Forget the shattered lives and grieving next of kin, the brain injuries, the lost trillions, the global animosity, the waterboarding, the war profiteering, the public disgust. Four years into the Big Mistake, we’re poised to do it again, and probably — in a generation, in 10 years, before the next election (place your bets) — we will.
The American gun is still cocked.
That is to say, the powerful players who envisioned glorious victory in Iraq — those chicken hawk warriors for whom adolescent ideology and adult self-interest neatly coincide — still for the most part have their jobs and positions of influence, and have only temporarily had the Rambo knocked out of them.
“It was a perfect storm that had been building for more than a quarter century,” writes Robert Parry for consortiumnews.com, describing how our system of checks and balances proved utterly useless in preventing what is arguably the worst foreign-policy disaster in the nation’s history. The D.C. war culture that fueled George Bush’s folly was, he writes, “a collision of mutually reinforcing elements: aggressive Republicans, triangulating Democrats, careerist journalists, bullying cable-TV and talk-radio pundits, aggressive and well-funded think tanks on the Right versus ineffectual and marginalized groups on the Left.”
And by “triangulation,” the Democrats’ sophisticated betrayal of the electorate, Parry, who as a reporter for AP and Newsweek in the ’80s broke many of the Iran-contra stories, means “the avoidance of principled stands in favor of nuanced positions that are calculated to be least offensive to the greatest number of people.”
Abdication is the raw, exposed flank of our greatness. Even with all the public anger and despair over the war in Iraq — and, increasingly, war in general — there is virtually no institutional force, or voice, that represents this view in the corridors of power and official legitimacy. When decisions are made, it doesn’t stand a chance.
The two primary forces in American politics and mainstream culture are self-interested bellicosity — the war-and-flag establishment — and a certain timid nihilism, a non-force with a painfully knowing grin that feints one direction, then another, but is anchored to nothing. This is what we get in our major media when they attempt to affect independence: something hip and hollow, with irony a stand-in for values.
This is what I notice, at any rate, when I come out of exile and check out mass-market journalism. Here, for instance, is a “lifestyle” story that caught my eye in the March 19 issue of Newsweek, which, while it reflects a certain trendy skepticism toward the pursuit of war, offers not the least hint that anything else is possible.
The story shadows an Army recruiter as he “trolls” Long Island paintball venues, looking for teenage boys smitten with war play who might be lured into signing up for the real thing. With all the uncontrolled bad publicity emanating from Iraq, this is clearly no cakewalk, and the recruiter has to supplement rhetoric about duty and manhood with “key chains, coffee mugs, footballs, baseball caps, T shirts and customized dog tags” — which is kind of unnerving when you think about it. Does the nation’s freedom depend on the quality of its trinkets?
The article moves along with a half-knowing smirk, hiply aware that there’s something absurd about all this, that cynicism and naivete are on a collision course. But nowhere is there any room in the story for the voice of, say, a mom who has lost her son in the quagmire, a psychologist’s ruminations about post-traumatic stress disorder, or a vet with undiagnosed stomach pains who can’t get treatment and feels like a third-class citizen.
The lone “anti-war” voice is from professional paintball players, who were uneasy about the Army’s presence on their turf and “fretted that any hint of warmongering might stall the mainstream acceptance they crave.”
The piece concludes with the recruiter scoring a hit. An 18-year-old boy who was talked into taking the military entrance exam “scored well enough to qualify for an intelligence post. But lately he’s been dreaming of another gig: gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter. ‘That’d be badass,’ he says. Mission accomplished.”
Mission accomplished? This is the most mocked phrase of the 21st century, with the utterer silently adding: “in a pig’s eye.” Its appearance in the Newsweek story represents a sort of coded, postmodern irony. We know this kid’s fate.
I wish our media had something better to do than turn it into a joke.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column ator visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.