Saturday, October 22, 2005

Of Din and Dialogue

[We all know Pangloss, the eternal optimist, and Martin, the eternal pessimist, whose dialogues are about as conclusive as those of the French and Italian officers debating their civilizations’ mutual one-uppance in “Casablanca.” Word has it Martin and Pangloss are in negotiations with CNN for a Crossfire-like talk show of their own, but they’ve been having trouble agreeing on the carpet fiber in the Green Room. Pangloss and Martin stop by here once in a while, along with their servant Cacambo, who occasionally babysits our kids. Pangloss’s and Martin’s conversation this morning, about Iraq and other Babelings, is transcribed here verbatim.]

Pangloss: The justice! The hand of justice everywhere, and in places where you least expected it.
Martin: What delusions you speak now?
Pangloss: No delusions. Saddam is on trial in Baghdad. Assad’s lion’s roar is down to a  kitty’s whisper in Damascus. The great Rove has the shakes over the countdown to the special prosecutor’s indictments in Washington. Dick Cheney must be running back to his favorite undisclosed locations and George Bush may have to go back to reading his “Pet Goat” to schoolchildren. It looks like justice speaks after all. Even Judith Miller is finally getting tarred and feathered by her own colleagues.
Martin: I see burned and trophied bodies in Afghanistan, murdered defense lawyers in Baghdad, abetted rapists in Darfur, corruption as usual in DC, Times editors who swallowed Miller’s lies two and a half years ago as gullibly as they swallowed the lies of the administration peddling them now scapegoatfucking her to hide their shame. Not to mention another October without the Yankees. And Wilma. And Britney’s baby pictures getting scooped.
Pangloss: You must have stumbled on a lousy batch of crack this morning.
Martin: No, just the usual cup of Juan Valdez doing an Exxon impersonation.
Pangloss: Your oily outlook runneth over.
Martin: What’s the use of trying a mass murderer if murders en masse are taking place outside the courtroom, some of them compliments of the prosecutors’ patrons? At Nuremberg you could at least buy a dozen eggs at the market and make it home before they turned into an omelet with your entrails for fixin’s (other bystanders’ toppings is extra).  
Pangloss: Occasional convulsions are the collateral of the grand plan. You cannot, since you brought up the metaphor, make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Martin: A two-year-old child turned to a bloody pulp in the name of “occasional convulsions” is not a metaphor, nor were my eggs. There’s been nothing “occasional” about the daily massacre of two dozen people in the name of three dozen competing bigotries, the one about “freedom and democracy” among them.
Pangloss: Freedom and democracy—bigotries?
Martin: Sloganeering in any form is the velvety language of bigots.
Pangloss: Your camel-jokeyed stigmatism is narrower than the eye of a needle. Look at the panorama for a change. Just as an earthquake in Lisbon is the expression of a fault-line reverberating half-way across the globe, Saddam’s trial is the pre-shock of many happy quakes to come.
Martin: And many happy auto-da-fés, I imagine, with Shiites and Sunnis doing their blood-soaked call-and-response routine for Te Deums.
Pangloss: Clever wordplays never outshout the truth. The fraternity of tyrannies known as the Arab League is finally being deloused just as Saddam was so perfectly if not exactly symbolically deloused when he was hitched out of his spider hole. It’s a different sort of revolution than we’re used to in our smugly enlightened West, but a revolution nonetheless.
Martin: They can try Saddam until the camels come home. They’re trying a horse that’s been dead and buried for years. He’s been irrelevant since 1991. But just as the Soviets propped up Brezhnev with steroids and camphor for a decade and a half—when has the embalming of a zero-gravity empire been less telling?—the United States has been pumping Saddam with manufactured relevance since the last bomb charred retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death 14 years ago.
Pangloss: You’re saying what I’m saying: The Arab world’s tyrannies are bankrupt, decaying from within, ready to crumble. Saddam’s trial is the Exterminator’s Job One. They’re already dancing the rumba in Beirut. They’ll be dancing the Macarena in Cairo next.
Martin: And the mambo in Mecca, I suppose? Your nose for rot-colored glasses has never been more useful. I don’t dispute the tyrannies’ bankruptcies. I dispute your Good-Housekeeping-Seal-of-Approval method of cleaning house. Destroying a house in order to save it may foment a revolution, but not the kind you can set ballroom tunes to. Islam’s fascist brigades don’t give a shit about Saddam’s trial. He was on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted list too, you forget. So is Syria’s winterized lion. So is the House of Saud for that matter. By putting Saddam on trial we’re doing Osama’s bidding for him. We’re his executors. That’s the supreme irony of this trial, of this whole war. To the fanatics, it is a gift that keeps giving. It reminds me of those television commercials that ran briefly after 9/11, those idiotic ones that said when you buy drugs, you’re funding terrorism. Actually, you're likelier to be funding terrorism when you fill up your gas tank, considering the density of petrodollars that end up in in the House of Saud’s pockets, briefly, (and the intensity of joint and oh, so official Saudi-American denials of so much sluishiness) before the Wahhabite mafia extorts it from them to keep the terror at bay a little longer (when both Mafia and Saudi princes aren't too busy ejaculating with hypocrisies in the skanky recesses of Parisian boulevards). Your eighborhood gas pumps might as well be honest about the breakdown: federal, state, local and Wahhabite taxes.
Pangloss: Sure, by that calculus the money Pol-Pot once used to buy Kodak film for his infamous photo archives makes Kodak an accomplice in the killing fields. It’s not that conveniently complicated. The buck stops where the buck is transacted. Right now the buck stops in Baghdad at Saddam’s trial. Would you have rather seen him and his sons stay in power?
Martin: Speaking of conveniently uncomplicated choices. But actually, have him stay and let rot devour him from within, yes,  as you so joyfully believe is happening all over the Arab world. Instead here we are fertilizing a whole new generation of tyrants and fanatics with cordite proudly made in Edina, Minn., and absolutely, positively delivered by McDonnell Douglas’s and Lockheed ("We Never Forget Who We're Working For") Martin's Wal-Mart-like network of efficient routing agents.
Pangloss: Your idealism is touching, but there are no clean wars. None of this would have happened without the invasion. The invasion was the Arab world’s Normandy. Sure it’s been ugly. So was Normandy, where, need I remind you, two thousand four hundred GIs died on Omaha Beach alone in the first hours, which makes the 2,000 deaths in Iraq not such a bad show for two and a half years’ work. But after Normandy came, well, Nuremberg, except we’re doing it much more cheaply in Iraq.
Martin: Spoken like a true Wal-Mart shopper for democracy: Even lives at a low price. Always.
Pangloss: Would you rather keep filling mass graves until your knights-in-shining-armor-from-within rode in to save them, who knows when?
Martin: I would rather your happy premise spoke less Oxford English and more Baghdad Arabic, or any Arabic for that matter. Maybe then you’d hear the gibberish in your gloss.
Pangloss: You speak of deferring to the Arab Street, but you’re only deferring to its gutters, and drowning western ideals with you. I refuse to concede that we have nothing to give the East when we’re all in this to make the best of all possible worlds.
Martin: Give them jeans. Give them triple-decker burgers. Give them high-platform shoes and Lindsay Lohan’s lowbrow pops. Give them the French Quarter’s whores for that matter. They’re desperate for work and dicks more interesting than realtors’. Those are universal currencies anyone is happy to deal in from Vancouver to Sanzhou. Just spare them the effluents of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute
and the creepy-crawly nuggets of hubris dribbling out of whatever’s left of the Bush politbureau.

Pangloss: I’ll be sure to let Thomas Jefferson know you disapprove of human rights exports.
Martin: He’ll be sure to let you know that “With nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties; and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.” Our word, right now, is as good as our morals, cher Martin.
Pangloss: A quote is no substitute for reality.
Martin: Reality is no excuse for irrigating folly.
Pangloss: Your pessimism is underwhelming.
Martin: Your optimism has overshot its blanks.
Pangloss: I hear Cacambo calling us to lunch.
Martin: Finally, some grilled cheese I can sink my teeth into.

[An alternative version of the dialogue appears in the Oct. 25 editions of the Daytona Beach News-Journal]

Intelligent Design

Mark Twain addressed the matter in “The Character of Man,” never published while he was alive, presumably because the unintelligently designed might have launched an inclement fatwa on his Hannibal long before fatwas were cool:

“Concerning Man—he is too large a subject to be treated as a whole; so I will merely discuss a detail or two of him at this time. I desire to contemplate him from this point of view—this premise: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn't served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably matter of surprise and regret to the Creator. . . . For his history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one—the solitary one—that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices—the most hateful. That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. But if the cat knows she is inflicting pain when she plays with the frightened mouse, then we must make an exception here; we must grant that in one detail man is the moral peer of the cat. All creatures kill—there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge. Also—in all the list he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.”

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Twicebaked Rice

A few days before the invasion of Iraq began, the colonel in charge of the Marines’ 11th Regiment — a quartet of artillery battalions whose “organic weapon is the 155mm howitzer” — turned up to give his troops a pep talk from the back of a truck. “The indication we’re getting from over the border is that there’s not much motivation for a fight,” he told the troops. “Last week a bunch of Iraqis came up to the Brits and tried to surrender, but the Brits said, ‘It’s not time yet.’” Naturally, his Marines tittered and snickered. They were entitled. They’d been practicing gas-attack drill after drill in 120-degree heat day after day, donning MOPP suits and imagining the worst. What they couldn’t possibly have known was how limited their commanders’ imagination was, with very few exceptions. This colonel wasn’t it. He said: “We’re gonna go to Baghdad, fight the Republican Guard, take care of them, replace Saddam, and put stability operations in place. Then we’re gonna come back home.” (I’m quoting from the account by Chris Ayres, the London Times correspondent and author of the just-released War Reporting for Cowards, about which another day), who was an embed with the 11th Regiment. So this is taking place in the second to third week of March, 2003. The colonel’s summation pretty much sums up, in soldierly argot, what the cakewalk-crowd around Bush was thinking at the time.

It’s been two and a half years. This weekend the military will register its 2,000th GI death in Iraq. (They’re at 1,988 today, 2,187 if you include coalition deaths, 2,433 if you include Afghanistan, the forgotten lost cause). You figure a few lessons have been learned, at least the one about not sounding so glibly self-confident that a few good-sounding sentences and a few good men can get the job done. Yesterday Condoleezza Rice appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Her sum-up: “I have said our strategy is to clear, hold and build.” How different that phrase is from the 11th Regiment’s colonel’s is any hairsplitter’s guess. But let’s return to the Regiment the evening after the colonel left to prepare for his “stability operations.” Grunts are in their tent, not asleep. A corporal is reading a letter from home. Ayres quotes him: “Man, this letter’s depressing the hell out of me. Even my goddamn brother’s against the war.” “No shit,” comes a reply. The corporal continued: “My brother’s the kind of guy who usually says, ‘Let’s just kill the motherfuckers.’” A pause. Then: “What’s our job here to do anyway?” From the American perspective, the question has answered itself, so far, 1,988 times.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Plus Ça Change

Much about the occasion seemed Orwellian, at least to those accustomed to Western-style democracies. In 1995, the first time such a referendum was held, official results gave Mr. Hussein a 99.96 percent ''yes'' vote, on a voter turnout of 99 percent. With nine million voters, that meant, taken literally, only about 3,600 Iraqis, give or take, spoiled their ballots or voted no.

—From a John F. Burns story in the Oct. 16, 2002 New York Times about Saddam Hussein’s “reelection,” which Hussein did win by 99 percent again.

Iraqi election officials said Monday that they were investigating "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces, where as many as 99 percent of the voters were reported to have cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution. The investigation raised the possibility that the results of the referendum could be called into question.

—The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2005.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Shoukran Shawcross

The Shawcross mystery continues. It was William Shawcross’ Sideshow in 1979 that revealed the lies behind the Vietnam War and the decimation of Cambodia, triggered by Nixon’s secret bombings. But Shawcross has been among the Bush administration’s strongest supporters of war in Iraq, now as much as ever. He has a point, too. Not just “a point,” but a damn good argument against peace for America’s sake: “Thanks to the coalition Iraqis have more confidence in their future than we do. Iraqi refugees are not fleeing abroad in vast numbers, as happened during previous crises. The Iraqi dinar has strengthened, not weakened, against the currencies of other oil-producing nations. The mistakes that have been made in Iraq since its liberation do not alter the fact that the overthrow of Hussein has given Iraqis a chance they never had before and has shaken the ramshackle, corrupt and dictatorial foundations of the Middle East.” One refutation, and I’m not sure it’s morally defensible, considering the alternative, is that the Iraqi regime in place now is itself a ramshackle gathering of gangs waiting their turn at overturning Iraq their way — that the spectacle of democracy is thinner than the paper ballots it’s written on. But between that shoddy excuse for a government and the assassins—the, and let’s be clear about it, Islamo-fascists of the “opposition,” which has no legitimacy as an opposition—isn’t the shoddy excuse preferable?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Iraq's Cambodia

Now that we’re getting purposefully mired in the shifting sands of the Syrian-Iraqi border, it’s time for a little refresher course in presidential hubris and Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as the Nixon and Kissinger show. It was December 9, 1970. Nixon and Kissinger had this phone conversation:

Kissinger: Mr. President.
Nixon: The thing that concerns me about this thing you sent over on Cambodia was [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas] Moorer’s, it seems to me, lame excuse that they did not have any intelligence because the weather has been bad. I don’t think they are trying to do a good enough job in trying to get the intelligence over there. You understand what I mean?
Nixon: There are other methods of getting intelligence than simply flying. They’ve got the methods of the Cambodians to talk to and a hell of a lot of other people and I don’t think they have done enough there. The second thing is as I have put on here now I want you to get ahold of [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas] Moorer tonight and I want a plan where every goddamn thing that can fly goes into Cambodia and hits every target that is open.
Kissinger: Right.
Nixon: That’s to be done tomorrow. Tomorrow. Is that clear?
Kissinger: That is right.
Nixon: I want this done. Now that is one thing that can turn this around some. They are running these goddamn milk runs in order to get their air medal. You know what they are doing Henry. It’s horrible what the Air Force is doing. They aren’t doing anything worth a damn.
Kissinger: They are not imaginative.
Nixon: Well, they’re not only not imaginative but they are just running these things — bombing jungles. You know that. They have got to go in there and I mean really go in. I don’t want the gunships, I want the helicopter ships. I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?
Kissinger: Right, Mr. President.
Nixon: You know we talk about this Cambodia thing and I’m not going to have another crisis on Cambodia hit us in the face like it did last year. That again was a case of them not being on top of things. By God we are not going to let this happen this time.
Kissinger: The problem is Mr. President the Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war and that is the—in fact they are not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight.
Nixon: That’s right. There isn’t going to be any air battle against the Soviet Union as you well know.
Kissinger: Exactly, I agree completely. […] And I will get the bombing campaign laid on for tomorrow.
Nixon: I want them to hit everything. I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything that will help out here and let’s start giving them a little shock. There must be something we can do. Let [U.S. Commander in Vietnam, Creighton] Abrams, he’s to take personal charge and dismiss the Air Force commander if necessary over there. And I want Haig to look into this when he is over there.
Kissinger: Absolutely.
Nixon: We have to do a better job because we are just coming to the crunch. Right now there is a chance to win this goddamn war and that’s probably what we are going to have to do because we are not going to do anything at the conference table. But we aren’t going to win it with the people—the kind of assholes come in here like today saying well now there is a crisis in Cambodia. Hell, I have been asking about it for the last two weeks you know and you said there isn’t one.

Once Kissinger hung up with Nixon, he called up Haig to relay Nixon’s desires: “[H]e wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”

Go back one year, to November 3, 1969, and Nixon’s Vietnamization speech: “In July, on my visit to Vietnam, I changed General Abrams’ orders so that they were consistent with the objectives of our new policies. Under the new orders, the primary mission of our troops is to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam. […]Enemy infiltration, infiltration which is essential if they are to launch a major attack, over the last 3 months is less than 20 percent of what it was over the same period last year.”

That’s essentially the same policy of Iraqization in place now, echoed by the same reports of better American controls over Tal Afara or other regions of western Iraq. The incursions into Syria, like the incursions into Cambodia, show up the gulf between public pronouncements and on-the-ground realities. What we don’t yet know is the sort of conversations Bush is having with his inner circle, which is as much of an echo chamber as Kissinger was for Nixon.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Assisted Suicide in Syria

Clark Clifford Described the choices open to the United States as he saw them: (1) expansion of the war—a major increase in ground troops, national mobilization, extension of ground action in Laos, Cambodia and perhaps the southern part of North Vietnam, stepped up bombing in the North; (2) muddle along—perhaps a few thousand more troops for Vietnam but no change in national strategy; and (3) a “reduced strategy”—reduction in the bombing, abandonment of isolated positions such as Khe Sanh, and the use of American troops as a shield around populated areas while the Vietnamese government and its troops were given time to assume the burden of war.
                              —From Tet!, by Don Oberdorfer (1971)

The firefight, between Army Rangers and Syrian troops along the border with Iraq, was the most serious of the conflicts with President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to American and Syrian officials. It illustrated the dangers facing American troops as Washington tries to apply more political and military pressure on a country that President Bush last week labeled one of the "allies of convenience" with Islamic extremists. He also named Iran.
                              —The New York Times, Oct. 15, 2005

But whose assisted suicide? It’s clear enough that Syria, along with Oregon, but not as verdantly, is in the vanguard of states willing to give assisted suicide a chance, or assisted assassination anyway; that seems to be the case of the assisted self-cleansing of Ghazi Kanaan, the Syrian minister and Ricardo Montalban understudy who for so many years tirelessly gave of himself to assist in various forms of cleansing in Lebanon, when that spit of real estate belonged entirely to the Assad stock fund. But now that the United States has decided to make Syria its Mideastern Cambodia, it’s just as possible that the American experiment in this latest of over theres has opened the gas vat in its own kind of assisted suicide, with Syria for a Kevorkian VW bus and (should that fail) Iran waiting to pick up the slack. Curious though that the Times uncovers this incursive newsflash several months after it’s been happening. More curious still: the possibility of special operation missions inside Syrian territory is referred to like the possibility that, say, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office might send a canine unit to Nashville to observe correctional practices at the Supermax state penitentiary: a nice excursion, but nothing out of the ordinary for your average police force. It’s in character with the way Our Lord and Savior President has been conducting his $200 million-a-day war (Afghanistan’s batteries not included), so it should be in character with what may happen next, as such things go.

No one would mourn the cleansing (by any means necessary, as X and so-and-so would have it) of the Assad branch of the Arab world’s triffids, but then what? In these deserts of leadership and oases of opportunism and corruption and bedlam and cruelty for GDP the next man could just as easily be a turbanized Pol-Pot (redundancy here: the Khmers wore turbans) as a Damascene Bin Laden. Put aside Syria’s dearth of parliamentary spellings and rituals for the last millennium; what are the chances that even an enlightened follicle would rise up to replace the Ass-man, as Kramer so eloquently put it? As good as the chances that today’s vote in Iraq will either reverse global warming or enable a democracy spelling bee in Ramadi as part of the Eid festivities when Ramadan ends almost in time for Halloween. At least there’s been dress-up democracy in Iraq for three years and dress-up thrills for the special-ops in Syria (better training than the Mojave desert’s Park Rangers would ever allow). It’s been Halloween every day. And of course every day it’s been All Souls’ day too, a day more accurately known as the Day of the Dead—those in purgatory, anyway. That is, us poor souls in this fifth year of our Lord and Savior President’s regency. (In whose name is he really ruling: that’s the real but not exactly unanswered question.)