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Genesis of a Fatal War, pt. 3
Why Ask Why

This is the third in a series of related essays appearing this week to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. Part one is available here, part two here.

He never asked.

Only wars have the capacity to frame our lives in entirely national, collective memories and conversations. They contaminate most aspects of our lives, not always for the better, and they tend to set us on radically different courses, because more than any other single event, they get us to thinking about who we are, and about redefining what we ought to be. It’s a strange psychology, this business of collective fixations in wartime, but I think it has a lot of relevance for the way we think about our role in the world, and in this case, what we think we ought to have done, and what we ought to do now, about Iraq . In both cases, we’re wrong even to ask the question, and perhaps better advised to wonder why we ask the question to begin with. If this sounds like a reversal of the old Budweiser commercial—Why Ask Why—so much the better: We’ve been drunk on not asking the why of things for so long that now that we’re in the hang-over period, we don’t know what hit us. We might as well find out who put the roofies in our drinks to make raping Iraq such an affair to remember. It’s not just the usual suspects.

I spent my first 14-odd years in Lebanon , long enough in that brief span to live through parts or all of a couple of wars on Lebanese soil and a couple more above it. The ones with Israel were strictly spectatorships for Lebanon . But before the big one erupted in 1975, there was the brief one of May 1973, the last time a Lebanese president showed evidence of testicular ordnance, when Palestinian guerillas were pounded about in their alleged refugee camps. My memories are filled with both wars (I can still see and hear those old 1950s Hunter jets rising from the horizon after dropping their bombs, and my mother taking pots of coffee to the soldiers quartered in the streets below: we were on 24-hour curfew). But in Lebanon the question we all asked ourselves was the exact opposite of what Americans ask themselves in wars. Americans say: what are we going to do about Vietnam? What are we going to do about Nicaragua, Salvador, Panama. What are we going to do about Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Florida. In Lebanon, the question always was: Who is going to do what for Lebanon? When is America going to intervene? When is Syria going to get the hell out? When is Israel going to make up its mind about being an ally, an invader, a miracle or a rolling homage to barbarians? It’s a telling difference. We don’t think about it much in the United States. The Lebanese ask themselves those questions because they’ve never been masters of their fate. The questions they pose themselves are an indictment of the weakest part of their character, their inability to know unity and national consensus from Sophia Loren’s boobs—a flaw as vulgar as the imagery it evokes.

The United States has never not been master of its own fate. Even in the eighteenth century when the British still controlled the colonies, the American really was his own man, which is why the American Revolution was more of a confirmation of American independence than a revolution that created it. Beginning with the earliest European landings here the United States and its white-shaded ancestors have always decided other people’s fates. As a result Americans don’t merely take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for self-evident truth. They also consider other people’s lives, if not quite their liberty and pursuit of happiness, as self-evidently ours to do with what we will. (They? We? I should be honest and concede the possessive. I took the oath too.) So when we ask: what are we to do about Iraq, we don’t realize to what extent just about every other nation on earth wonders what guile we have to be asking the question to start with — let alone what guile we have as we go about answering it. It’s true that for the first century of our history Europeans and the rest of the world didn’t feel the effects of those answers much. Our self-evident truths were restricted to Indians and blacks, and then Mexicans’ ancestors south of the border.

But right around the time of the corpulently imperial trinity of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, we started asking questions similar to the one today about Iraq : what are we to do about Cuba ? What are we to do about the Philippines ? What are we to do about all those delicious Pacific islands? The answer was usually bloody and imperial. It was only with Woodrow Wilson that the idea of spreading democracy by example instead of by Gatling gun started winning a few converts, and even then it took the massacres of World War I to do it. With all this tradition behind us, it’s no wonder that within the United States , most Americans don’t stop to think whether the question, what should we do about Iraq , is a legitimate one to ask. Neocons asked it out of imperial presumption. Liberals asked it out of humanist concern. Neither reason cuts it, because both reasons take their root from the same impulse—from that assumption that somehow the United States has the right to go fix other people’s nations, whatever the motives. Consciously or not for those who told them, that’s what those Iraqi war jokes referred to in the second part of this series were doing. The humor was as reckless as the hubris.

Not for nothing that it has that Albert Speer look about it.

It’s not by coincidence that a lot of the national debate about what to do about Iraq happened at the same time that the country went through those strange, slightly nauseating years of nostalgia for the so-called Greatest Generation. It’s as if the United States longed for a time when it was engaged in a world war just so its young men could prove themselves, or so young men who’d survive the slaughter they’d been ordered to contribute limbs and wrecked families to could prove themselves, and the country could be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world again. President Bush even said as much to Bob Woodward: “[S]hortly after the [9/11] attacks,” Woodward wrote in “Bush At War,”, “Rove was in the Oval Office and Bush had told him, just like my father’s generation was called in World War II, now our generation is being called. […] ‘I’m here for a reason,’ Bush said, ‘and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged.’” It’s as if he was glad the country had been attacked so it gave his damn generation a chance to prove itself.

He was right about one thing. We’re certainly being judged, but not the way he imagined. The University of Maryland and Zogby International just released the findings from their annual survey of Arab opinion. Almost 4,000 individuals in six Arab countries were interviewed. The survey demolishes the assumption that Osama bin laden is a big GI-Joe-like hero among the masses. He garners little to no admiration higher than two or one percent, except in Egypt where he has five percent. He gets zero percent approval in Lebanon and two percent in his native Saudi Arabia . Asked in those same countries which leader people disliked most, Bush was the outright winner at 38 percent, followed by the dead or dying Ariel Sharon at 11 percent, and Blair at 3 percent. Simon Cowell, surprisingly, doesn’t rate. Oddly, it's Jordanians who despise Bush most among those Arab countries: 57 percent of Jordanians rank Bush atop their “dislike” list — still less than the proportion of Americans who do so, incidentally, since the latest Gallup poll has 63 percent disapproving of Bush. (Yes, as a friend wisely pointed out, the comparison is slightly misleading, but it’s a difference of degrees, not sentiment.) . So when I hear Bush say “I’m here for a reason,” I think about a Top Ten list by David Letterman from March 2000: “Top Ten Headlines from a Bush Presidency.” At number two? “President fails in shoe-tying bid.”

What’s nutty about Bush making that remark to Rove about being here for a reason is what’s nutty about his world view regarding all his wars. He thinks the war on terror or the war in Iraq can be put on the same footing as the war on fascism, or even, for that matter, on the same footing as the Cold War. Obviously it gives his wars a good ring, a good selling point. The reality has been disastrously different. Not only is the nostalgia dissonant. It’s flat wrong. But that’s what you get from anachronistic nostalgia and amnesiac history: not only did Bush think he was master of America ’s and the world’s fates. He thought he had über-Hegelian powers to control history, too, to shape it past and future in his, god help us, image.

Next: What the “Greatest Generation” and the Cold War didn’t teach Bush, or America , on the Stupidest Generation’s road to Iraq .

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