Memorial Daze, I
The Wrong Way to Support the Troops
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, May 29, 2006
In a climate as militarized and lusty for anything in a uniform as our hothouse imperium has become, elegies to the madness have to be taken for granted, even when they appear on Memorial Day, when one assumes that humble mourning rather than jingo celebrations of death are called for, and especially when they appear in the New York Times, second only to the Washington Post as parlor apologist of American boots on other people’s grounds (when they take a break from leaving imprints on other people’s necks). The Times today publishes one such elegy, entitled “The Troops Have Moved On,” by Owen West, “a reserve Marine major who served in Iraq,” the Times tells us, and “the founder of Vets for Freedom.” Vets for Freedom is the sort of web site that, like its Pentagon counterparts, cribs the same camouflage colors and PR hues of soldiers posing with Arab children, though among the 40,000-some Iraqis killed for far, compliments of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s a mathematical certainty that more Iraqi children have had the pleasure of dying from American ordnance than have had the honor of posing with GIs to garland the fabrications of Stateside web sites. Knowing of course how the Pentagon’s contractors of deceit, like the Rendon Group, operate, it’s perfectly likely that even those pictures of smiling Iraqi children (which have odd similarities with those rightfully lambasted images of pre-invasion, kite-flying children in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911”) are as staged, posed, touched up, and faked as every other report of American success that steals its way out of Iraq.
So “The Troops Have Moved On.” The headline is news, though it appears on the Op-Ed page of the Times. Moved on from what? Ah: that minor bit about not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “But it is time,” West writes, “for the rest of the country to do what the military was forced to do: get over it,” because, as he had just written in one of his many cliché explosions, “in battle you move forward from where you are, not from where you want to be.” (He must have just finished some Chinese take-out.) Actually, the country got over the WMD lie about the time when the president delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech, foundation of a greater lie—the lie we’ve been dealing, and Iraqis and GIs dying with, since—that this is a winnable war, let alone a necessary war doing anything at all to preserve American freedoms. Iraq, we now know, was never worth the fight. The Iraqi invasion, we now know, has made the world more dangerous, and Iraq itself a killing field on par with Saddam’s, with one difference: the killings are reported more often, and the rate of killing is quite a bit higher than in Saddam’s time. The troops may have moved on from the WMD lie, but when had it ever been their mission to dabble over the politics of the war?
West then moves on. He’s upset that “[t]hree years gone and Iraq’s most famous soldiers are Jessica Lynch and Lyndie England, a victim and a criminal, respectively. Abu Ghraib remains the most famous battle of the war. Soldiers are sick of apologizing for a sliver of malcontents who are not at all representative of the new breed.” Of course, more than 600 American civilians and soldiers implicated in prisoner abuse, as Human Rights Watch reported in April, isn’t “a sliver of malcontents.” And considering that the new breed, the Haditha-massacre breed, has turned Abu Ghraib into a quaint memory in comparison, it’s nothing to boast about. The new breed just massacres Iraqi civilians in cold blood, methodically and with no regard to age—like the old man killed in his wheelchair, or the five children between the ages of 3 and 10, all killed execution style, like the five men driving by in a taxi, stopped, taken out, and murdered. New breed my ass, Major West: The war in Iraq began on immoral grounds. Immoral behavior is written in its execution—not by a “sliver of malcontents,” but beginning with its commander-in-chief and his right-hand executioner, the infallible secretary of defense. What has lacked in this war is the sort of “self-flagellation” worth its name, the sort of admissions of mistakes, and crimes, that might have righted its execution. Instead, we get not only the sort of Congressional whitewash of Abu Ghraib that anticipates the sort of rote apology West puts forth, but his contempt for the war’s crimes and his urge to embrace the fight, to celebrate it and its soldiers as if it were a grand old Homeric epic.
He does so by wrapping his Memorial Day flag in a couple of rhetorical shams. The first is the anti-dissent suggestion that confusion over the war “affects our warriors, who are frustrated by the war’s lack of cohesion and the depiction of their war.” Note the use of the word warrior instead of soldier, which sets GIs off as more heroic, more mythical than they are—just as, incidentally, the rendition of Iraqis in GI lingo as raghead or worse sets them off as less than human, an old tradition of “the warrior” at play: This from a soldier involved in the My Lai massacre, as reported by Seymour Hersh: “I think that probably the officers didn’t really know if they were ordered to kill the villagers or not. ...A lot of guys feel that they (the South Vietnamese civilians) aren’t human beings; we just treated them like animals.” Expect to hear the same justifications from our “warriors” in Haditha, fighting “their” war. For all of West’s sleights of rhetoric, his words reveal some of the reason why the Iraqi war kept losing its way: when soldiers—when warriors act on a battlefield as if it’s “their war,” you might as well fold up the accountability tents and call it a day: they’re no longer warriors, no longer soldiers, not even mercenaries. They’re vigilantes. I’d be quaking too if I was an Iraqi in their scope.
But West’s crowning rhetorical sleight is to wrap the column in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to repeat that old garbling of the original war on terror with the war in Iraq, as if they were one and the same from the outset, and to treat the whole subject as one long war with the same moral and national implications as the Civil War. It’s no less of an insult (to historians, to memory, to Civil War veterans in their graves) than Bush’s recurrent linkage of his vague war on terror (and war on Iraq) with World War II.
Here’s a more appropriate wrap for West’s war, contemptuous of those words the major would surely be: “Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.” Substitute Iraq for Vietnam, and Martin Luther King’s words from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech are as apt today as they were on April 4, 1967.