President Bush's Magic Kingdom version of compassionate imperialism is summed up in a single picture at whitehouse.gov, the presidency's official Web site (not to be confused with the more nakedly honest pictorials at whitehouse.com). The picture features a U.S. soldier in full combat gear crouching down to eye level with an Iraqi boy of 6 or 7, and offering him a pink-tipped sucker. The boy is dark-skinned in that white-man's-burden sort of way. Besides ashen overalls, he's wearing the hint of a Mona Lisa smile. He's not sure what to think of the soldier's offering. The United States dropped at least twice as much bomb tonnage in two brief Gulf wars as it did for the entirety of the Vietnam War. A sucker may not seem like the most convincing segway to rosy-fingered intentions. The boy nevertheless accepts the treat the way anyone but a masochist would accept an aggressor's change of heart.
The intended audience of the picture, indeed the intended recipient of the sucker, is not the Iraqi boy. It is the American taxpayer, whose support for the unprovoked invasion and occupation of another country depends on believing that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is not a $100 billion swindle. Support once depended on believing that Saddam Hussein was a playmate of Osama bin Laden's, that Iraq was a giant chemistry set, that Saddam was capable, from his thousand-and-one-night police state, of actually harming the mainland of the United States. The White House's Ali Babas peddled these deceptions as if the world was their bazaar. But hot merchandise eventually cools.
You can topple only so many statues, arrest so many half brothers, hand out so many pink suckers and uncover so many dungeons (which have nothing on America's gulag of supermax prisons anyway) before the public wearies of rebuilding somebody else's Babylon while the American economy drifts toward Portugal. Yet one deception endures: that troops are in Iraq to protect our freedoms and our way of life. Invoke that one, and the shakedown of allegiance for the cause, or the silencing of opposition to it, can chug along with more octane than all the oil in Arabia.
The logic inherent to an unjust war makes it necessary to pretend that troops are individually rendering an indisputable service to the nation even if the collective purpose is suspicious. How else to justify to parents, widows and children back home the wasted lives, the injuries, the anguish, the endless absences? How else to justify the astounding expense of an optional war? Such a war needs every buy-in it can muster. It needs fabrications of worthy sacrifice like sentimental profiles of ex-POWs. It needs what the writer and Desert Storm veteran Anthony Swofford calls "the good news about war and warriors." But there's a point when the myths become offensive. People who hawk those tales, Swofford writes at the end of "Jarheads," his Gulf War memoir, "are liars and cheats and they gamble with your freedom and your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the reputation of your country."
U.S. troops in Iraq are not protecting freedom in America. Rather, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is endangering it. It is part of a pattern of aggression that mirrors the dubious excesses of the cold war abroad and at home, where the national security state was homeland defense's oppressive parent. As an enemy to public liberty (to paraphrase James Madison), the Bush administration's vague new wars on terrorism or on inflated enemies are the most to be dreaded. The security-industrial complex of contrived defenses like so-called Patriot Acts and color-coded alerts give the president the excuse to restrict freedom, judges the reasoning to abrogate it, legislators the room to ignore it, and a docile public the self-appointed task of trampling it to the proud tune of "God Bless America." Meanwhile the national treasury is bleeding red, its trillion-dollar deficits a bigger threat to national security than Saddam Hussein's army of inflatable soldiers could have been. Baghdad may be secure (for now). Social Security, and social security, aren't. We've been so busy waging wars in the name of freedom that freedom itself has become collateral damage.
That irony is never so sharp as when jingoes belittle war dissenters by trotting out the old cliche about U.S. soldiers abroad protecting the rights of dissenters at home. Not only are soldiers in Iraq not protecting anyone's liberty at home, or even life and the pursuit of lucre, but the reverse has rarely been so true. Troops are the instrument of illegal conquest abroad and wars the justification of methodical erosions of liberties at home. Since Congress surrendered to the White House shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, it is the dissenters, by sheer acts of opposition, who are forcing debate on these vague wars and injecting balance and a sense of democracy in the moblike submission to Magic Kingdom empire-building. The dissenters are conscious of Madison's warning. They're refusing to accept the sucker. It is enough to make a soldier's fans angry. But suckers make neither freedom nor free men.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
© 2003 News-Journal