US military history from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan is too often a combination of destructive stumbling around followed by an effort to sustain and project forward the notion of US power and exceptionalism. To forge another narrative is very difficult.
There's the blind rush to war to put in its place some faction halfway around the world that has not played ball with US leaders. Next, there's the moment military leaders realize they must fend off a local opposition they had not anticipated. Finally, there's the inevitable condition of weariness over the killing, dying and destruction, leading to a withdrawal once that can be managed in a face-saving manner that sustains the delusion that the whole enterprise was honorable.
I made two trips to Iraq, one in December 2003, and another the following month, January 2004. Both entailed hair-raising 12-hour back-and-forth dashes across the Anbar desert in a large SUV sometimes doing 110 MPH from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. This was at the moment US military commanders realized, shock and awe aside, its invasion/occupation had flushed out a formidable resistance movement.
Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Marines in the second and bloodiest attack on Falluja
In December 2003, I visited Falluja with two Iraqis and another American in a blue Opal with a cracked windshield. We were going to link up my American colleague with his son at a forward base in Falluja. It was quite an adventure finding the base. In the process I learned that Falluja -- contrary to the identity it now has in the US as a famous battle -- was a lake resort known for its delicious kabob restaurants. Our Iraqi guide was a bit of a comedian and insisted that we would end the day with a visit to a famous kabob restaurant in downtown Falluja.
"Uhh, is that wise?" I asked. The guide who was a professor of cinema at a Baghdad university winked at me but kept up the joke for the more anxious American father in the front seat.
"No problem! They are delicious. You will love the kabobs of Falluja."
My second visit to Baghdad was with David Goodman, a documentary filmmaker. We went to meet with this same cinema professor to ponder cultural exchange. Goodman and I were hoping to return to Baghdad to teach a class. Then, all our plans went up in smoke when several American military contractors were ambushed in Falluja and their charred bodies hung ignominiously from a bridge. This provoked the first, Army assault on Falluja. There was to be no cinema class featuring an American Academy Award winning director and his Sancho Panza sidekick. The resistance had grown and the price on American heads was too much.
A January 10 story in The New York Times shows how emotionally disturbing the current occupation of Falluja by al Qaeda elements is for many US Marine veterans of the second, more bloody "invasion" of Falluja. According to the Times, some Marines are upset at President Obama for not keeping a US military force in Iraq, while others are upset at President Bush for getting them into such a dubious war.
"This has been a gut punch to the morale of the Marine Corps," says Kael Weston, a writer who worked with Marines in Falluja as a member of the US State Department.
The problem, as I see it, is Iraq was simply a bad war from the get-go, an enterprise based on too many lies and too many delusions that have never been addressed honestly by the American people. Why? Because they have not absorbed the information they need to do so. Instead, they have been given more of the same lies and delusions that got us into the mess in the first place. And, of course, too many Americans apparently like those lies and delusions.
The task of controlling the story of a huge US military operation like Iraq has become vastly more sophisticated since the days of Vietnam when the press was allowed more rope and the killing numbers were much greater. Today, the real story is kept under an extremely tight regime of secrecy. The fact is, no one in the business of post-World War Two imperial US military policy wants the real story to be made public.
Our immense military institution engages with the citizenry of the United States in two very distinct ways: Secrecy or Public Relations. Courageous and resourceful members of the press do their best to reveal the secret parts, which amount to everything down to the granular, day-to-day realities of warfare. What ordinary citizens see and hear amounts to PR controlled by the military, material meant to sustain the tenets of American Exceptionalism. The emphasis is on the individual heroism of US soldiers and the idea that the US is a force for good in a benighted and dangerous world of thugs and cutthroats in need of our management.
How what's going on in Iraq now is being laid at the feet of the Obama administration is part of this high-stakes game. Listen to Obama critic Republican Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee, quoted in The New York Times.
"The vacuum of American leadership certainly is felt there," Corker says, referring to what is going on in Falluja and Ramadi in Anbar Province, which borders Syria on the west. Corker is the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He visited Baghdad in August. "[T]he administration thought that Iraq was checked off the list," he says.
In a front-page "analysis" article, the Times writer Peter Baker put it this way: "Critics complain that Mr. Obama squandered the military success achieved by President George W. Bush's 2007 troop surge."