06 January 2005

Students of history

James Wolcott has a terrific little essay describing a few chilling details about how badly we've screwed up the occupation of Iraq, and he wraps it up with an interesting comment.

There's a Peter Cook - Dudley Moore routine, one of their woolgathering dialogues, where Dud asks Pete, "So would you say you've learned from your mistakes?" and Pete replies: “Oh yes, I'm certain I could repeat them exactly.”

That seems to have been the Bush administration's approach to Iraq. Take the mistakes of Vietnam and repeat them exactly.

And at that you can't say they haven't succeeded.

That's an obvious reading of what's happening in Iraq if you're a lefty, weaned on tales of how the Vietnam War was a doomed effort to crush a popular nationalist movement that spiraled into napalm-soaked madness as we tried to “win” an unwinnable war against the nation's own people. (Since it seems that one must belabour the obvious when talking about Vietnam, let me add that yes I am a lefty, and yes that is my reading of the war, but I also recognize that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese government were, in many important ways, very bad guys.)

But if you look a the rhetoric of ordinary Americans on the right when they talk about Iraq and Vietnam, I think it's clear that they too are trying to act on the lessons of Vietnam, but they have learned very different lessons. They rarely compare the two directly, but the story of Vietnam is lurking in the things they say about fighting in Iraq. To them, Vietnam was a failure of American will --- had we really tried hard enough of course we would have "won." But the meddling politicians, under pressure from the cowards in the antiwar movement, dishonorably stayed our military's hand.

They don't want to let that happen again. This time, there will be no failure of American will. This time, there will be no failure of American ruthlessness. This time, those liberal traitors won't be allowed to stab our troops in the back.

That first point makes me dread how deep we will walk into the quagmire, and the second makes me dread the things our nation will do in my name, but it's that last point that scares me personally.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your commentary. I am at a loss for words to add because I am overwhelmed daily with what is done in my name as an American.


Anonymous said...

People often attribute our debacles in the likes of Vietnam and Iraq to either evil (Cheney), arrogance (Rumsfeld), or ignorance/misguided patriotism (Bush and countless other right wingers).

I contend that there's another factor that is becoming more obvious as it raises its ugly head again and again: sheer incompetence. This country simply has no ability to gather intelligence, assess it objectively, or to think through unintended consequences BEFORE putting its plans into motion. Granted, we got into Iraq for all the wrong reasons (all three of the first factors I mentioned), but the magnitude of the debacle can only be blamed on incompetence. For example, not having the insight to protect Iraq’s power grid and cultural institutions, not understanding the consequences of firing half a million Iraqi soldiers and depriving them of the ability to support their families, not sealing Iraq’s borders, letting tons of Iraqi explosives fall into the hands of insurgents, etc., etc.

The same is absolutely true with respect to the current financial disaster: no understanding of the unintended consequences of providing easy money in order to foster an “ownership society,” an inability to assess the consequences of a lack of regulation of complex financial instruments, no ability to assess the consequences of subsidizing Wall Street’s losses while stripping bondholders of their right to protect their interests (e.g., Chrysler’s bondholders), etc., etc.

It seems that the world has simply become too complicated to entrust to politicians.