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.
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.”
The War in Iraq was a “success?” Only in a public-relations-driven culture dominated by secret information — the whole affair operating to reinforce self-serving myths and delusions — could any aspect of the Iraq War be seen as a “success.” Only in such an either-or, secrecy-or-PR world, could a troop escalation in conjunction with the re-design of a failing military mission be euphemized by the now-famous buzzword, “The Surge.” The PR-coined term suggests manly tumescence rather than the act of desperation it was. The “success” of The Surge was really about the shift of mission to the brilliant Stanley McChrystal’s re-designed tactics based on ramped-up, effective intelligence (the intel before was very shoddy) linked with lighting fast special-ops (focused killing) teams. There was also a good-cop side to it, which entailed paying off Sunni militias. The two-pronged tactic did, in fact, set the Anbar resistance back.
The military-friendly writer Thomas Ricks titled his 2006 book on the Iraq War Fiasco for a reason. He did not call it Success. At the end, he wrote: “In Iraq, the U.S. position … suffers from the strategic problem of the fruit of the poisoned tree — that is, when a nation goes to war for faulty reasons, it undercuts all the actions that follow, especially when it won’t concede those errors.” In his book, Ricks predicts the civil war conditions we’re seeing now.
The Iraq War was a fiasco that will keep on giving until someone in power finds the courage to break the spell. Nothing will change until someone with political honesty, courage and authority steps up and speaks truth to the American people, someone honest enough to stare into the abyss of truth so we can stop eating “the fruit of the poisoned tree.”
As a veteran anti-war activist, I’m as disappointed by President Obama as anyone. I wanted more FDR. Naively, I hoped for an Antiwar Activist President. In retrospect, that notion seems idiotic — like expecting the nice, educated mob son played by Al Pacino in The Godfather to turn the Mafia into an NGO fighting hunger. Once in office, such a leader’s loyalty is to perpetuating his own power, to honoring the traditions of the office and to serving those in the inner circle of the organization.
Still, President Obama’s decisions lately not to rattle sabers to preclude taking the nation to war again in the Middle East — what Senator Corker calls “the vacuum of American leadership” in Iraq and the Middle East in general — is a welcome turn of events. While his administration is to be rightfully criticized for its surveillance and drone policies and other things, its decision not to bomb Syria but to align with the Russian president and to pursue negotiations with Iran need to be encouraged in a spirit of pragmatism.
One of the more amazing stories in the Times ran on Tuesday, January 7. It’s a story about strange bedfellows headlined “The US and Iran Face Common Enemies in Mideast Strife.”
What the story reveals is how the politics of the post-Iraq War region are becoming quite strange. Given a choice for peace over apocalyptic war, the US and Iranian governments, the story suggests, “are being drawn together by their mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters … raising the black flag of Al Qaeda along sectarian lines in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.” It really gets weird when you consider that the United States of America AND Iran are now sending arms to the government of Iraq to fend off Sunni al Qaeda elements now holding Falluja.
This only makes sense if one looks at the United States’ Iraq War as a complete and unmitigated fiasco in which an army led by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and a coterie of neo-con thinkers and right-wing idealists toppled a Sunni minority led by a tyrant the US had supported in an especially bloody war against Iran. This ruling Sunni minority had been established by the Brits in the time of Lawrence in order to control Iraq from London. What George Bush’s war accomplished — its success! — was the empowerment of the 70 percent majority Iraqi Shiites aligned with Iran, in the minds of many, our worst enemy. Iran, of course, is the nation whose democratically elected leader was overthrown by US and British covert forces in 1953, ushering in a vicious tyrant beloved by US leaders like Richard Nixon. This led to the 1979 revolution.
This is the fruit of the poisoned tree that needs to be recognized and understood, and it seems the Obama administration is doing just that to avoid a much worse scenario linked to continuing to eat the poisoned fruit. What makes this approach so dicey is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are livid, since they both are bitter enemies of Iran. They are both doing their best to undermine any hints of US-Iranian rapprochement.
“It is clear we are increasingly reaching common ground with the Americans,” Aziz Shahmohammadi, a prominent Iranian in the power structure, told the Times. Secretary of State John Kerry is, according to the Times story, welcoming Iranian involvement in talks over Syria, though that involvement has yet to be established.
The whole idea of rapprochement is a minefield for both US and Iranian leaders, since in both societies, war-friendly conservative forces are very powerful. Time will tell if the Obama administration is, one, sincerely pursuing a peace agenda, and two, if they can pull it off without chickening out or being blown up in the minefield.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, for me — and more important, for many of my combat and wounded fellow ‘Nam vets — the solution to coming to terms with that war was to let go of the notion it retained any honor as a historical enterprise. The same is true of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ricks was right labeling it a fiasco. The point is to recognize it was a top-down fiasco, a crisis of rotten leadership besotted with the fruit of a poisoned tree. Let’s hope at least in the case of negotiating with Iran the Obama administration finally has the leadership element on the right track and that they have the backbone to sanely pursue that track.