Oh, What a Lovely War! So?
Vice President Cheney, March 19, when asked about the American public's disapproval of the Iraq War.
"I must say, I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you...in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."
President Bush, March 13, speaking by videoconference to American military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan.
These are not adolescents talking. This is the Leader of the Free World and his Number-Two (you figure out which is which) demonstrating their unfitness for office. Their words encapsulate all we know about the selling and conduct of the Iraq War: Cheney's, the contempt for the decent opinion of mankind that led us to charge into war over the objection of virtually every world leader not known as Bush's Poodle; Bush's, the delusional thinking that led us into the Middle East, expecting a baseball-and-apple-pie democracy to pop up in response.
The two statements also make clear how deeply grounded in one another are the arrogance and the ignorance that have given us this long, awful war. Cheney, in his scorn for public opinion, matches Bush in his detachment from the realities of war. Bush, in his Alfred E. Neuman view of armed conflict, matches Cheney in his contempt for the experience of the people he's charged with leading.
I suppose we shouldn't be shocked to hear Dick Cheney, who has devoted the last thirty years to rendering unto the presidency the things which are Caesar's, dismiss the small matter of the wishes of the citizenry that employs him. From his energy-policy pow-wows with oil magnates at the beginning of the Bush Administration to his shotgun discharge in the direction of a fellow rich guy to the actual nature of his role in the Administration and its war-making, he's never felt the need to explain anything to anyone.
Indeed, it seems he's gotten better at this posture as the years have gone by: He told the American public in one word what it took two words to tell Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate. (Now, that's GOP efficiency!)
But is it too much to expect Dick Cheney--who did, after all, spend a year at Yale before flunking out--to know a lick of history? Anyone who knows the first thing about our last quagmire understands that an American war fought without the support of the American populace cannot be sustained. The antiwar movement notwithstanding, public support for the war in Vietnam remained strong until February 1968, after the Tet Offensive gave the lie to promises of light at the end of the tunnel.
Of course, Dick Cheney may not have been paying much attention to the war as it was happening, busy as he was bedazzling Lynne to sire the offspring that would keep him safely out of harm's way. But in the years since, he surely has had time to crack a book or talk to someone who fought in Vietnam. Wherever historians or veterans fall along the Vietnam divide--we should never have fought; we should never have fought with one hand tied behind our backs--they all accept Vietnam's lesson that in our democracy, a war must have the backing of the people. And lies--as abundant today as forty years ago--offer the surest way to squander that support.
Of all the dim-witted statements uttered about this war by the small, inept man occupying the Oval Office, none is more obscenely clueless than the insulting pep talk he offered to our people in Afghanistan. "Bring 'em on," his barroom double-dare-ya to Iraqi insurgents, inviting them to do their best to kill servicemen and -women under his command, was a taunt no decent commanding officer would ever issue.
But to consider "confronting danger"--in other words, trying to kill people before they kill you, which is, after all, what men at war do--"romantic;" to envy brave young people the chance to fight, die, lose limbs, lose comrades; to see as "fantastic" the searing experience of armed conflict that burdens its participants with a lifetime of nightmares, disgraces the office he holds and every one of us he purports to represent. Can anyone imagine Dwight Eisenhower suggesting on June 6, 1944 that he envied the young soldiers he was sending into harm's way?
Bush says he's too old now and has another job. (Come January, your calendar's clear, Mr. President. Shall we shave your head and start rifle training this afternoon?) He was exactly the right age forty years ago, and seemed to harbor little competing career ambition, when his country called him to seek romance in Southeast Asia. Somehow the potential experience didn't seem fantastic enough for him to cast his lot with the young Texans too poor in money or connections to land a spot in the Champagne Unit. How he must have envied those grunts in Vietnam as he bore the burdens of the Top Gun life, scouring the skies over Lubbock for stray MiGs. His stint encompassed all the elements of the service of fighter pilots ten thousand miles away--except one: No one was trying to kill him.
The juvenile young man played at war and had a grand time. No wonder the juvenile older man thinks it a lark. This is the boy's game Bush reenacted when he landed on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln to declare "Mission accomplished" five years ago this May. (And while we're on the subject, why has it never been deemed proper for reporters to ask if the President has encouraged his two military-aged daughters to trade their Manolo Blahniks for combat boots? FDR's four sons fought in World War II. LBJ's two sons-in-law went to Vietnam. Prince Harry begged to be sent to Afghanistan. What more than the media's refusal to demand an answer to this question is needed to prove that war is not the business of the privileged in today's America?)
But as plainly idiotic as Bush's words to Afghanistan were, they also betray an ignorance so gratuitious it can only be traced to the man's unbounded arrogance. Here's how a Vietnam Marine, present when a small firebase near the DMZ was overrun, described combat to me: "You're just crawling through guts and brains and smoke. People talk about the smell of combat. When you know what somebody's insides smell like and feel like, it does something to you. When you watch war on TV, you're only hit by a couple of senses; if you read about it, you're only hit by a couple of senses. Man, when you're in it, you find senses you never knew you had."
We who have only read about war or watched it on TV can never truly understand what it is like to endure it. But we can listen to those who have been there--indeed, we must, if we are to be informed citizens of a democracy. George Bush may have long ago missed his chance to know war firsthand, but in the here and now, his comments make shockingly clear his continued dereliction of duty.
Has he ever brought veterans in to speak candidly of their time in combat and of their time afterward living with the memories? Has he ever read a single page of a single war memoir or oral history? Has he ever asked for a briefing from psychologists who treat the lifelong torment of PTSD?
Surely, he's never read Wilfred Owen, else he would not still believe "The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
Bush's contempt for the life of the mind is well-known and appalling. But it's more than appalling--it's criminal--that he has not set aside this disdain for even a moment so that he might inform himself as to what his orders mean to the lives of the servicemembers executing them.
Make no mistake, Bush's cheery exhortation to the troops in Afghanistan is just as much of a "fuck you" to the members of our armed forces as Cheney's "So?" is to the American public. Cheney's dismissal of the people's intent is as willfully oblivious to the facts of war as is Bush's believing armed conflict to be in any way "romantic."
These two men have no business ordering brave men and women into battle.
Michael Takiff is the author of Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam (Wm. Morrow, 2003). His writing has appeared on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
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