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Senate Swindles
The Big Suck

Master prevaricators

Henry Adams, master of detection when it came to Washingtology’s smoke and mirrors, would have had a heartbreakingly good time deconstructing the Senate’s latest vote on the Iraq war. “The most aristocratic American of the twentieth century,” he wrote in his gargantuan “History of the United States,” “will probably agree with the most extreme socialist in admitting that Congress, in 1808, might with advantage have doubled its proportion of tailors, butchers, and swindlers, if by doing so it could have lessened the number of its conspirators.” (No wonder Gore Vidal admires the man.) In 2007 the conspirators are more circumspect: they hide behind flares of patriotism and simulations of strength, all the while giving cover to the same old horsemen of reaction.

The Senate vote on Tuesday about sticking a time-line on an Iraqi pull-out is so much less than it pretends to be, all the while pointing to the enormous distance yet to be slogged if the United States is to muster the courage—yes, that’s the true courage—to get its boots the hell out of Iraq. If the distance is to be slogged at all. The way it looks now, the sloggers can sit back and relax, let Pentagon and Halliburton and John McCain’s lust for crossing his known Rubicon carry on. Tuesday’s vote wasn’t over the $122 billion “supplemental” appropriation for war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, an obscenity in itself no one is giving much heed to: when obscenity becomes routine, it’s no more remarkable than street noise (the Times mentions the $122 billion in the eleventh paragraph of its story. That gives you a sense of how disjointed from reality the entire debate over Iraq has become.) The vote was over a date: March 30, 2008. Should it be in the appropriation bill? Should it not? The Yeas won, 50-48, with two Republicans (Chuck Hagel and that guy from Oregon) voting in favor. But the date is meaningless.

Unlike the House version, the date is non-binding. It’s one more symbolic way of saying, “You know, wouldn’t it be nice.” And even if it was binding: the Senate needed fifteen more votes to make it veto-proof. Bush isn’t about to give in to anything of the sort, let alone to symbolic moves. There is no symbolism in Iraq. There’s news like this, which developed concurrently with the Senate’s prevarications: “Shiite militants and police enraged by massive truck bombings in the northwestern town of Tal Afar went on a revenge spree against Sunni residents there Wednesday, killing as many as 60 people, officials said.” And questions like this: Isn’t Tal Afar the city the Pentagon is holding up as the model of its successful counter-insurgency strategy?

And there are observations like David J. Morris, in a piece called “The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground,” published in the latest Virginia Quarterly, about Morris’s Hemingway-diseased stint in al Anbar province: “But to spend time in Iraq is to acquire a visceral understanding of the flexibility of information and the power of place over knowledge. What is true in Ramadi is not necessarily true in Iskandariyah. What is true in Baghdad is almost never true in Basra. In Iraq, information is tribal like the people who live there. It keeps its own company. Things only seem absolutely true in Washington. The closer you get to the killing, the harder it is to know anything for sure. Even the journalists I talked to spoke of the war as beginning to dissolve as a story. It had all gotten so weird, so disparate, that none of the familiar narratives felt convincing anymore. Such was the mistrust of the official line, so heavy was the spin, that with any new piece of information you learned to do a kind of mental arithmetic whereby you divided the information given by the speaker’s rank, multiplied by his or her time in-country, and subtracted based on the number of miles the speaker was distant from the fighting.”

A 50-48 vote on a non-binding resolution about a vague date no one will remember by tonight? My son’s latest poopy diaper’s effects on world history is more consequential than that.

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