Thursday, April 10, 2008

Remote War

At last count, about 4,024 US troops have died and 30,000 more have sustained injuries, a substantial number among them will suffer lifelong disabilities.  We glibly call them “ours”, but I knew not a single one of the dead, nor do I know any of the wounded.  I’ve encountered none of their families, and chances are neither do you.  They are not in our circle, don’t attend our school, don’t work or worship with us.  In the real time world we occupy in relative comfort, “our own” are someone else’s.  Perhaps most Americans missed out on the Bush tax cuts, but not a single one of us will be asked to add even one dollar to our April 15 tax bill to fund the conflict.  The money has been borrowed: to be paid at a later date, again by some unidentified other, probably not by us.  Even in the short-term, as the Fed lowers rates to keep the economy from falling off the cliff, the borrowing isn’t costing us as much as it should.  In sum, Iraq is a war being waged and paid for by others and, if we’re really honest about it, something totally remote.  It does not touch our personal lives.  To underscore that point, as Frank Rich pointed out in his most recent column, we aren’t even reading or hearing much about it these days in the press.  Indeed, based upon recent polling, the pundits have ordained that the upcoming election will be more about the economy (stupid) than the war.  And I have a bridge for sale, if you’re interested.

It is in this context of unreality that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker came to the Hill this week to report on status of the distant war that fails to touch most of our lives in any measurable way.  At least they had the honesty (albeit calculated) not to claim that we’ve have turned any corner or are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  What they presented instead was something fragile and reversible.  It was a transparently implied “best not to upset the applecart” warning, fully expected and an open-ended trap.  Don’t you feel like we’re watching one of those excruciating circular dramas?  The antagonists change names chameleon-like, disappearing and reappearing, to suit the playwright’s purposes in a moment of time.  I distinctly remember Rummy talking of dead-enders but equally of criminals in those halcyon days of proclaimed triumph over tyranny.  Now, if the duo from the Green Zone is to be believed, the very same criminals seem to be back in Basra.  Like John McCain, we can’t quite decide if they are Sunni or Shiite.  The enemy is a moving and changing target, except of course for that ever-present constant, Al Qaeda in Iraq (now AQI), depending on the narrative in total retreat, but never completely gone.  And what about all those deadenders?  Not to worry, they are currently our (well-paid) best friends.  Elliot Spitzer, eat your heart out.  In the unlikely event that AQI fails, we always have Iran to fall back on.  This of course is the same country whose President was recently greeted by Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad with pomp and public hugs?

It’s hard not to think of Viet Nam every time I watch one of these predictable hearings – always far more theater than substance.  The Democrats by and large (Joe Lieberman still sits on their side of the table) oppose continuing the conflict and valiantly try to get the designated “performers” to define an endpoint, even an imperfect one.  The Republicans on the Armed Services Committee and less so on the Foreign Relations Committee cheer the great progress made in these post surge months.  Fragile and reversible, much to applaud.  Some of these cheerleaders are disingenuous but that doesn’t mean that they are really clueless.  Regardless of party, everyone up there knows there is no good solution.  All most know from the Viet Nam experience that when we leave, perhaps even if it happens precipitously, the sky is unlikely to fall.  Whatever damage there is has long since been done; whatever destabilization will continue with us or without us.  One thiing we do know, there is a definable and measurable difference between how John McCain and either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will move forward come January 20.  Richard Nixon, who came to office with no illusions about winning in Viet Nam, nevertheless escalated and stayed the course for more than four additional years.  It is not hard to imagine what John McCain, who contends this conflict is winnable (and we’ve made progress toward that end), will do should Americans decide to transition from Bush to him.  He may chafe at mention of those hundred years but, for even the younger among us, he has a lifetime in mind.  If for nothing else we have to rationalize having the world’s largest US Embassy in what will continue to be (in the best of circumstances) a second or third tier strategic ally or trading partner. 

So the choice in November will be clear and, despite the pundits turn toward the economy as issue number one, I think the war will still prevail.  Most Americans, albeit with scant personal sacrifice, want out.  They sense (more than 80%) that the country is headed in the wrong direction and the Bush war, articulated or not, is ultimately the root cause.  In the long run, however, when and how we exit is almost less important than what has become of us as a nation.  As my father said in his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, we can’t be a nation of onlookers, but that’s exactly what we are.  At best.  There may be signs, still small, that some of us are waking up to that message.  The unprecedented rise in voter registration and participation in the primaries thus far is certainly a sign of some life, and more importantly the taking of some responsibility.  64% of the eligible voted in 2004 up for 60% in the Bush v. Gore election.  We’ve seen worse but still disgracefully lag other democracies. 

Voting is a start, but doesn’t go much beyond making a nominal financial contribution when the basket is passed down the row at church, sometimes less.  The question we have to ask ourselves is why we haven’t been out on the street and down to Washington to protest what most of us seem to feel is something unjust.  We castigate the rage of a Rev. Wright who speaks out, sometimes with offensive vitriol, without asking ourselves why we are so quiet and complacent.  Are we really comfortable with the horrendous collateral damage of our policies, some of them blatantly moved more by economics than by any conceivable or acceptable moral compass?  Would that the discussion about the seemingly awful and “unpatriotic” things he said, had been not merely about race (albeit long overdue), but also about our national character of comfort and convenient remoteness.  That is a discussion we all need to have – the ultimate checks and balances, not about our government, but ourselves.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin and Bobby, what if?

1968 was one of those years you’d like to forget but feel impelled, almost obsessed, to remember.  The casualties and deaths in Viet Nam were mounting with every passing day.  Lyndon Johnson made his “I shall not seek, nor shall I accept” speech.  The stock market experienced one of its inexplicable bubbles.  And, of course, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated but a few weeks apart.  It’s been forty years.  Historians, but even more so all of us, like to speculate on how different the things might be if someone of note had not left us.  This is ever more the case when people of special gifts die in the prime of life.  How would music or poetry be different had Mozart and Shelly survived into old age?  Neither Martin King nor Bobby Kennedy had that kind of genius, but both embodied unmet potential, which is what made their violent deaths so traumatic, searing the spring of that year into our memories.  To be sure any “what if” is pure speculation, but in these cases perhaps less so than with others.  In my view, the world with King would not have been very different; with Kennedy it might have gone in a totally different direction.

When Martin King was slain in Memphis, he was already an iconic figure who had delivered his definitive speech.  It wasn’t that the civil rights movement didn’t have a long way to go, but that he had already had provided it with sufficient fuel to make the trip.  In fact, at the time of his death, he was already spending much of his energy on Viet Nam where his voice was important but not in the same way.  There is little doubt that Barack Obama would not be headed for a possible nomination and election without what King did, especially with his emblematic “I have a dream” speech.  But its unlikely that an African American would have come to this place any earlier even if he had lived.  In some profound way, the martyred Martin, is probably vastly more powerful and influential than would Martin be in the fullness of his years.  We take the dead seriously, while tending to dismiss or find fault with the living especially when they are purveyors of inconvenient truths.  We can embrace selectively from the dead; we’re forced to see the blemishes of the living.  The dead don’t make mistakes, don’t speak out of turn, don’t disappoint.  We can and do control their narrative for our own purposes, which is exactly what we have done with Martin.  In that sense, he still lives and has been with us all the way to where we are.

In contrast, at death Bobby Kennedy was still unfinished business.  Unlike Martin, whose ideological train had left the station, Bobby’s had yet to be boarded.  Much more so than King, he was a-work-in progress who had been transformed by his life’s experiences from the Joe McCarthy staffer and Cold Warrior into a committed proponent of the underdog and opponent of what he had come to believe was a disastrous and misguided war.  His campaign was about ending it and changing the direction of the country.  He had not won the nomination, but seemed on his way to doing so.  Had he lived the rancor of the Democratic convention in Chicago which split the party and the country would unlikely have been.  Richard Nixon might not have been elected President.  The war might have been brought to a speedy conclusion.  As a result, the world we have today might well have looked very different.  RFK in death is sorely missed, but whatever power he had went with him in that Los Angeles kitchen.  There is memory but no myth, accomplishments but none of them “Martinesque”.

What was and what would have been are two different things.  What was, is enduring, what might have been, ephemeral.  Our unborn descendants are likely to remember Martin, will be able to recite his words much as we do those of Lincoln.  He made all the difference he could and so much more.  Bobby’s memory will dim with each passing year, another of those candidates who aspired to, but never reached, the Presidency.  If he has any further lasting power, he owes to Jack, the myth he was near not the one he created for himself.  In that sense, what happened in June, the unmet potential and the perhaps intended consequences, is much more poignant than what happened in April.

The late Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime exploring and teaching us about the power of myth.  How right he was.  I celebrate Martin Luther King and the power of his myth on this 40th anniversary of his life and what is because of him.  I will grieve on June 6th for Robert F. Kennedy, for what might have been and what happened in its place.  Take a moment and search for the talk he gave on this day informing a campaign stop audience of King’s death.  Listen to it and you will understand both my celebration and the mourning still to come.