Sunday, August 14, 2005

Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom

I used to hear it said sometimes that demonstrators against the Vietnam War were provoked to such great numbers only because of the draft -- that they were motivated by personal fear of fighting or dying. I never hear that about those protesting the Iraq war. We do not have a draft, yet the numbers of people who publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq excelled those of the Vietnam era. Were a draft to be instituted, the large protests would resume, probably larger than ever. Personal fear does motivate people; I'll concede that, even as I insist that other things motivate me or you or any person who takes a stance on a war. Anyway, fear of dying in a war without purpose strikes me as a perfectly legitimate motive. I just wonder how often we think of the other side of this coin: that people can support a war too easily, in fact too vociferously, because they do not face any personal risk of dying. I'm suggesting that when you stand in no danger of being drafted or killed, you can too easily fall into nationalistic fantasies. And like any fantasy, they will be immune to reason; you will defend your position with passion and stubborness, but not with reason or with the ability to listen soberly to others.

I did not support Desert Storm. I adopted Noam Chomsky's view that it constituted U.S. aggression. In those months after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, when the U.S. was building up a force to confront Saddam Hussein, I was in my junior year at Hamilton College in Utica, New York. I took seriously the prospect of being drafted. Perhaps a draft was never a true possibility, but I was not so familiar with the details of our situation to know that. I simply regarded the U.S. as about to enter its first war since Vietnam, and I associated both that war and the other war I thought about, World War II, with a draft. So for several weeks I soberly considered the possibility that I'd be drafted, that I'd have to fight in a desert war with chemical weapons at the age of 20, and that I would die without ever having really lived.

And you know what? I decided that if I were drafted, I would not run to Canada. I would go. I viewed the war as wrong, but I did not view it as lacking just causes entirely. I knew that fighting would produce some good and right a wrong that had been done to millions of people in Kuwait -- and that U.S. military power would grow, which I did not regard as a good thing. It may be that I was splitting hairs, but I am only reporting what my reflections were at the time. I felt that if I had been drafted into a war lacking any just cause, I should avoid the draft; but that if I were called to the Persian Gulf, my serious doubts and judgments about this war against Saddam Hussein would not justify fleeing elsewhere, flouting a considerable authority which I respected, abandoning fellow citizens, and upending my life forever. That was how I worked it out. I decided to go if called, but to oppose the war if I could.

What matters to me now is that I viewed the situation soberly. Whether I viewed it accurately is something else, and could be debated forever. But I was sober. Though susceptible to nationalistic fantasies, which did indeed affect me when the U.S. began its triumphal and almost cost-free victory, no fantasy was driving me in the fall of 1990, as U.S. troops gathered in Saudi Arabia. I was scared and deeply concerned, and engaged in the situation, or at least ready to be. I'm sure that regarding myself in that way -- regarding my own possible actions and duties -- helped me to see what was wrong with the war. It helped me not to get caught up in theories or fantasies about what might be. And indeed I think the whole country was quite sober in those months -- at least as I look back in retrospect.

In 2002 it was a different story. By then it was clear that Iraq could never defeat the U.S. or even bloody our military forces seriously. There had been no talk in 1990 of a cakewalk -- but this time around we have heard, from very early on, a lot about cakewalks and triumphal processions as liberators. We heard it because Desert Storm had made it possible for us to expect another quick military victory and prompt homecoming. And we heard it, I'm sure, because no one was afraid anymore of a difficult struggle requiring a draft.

The book that affected me most in the fall of 2002 was Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Pollack wrote, "... through our own mistakes, the perfidy of others, and Saddam's cunning, the United States is left with few good policy options toward Iraq, and increasingly, the option that makes the most sense is for the United States to launch a full-scale invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam, eradicate his weapons of mass destruction, and rebuild Iraq as a properous and stable society for the good of the United States, Iraq's own people, and the entire region." He added that he could hardly believe he was advocating such a course, and he always consistenly called it the least bad option. Pollack indeed is one of the most sober thinkers I know when it comes to Iraq. He said that it would be long, hard work, and that trying to do it on the cheap would be a serious mistake -- words that have come true. He saw that there was no serious connection between Iraq and 9-11 or Al-Qaeda, and warned that invading Iraq before the threat from Al-Qaeda had been contained would be a serious mistake. All this has been proven true. The Bush administration, besides selling the invasion as a blow to Al-Qaeda, has tried to do its project in Iraq on the cheap, and has indulged in triumphalist thinking incapable of sober listening.

But I have to admit that when Pollack laid out the invasion of Iraq in the words quoted above, I found his words stirring. It tapped a nerve in me that was hungry for a successful crusade, in the sense that Eisenhower meant when he used that word to describe the D-Day campaign. I was not being sober enough. I am glad that it was Pollack and not someone else who stirred me to support the war, and gratified that he became an early critic of the invasion, but I'm disappointed with myself when I think of how I knew, even before the invasion, that Pollack's description of the situation was quite different from Bush's, and how I set that aside because I wanted the invasion and simply hoped that it would turn out okay. That is the classic effect of a fantasy, isn't it? Something that you want, and that causes you to set aside real-world considerations, with a kind of blind hope. You go along with the good feelings (or the hope of good feelings), and let them decide the situation for you.

Since then Iraq has brought very little but sobering pain.

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