THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION told outright lies about the immediate threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. It continues to pass off cynical yet upbeat assurances that a mighty "coalition" of nations is allied in the Iraq invasion, when ó in military terms ó itís effectively composed of the US, Great Britain, and a limited contingent of Australians. So itís tempting to dismiss its claim that the war is on schedule and going as intended.
So far, our military situation in Iraq has consisted of a highly unusual and volatile chain of events. Itís extremely difficult to get a grip on it no matter where you sit. As is so often the case, we donít suffer from a lack of information. If anything, we operate under the weight of so much.
Back in the bad old days of the Vietnam War, the New Yorkerís television critic, Michael J. Arlen, dubbed that conflict "the living-room war." That's because several minutes of film, which occasionally aired on once-an-evening newscasts, could intimately insinuate the reality of the war into the collective consciousness. Today, of course, itís All War, All the Time on the cable channels. And that can lead any of us at any time to believe we might actually have a sense of whatís going on. As we conceived this editorial, the reverberations from Seymour M. Hershís report that the Pentagon-based military brass was at serious odds with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had made their way onto the front pages of the national dailies, resulting in headlines like MILITARY OFFICERS WARN THAT THEY HAVE TOO FEW TROOPS in the not usually excitable Wall Street Journal. Indeed, Hersh quotes one intelligence official describing the then-stalled march to Baghdad as a "stalemate." As we go to press, however, "coalition" armor is reported to have forged ahead just 20 miles outside Baghdad. Is this maneuver a probe? A prelude to the big attack? The attack itself? Even if the military were of a mind to comment, the most General Tommy Franks might say would be that the "situation is fluid." Translation: if soldiers and Marines can exploit the situation, they will. If they canít, they wonít.
In terms of civilian and military lives lost and the anguish inflicted on their friends and families, these are days of pain. Certainly, the inventors of this war ó President George W. Bush, Vice-President Richard Cheney, and Secretary Rumsfeld ó know this. But their boardroom mentality and country-club certitude make even their most sincerely delivered pronouncements ring hollow to so many of us. "Most men who know battle," Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a thrice-wounded veteran of the Civil War, observed on Memorial Day 108 years ago, "know the cynic force with which the thoughts of common sense will assail them in times of stress." Perhaps this is why the sometimes incomplete and evasive answers the military gives to the press have an elliptical dignity that is beyond the provenance of our political leaders, or at least this particular triad.
It is an inconvenient ó maybe even uncomfortable ó fact of life that for those of us critical of this war, or outright opposed to it, the militaryís post-Vietnam record has been more successful than has that of the militaryís political masters. Gulf War I and the campaigns in Kosovo and Afghanistan were victories. In the most clinical sense, there is more reason than not to suggest that, at this moment in any case, weíll see military success in Iraq. The trouble lies in the cost ó in actual lives lost and in terms of compromised political influence. For the rest of the world also watches this war in real time. And the world sees not only soldiers in battle, but also wounded and dead women and children. The unprecedented efforts by our military to avoid civilian casualties and Saddamís active connivance to see them inflicted will, we fear, become fine points lost on the global audience.
Even as steely an intellect as old-soldier Holmes recognized that war is infused with emotion. And it is our anxiety about the price this war will exact that has calibrated our reactions to minute-by-minute-news accounts to hair-trigger sensitivity.
Whether this war lasts days, weeks, or months, two paramount questions loom. First, will the occupation of Iraq turn into a quagmire, akin to what Israel suffered in Lebanon, or Great Britain in Northern Ireland? What, singing of Vietnam in 1967, Pete Seeger called being "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"? And second, will the Iraq invasion further destabilize this volatile region as the Nixon/Kissinger prosecution of the Vietnam War further destabilized Southeast Asia, leading directly to the holocaust in Cambodia?
These are the fears we should keep in mind as All War, All the Time cable television washes over us.
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