‘All we are saying is give peace a chance’
As George W. Bush paints images of his toes in the bathtub and portraits of his beloved dog Barney, it’s hard not to humanize the man. Who’d a thunk he had an artist somewhere inside him. The work is, well, a bit primitive, but it’s nice to look at. He doesn’t show up in public much, but the other day he was photographed in the audience with a bunch of delighted African women while his wife Laura and Michelle Obama spoke about the empowerment of women. Unlike his vice president from the dark side, he seems determined to avoid commenting on war issues.
Meanwhile, Iraq (here, we should pronounce it I-Rack) has become a charnel house once again. Iraq was the sovereign plaything Mr. Bush and his cronies used to turn him from an aimless deer in the headlights into a bully war president. W’s plaything is now being overrun in the west and north by a band of psychopathic religious killers. In the corridors of Washington power and in many editorial rooms the war drums are beating again and, as is always the case, truth is going down for the count.
ISIS extremists have overwhelmed the tough Kurdish Pesh Merga troops, and we’re bombing people again in Iraq. The Obama administration no doubt had visions of a Vietnam-style endgame rout in process. Never one to fear predictability, war-monger-in-chief John McCain says Obama’s bombing is not enough. We’re also dropping food and water to Iraqis of the Yazidi ethnic group holding out and starving on the barren Sinjar Mountain, which is on the edge of the Kurdish area of Iraq. ISIS has taken control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.
I’m a 30-year veteran of the antiwar peace movement, and this horrific mess taxes my limits. It’s like watching the apocalypse unfold or, like 100 years ago at the start of World War One, realizing those in charge are vain, plutocratic, incompetent bozos who don’t give a rat’s ass about life. The issue is not what’s good for ordinary Iraqis; it’s what’s good for America. What’s good for Israel. What’s good for those on top of the heap who don’t want to lose the power they’ve accumulated. And don’t ask how they accumulated it.
That ISIS is a natural outgrowth of the Bush Iraq War is a no-brainer. But no one is supposed to mention that. Instead, we chuckle at the cuddly irony of the former president’s paintings. It’s my supposition that George W. Bush is actually a feeling human being and a pretty simple guy who’s using his plutocratic wealth to hide out from America, lest his culpability be more publicly discussed. Maybe if he paints away in his studio everyone will forget. I see him employing his solitary painting as a therapy to overcome feelings of self-loathing and shame. He really seems to have loved frisky little Barney. The image of his legs and feet in the bath seems so lost in some kind of existential head-space you have to wonder if the former president isn’t smoking medical marijuana to address an oval office version of PTSD survival guilt.
Meanwhile, that embarrassing clusterfuck in Iraq is unraveling badly. It was all eerily predicted in the final pages of Thomas Rick’s book on Bush’s Iraq War called Fiasco. Thanks to our much-vaunted shock and awe invasion and the Murder Inc. reality behind “the surge,” an insurgency has evolved in Sunni Anbar Province into a true monster.
General Stanley McChrystal tells about coming into Anbar and seeing what a mess things were and how he turned it into an effective intelligence analyzing and assassination program that eventually blunted the Anbar Sunni insurgency. He’s proud of how he made the intel process so rapid that a special ops team would go on a raid at 9 PM, do its dirty work and take all laptops and cell phones back to headquarters where their innards would be analyzed by 11 PM, providing information that allowed them to set up three more raids before dawn arrived — before the first intel capture was even known. These special ops teams would either kill a target or capture it. Interrogation locations were secret; torture was certainly utilized. It worked magnificently.
Insurgent Anbar militias witnessed how effective this system was in killing its leaders and go-to guys that many of them came in from the cold and took the dollars offered as an option. Meanwhile, their anger simmered.
I was in Iraq in 2004 as a cameraman on a documentary, and I’ll never forget an English-speaking Iraqi following me as I video-taped damage to some university buildings. He seemed authentically interested in me as an American. He was very helpful and made me feel secure. At one point, he looked at me as if I was a naïve child and said, “You know, John, all Iraqis will lie to you.” He looked into my eyes to see if I understood. I’ve pondered that for the past 10 years. What he meant was that we Americans had no clue how really screwed up Iraqis were psychologically, having gone through the truly horrific Iran-Iraq War and lived under a ruthless gangster regime like that of Saddam Hussein for so long. Directness and honesty had been purged from their character. He seemed to be saying sociopathy was the norm.
So it’s easy for me to understand how opportunist Sunni insurgents in Anbar began to kiss the ass of the American occupiers to avoid the highly sophisticated US killing program and to get some of the money being hosed into Iraq. These insurgents would bide their time and let the chaos the United States introduced into Iraq do its work.
The Sunni insurgency didn’t need to be taught violence, but it certainly learned from us that smart, ruthless violence really works. They just needed to lick their wounds and wait for the right moment. The US turned Iraq over to Shiite allies of Iran and the hopeful Arab Spring has been derailed in Egypt. The bungling US effort to overthrow Assad in Syria has made al Qaeda and the United States bizarre allies there. It was an ideal time to strike into Anbar, where anger and resentment against the Maliki government is livid. ISIS went through Anbar like crap through a goose, to quote General Patton. The ISIS leadership knew the Maliki government would not — could not — protect the Sunnis of Anbar, since the Shiite Maliki loathes Sunnis for murdering dozens of his political colleagues.
Alternative history is an established genre these days. Think Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America in which a fascist Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1940.
So what if the Florida vote count in 2000 had not been halted by the Supreme Court’s shamefully political ruling for George W. Bush. Suppose a mature mourning patience had prevailed after 9/11. What if Al Gore had become president? What if either Bush or Gore, instead of the invasion folly, had decided for a smarter containment policy vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein? What if a more peace-oriented state of mind had prevailed in Washington? There would no doubt have been bumps in the road. But, what’s important, we would have avoided the Iraq debacle that keeps on giving.
But this is journalism, not fiction. We live in the world that is. One always hopes people learn from their debacles, but in the case of the United States — and since it’s in a full-fledged war mode, let’s add the 51st state of Israel to the pot — the lessons learned are too often the wrong ones. Instead of wisdom leavened with compassion, we get the same knee-jerk patriotic rush to warrior mode that got us in the mess in the first place. For insight into this, read an account by Gabor Steingart, publisher of Germany’s leading financial newspaper, Handelsblatt. He writes about Chancelor Willy Brandt’s talent for avoiding war and instilling sensible alternatives that work. “The first step is what Brandt called ‘compassion’, i.e. the ability to see the world through the eyes of the others,” Steingart writes. He’s talking about what our American militarist right sees as a lethal third rail to be avoided at all costs.
As a US soldier in Vietnam I located enemy radio operators so our forces could destroy them and their comrades en-mass. I decided long ago there was no point in trying to justify that war or my sad little part in it. I and many of my veteran friends have had no problem publicly expressing this liberating view. Somehow, we implicitly understand Martin Luther King’s idea of violence as a widening spiral that never ends — unless some brave soul makes a willful, concerted effort to end it.
There’s a movement that focuses on the term Forgiveness. It involves compassion and empathy. The point is for victims of violence to unburden themselves so they can move on with their lives. I place Forgiveness on a continuum with the notion of Vengeance at the other extreme. In Martin Doblmeir’s challenging film The Power of Forgiveness, scientists show that victims of violence who understand the power of forgiveness have significantly lower blood pressure. The urgency to achieve vengeance is replaced by calmness and the putting of life in order.
Many on the right and some liberals see this as a naïve posture. They tend to be the same people who love to forget the inconvenient stories of history. Culpability is an alien concept. History seems to begin the moment some dreadful entity has attacked us or threatens us. They work themselves into a frenzy about seeking not self-defense but vengeance. Saner, more patient, heads are intimidated and censored. Susan Sontag famously said after 9/11, “By all means let’s mourn together, but let’s not be stupid together.” As we know, she was silenced and stupidity won the day. At the end of that stupid run, out of the fog ISIS comes into focus. Now it starts all over again.
As a devoted peace activist who feels deep in his heart he and others of his ilk were correct about Iraq in 2003, I submit to you, gentle reader, there is another way. The militarist right will cough and sputter at this, but that’s because a devotion to vengeance inclines them to be rotten listeners concerning anything but their own paranoia, as it inclines them to misconstrue or silence everything uncomfortable and confusing. They will not allow their precious vengeance cycle to be debunked.
A mature, realistic peacemaker will be the first to tell you, once the cycle of violence has gotten to the point there’s suicide bombers looking to blow themselves up in your midst or psychopathic killers looking to chop off your head, the peace process needs to concentrate on self preservation. It’s important, here, not to escalate beyond self-preservation into a vengeful orgy.
What seems to me the most important point to make here is the need for serious, socially respected peace talks that work on a separate track from the war-making track. Yes, there is a problem with this, and that is people who live for vengeance don’t extend much respect to those who would talk peace with counterparts of the demonized enemy. And vengeance lovers tend to be the ones with the guns, the police and the prisons.
Since it’s above the fold in the news right now, I’ll use Israel/Palestine for an example. It seems to me the reason peace talks never work there is because they are totally reliant on a pre-existing climate of peace. This is as absurd as it is true. In other words, you have to have peace (a complete cessation of all violence) in order to begin talking about peace. The only workable solution is to have peace talks on a separate social track than war decisions. A useful checks and balance dynamic within the social contract. Peace talks would go on even as suicide bombers were blowing up buses and F16s were flattening apartment houses in the neighborhood.
The question is do the combatants really want peace — or do they actually want war? The answer too often seems to be no, they really don’t want peace. Mao Zedong’s conclusion that power grows out of the barrel of a gun seems to prevail in the United States and in the Middle East.
Dennis Kucinich, I believe, raised the idea of a Department of Peace. We should not be surprised that it didn’t get very far. But it or something like it would be the perfect vehicle for a two-track socially-condoned dialogic structure that would prevent the serious work of peacemaking — to include forgiveness as opposed to vengeance — from being crushed or reduced to waving subversive signs in the streets.
I’ll close with George W. Bush in his bathtub. I fantasize that Mr. Bush finds his manly courage under the suds in that bathtub and publicly disowns his invasion of Iraq. On Good Morning America, he could make a plea for peace talks and forgiveness on a separate track distinct from the vengeful ravings of Senator McCain.
OK, so I’m not holding my breath. And, sure, it might take years for such talks to bear fruit, and by then, we might be in the midst of an apocalyptic war. But at least peacemaking would be culturally empowered and ready to pounce when the vengeance seekers wearied of their precious war. Peacemaking would not be under the boot, as it is now. As silly as it may seem to some, it really comes down to having the courage to honor Lennon’s plea, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”