Three for Thought

Are we the eagle nation
Or have we but the talons and the maw,
And for the abject likeness of our heart,
Shall some less lordly bird be set apart?
Some gorger in the sun? Some prowler with the bat?

-William Vaughn Moody, An Ode in Time of Hesitation

As Moody posed his birds, America was in the throes of imperial disillusion. President William McKinley having been reliably advised by God and Republican cronies to “take the Philippines” as booty of the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. faced a fiery insurgency in the islands and at home raging debate about the loss of America’s anti-colonial innocence. In the end, the Senate annexed by only a single vote, poorly armed Philippine nationalists were put down at brutal cost, and America moved on blithely to world power-albeit with the poet’s question increasingly begged.

The issue roils a century later as a public urge to exit disaster in Iraq lifts Democrats in the 2006 elections to slim if ruling Congressional majorities. While U.S. motives and acts abroad may no longer inspire florid poetry, there is no shortage of prose on the debacle that is George W. Bush’s less-than-excellent adventure in Mesopotamia. More than a dozen books track the folly in, matched only by the now warned-of folly out. Much as in 1898, America is told it cannot stay in its conquest without chaos, cannot leave without more. It recalls Churchill’s richly Tory remark about Lenin with a Stalinist succession: Russia’s worst tragedy his birth, next worse his death.

As Moody and McKinley suggest, however, there is rather more to these entrances and exits than people, circumstances, tactics of the moment. Deeper forces are at work in the American plight-and the world’s at its mercy-that cannot be resolved by plebiscite. Far beyond Iraq, three timeless books-two classics and a third in the running-capture larger meaning.

True to its title, which more narrowly describes the Pentagon’s 2003 dash to Baghdad, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly places the calamity in indispensable wider context. Across thirty centuries, from the fall of Troy to the fallacies of Vietnam, from Renaissance Popes provoking the Reformation to the British blindly alienating their American colonies, one of our preeminent historians (certainly its most readable writer in the genre) extracts the Ariadne’s thread of preconception, arrogance and deception, including self-deception, that mark governments bent on policies at odds with their own interests-all indulged in what Tuchman calls “wooden-headedness” despite known, available alternatives. Iraq has it all: rulers and ministers obsessed, bureaucrats overbearing and feeble, intelligence confused, confusing and in any case misnamed, generals as blundering as the politicians they later blame, oversight so abdicated by legislature, journalism and the public as to make them all complicit.

Contrary to the prevailing Democratic demonology, itself dangerously self-deceptive, the bleak history reminds us that Mr. Bush & Co. are hardly unique, and that profoundly institutionalized penchants for folly will not somehow magically vanish from Washington with their own departure from power. Not least, Tuchman warns us that exits are seldom what they seem. Lyndon Johnson driven from office in 1968 by antiwar protests, Richard Nixon elected on his “plan” to disengage from Vietnam, it would be four full savage years before America’s war actually ended, making that long black wall of the dead in Washington twice as lengthy as it was when an election seemed to put the exit at hand.

Of foreign policy, as the Maréchal de Saxe said of war, the starting point, essence and ending is the human heart, and Edward Said’s Orientalism takes us into its darker regions of cant and bigotry. It was a revolutionary book when it appeared in the late 1970s, and like many intellectual revolutions, gave literary form to the politically denied yet obvious. One of the leading literary critics of the twentieth century and a tireless champion of civilized discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, Said did nothing less than expose the cultural scandal in Western approaches to the Islamic world: the rotten alliance of enlightenment and colonialism in which academics and novelists, clerks and clerics, soldiers and tourists all confected our own accommodating Muslim Orient, exotic, stagnant, weak yet threatening, prone to despotism yet susceptible to liberation, and above all, relentlessly different, inferior. Deep in the canon of American prejudice, from Woodrow Wilson to Dick Chaney, no bond of ignorance, fear and habit has been more powerful in Washington, save perhaps the intimately related post-Holocaust laissez passer granted Israel, though even that is fading as the Orientalism Express barrels on.

Thus Washington’s petty scapegoating of retreat as Mr. Bush’s neo-conservative mentors now regret their underestimation of Iraqi “barbarism” and “depravity.” As the world’s greatest superpower is humbled and humiliated by one of the most skillful and successful guerrilla forces in history, it’s clear they hardly deserve our deliverance. Said counsels us, of course, that exits, like entrances, must be informed by cultural and historical sensibility-though that, too, seems problematic at the moment.

Finally, what may seem an unlikely key to the Washington scriptures-Joan Dideon’s deeply affecting The Year of Magical Thinking. It is the story of the eminent journalist’s calamitous experience with the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, amid the mortal illness of their daughter and only child. But Dideon’s personal account comes with such luminous simple truth-telling, fearless honest detail and confronting of emotional meaning and human limits-all virtues of integrity utterly missing in the process of governance-that her small masterpiece seems today transcendently political. It is not only that America has yet to face the grief of losing the myth of who and what it has been in the world, not only our desperate denials and ritual resorts. Mid-term elections notwithstanding, the country is mired in magical thinking, from the evangelicals’ conviction that Mr. Bush’s myopic, self-defeating collusion with Israel is “God’s foreign policy” to the widespread liberal belief in some immunity from the ruin of civil liberties or the looming economic disaster Mr. Bush leaves in his wake. What could be more magical than the expectant waiting of both Democrats and Republicans on the vaunted Iraq Study Group, composed of aged policy derelicts with scant real knowledge of the Middle East, to lead nicely out of the Babylonian wilderness?

Dideon’s is moving testimony, again, of the heart’s role in human affairs, that authentic transformations-exits-are profoundly individual, and difficult, and that not all stories end well, even if we manage some liberating awareness toward the finish. It is something Washington should ponder.

These three, of course, should be footnoted by glancing at a last irresistible title, Jean Paul Sartre’s classic drama No Exit. As if speaking to an America inextricably tied to the Middle East and world, yet whose hubris is so matched by ignorance and denial, whose power is so vast yet so ebbing, the character Inez says unforgettably, “It’s not use trying to escape, I’ll never let you go.” If only Sartre were in the White House. “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” he would instruct them. “There’s no escaping each other and there’s no escaping the truth.”

ROGER MORRIS, who served on the senior staff of the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon until resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, is an award-winning author and historian whose new book, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US covert interventions and foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, will be published by Alfred Knopf next year.




More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South