASSUMED that they were tainted, because nobody – citizens, congregants, clergy – were under any damned illusions as to what war or War does to troops, no matter what side they’re on and no matter how Good their Cause and no matter how unintentional the evils consequent upon their operations.

But we – We – are indeed under such illusions. And it’s killing our troops, and not just the ones who come home in boxes by night (upon whom be peace eternal).

Nor do our veterans and their organizations do any service, seeking to be identified with, even photographed with, the whipmasters of this war. Worse than having ‘gone shopping’, they have ‘gone native’, forsaking the hard-won knowledge of Ares’ pomps and works, condemning another generation of youngsters to his maw, while they themselves seek cheap ‘purpose’ and stature by buttlicking the treachery in Washington City.

Mr. Kaplan is right enough that journalists should know what they’re talking about. His own niche (and it seems to be a family affair) is to go visit the troops and from them take increased devotion to the tasks set them by the government in Washington City, and then to frost that cake with a sentimental, self-indulgent, self-flattering, Man-mawkish, faux bonhomie that can only come from having a well-wiped ass, of which there are, at the front, very very few. And morally speaking, back here ‘at home’, there are even fewer.

We as a People have so much to do in this holiday season. Let’s not let the troops down. Our role as ‘the home front’ is as vital now as it was in the Good War 60 years ago. Not just baking cakes to send them; but doing the hard stern work of Peopling, for we are indeed The People of whom so much was written and from whom so much is expected. If there is any cavalry that’s going to come over the rise in the nick of time for our troops in Iraq, it’s going to have to be Us, our decisions resolutely reached and our will resolutely imposed on our Employees in Washington City. They want a ‘unitary executive’? We’ll give them a unitary People. It’s the American Way.

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