And now the bombs are falling on Syria.
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In it, he went after the war of that moment and the money that the U.S. was pouring into it as symptoms of a societal disaster. President Lyndon Johnson’s poverty program was being “broken and eviscerated,” King said from the pulpit of that church, “as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war... We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.” Twice more in that ringing speech he spoke of “the madness of Vietnam” and called for it to cease.
Don’t think of that as just a preacher’s metaphor. There was a genuine madness on the loose—and not just in the “free-fire zones” of Vietnam but in policy circles here in the United States, in the frustration of top military and civilian officials who felt gripped by an eerie helplessness as they widened a terrible war on the ground and in the air. They were, it seemed, incapable of imagining any other path than escalation in the face of disaster and possible defeat. Even in the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when there was a brief attempt to paint that lost war in a more heroic hue (“a noble cause,” the president called it), that sense of madness, or at least of resulting mental illness, lingered. It remained embedded in a phrase then regularly applied to Americans who were less than willing to once again head aggressively into the world. They were suffering from, it was said, “Vietnam syndrome.”
Today, almost 25 years into what someday might simply be called America’s Iraq War (whose third iteration we’ve recently entered), you can feel that a similar “madness” has Washington by the throat. Just as King noted of the Vietnam era, since 9/11 American domestic programs and agencies have been starved while money poured into the coffers of the Pentagon and an increasingly bloated national security state. The results have been obvious. In the face of the spreading Ebola virus in West Africa, for instance, the president can no longer turn to civilian agencies or organizations for help, but has to call on the U.S. military in an “Ebola surge”—even our language has been militarized—although its forces are not known for their skills, successes, or spendthrift ways when it comes to civilian “humanitarian” or nation-building operations.
We’ve already entered the period when strategy, such as it is, falls away, and our leaders feel strangely helpless before the drip, drip, drip of failure and the unbearable urge for further escalation. At this point, in fact, the hysteria in Washington over the Islamic State seems a pitch or two higher than anything experienced in the Vietnam years. A fiercely sectarian force in the Middle East has captured the moment and riveted attention, even though its limits in a region full of potential enemies seem obvious and its “existential threat” to the U.S. consists of the possibility that some stray American jihadi might indeed try to harm a few of us. Call it emotional escalation in a Washington that seems remarkably unhinged.
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It took Osama bin Laden $400,000 to $500,000, 19 hijackers, and much planning to produce the fallen towers of 9/11 and the ensuing hysteria in this country that launched the disastrous, never-ending Global War on Terror. It took the leaders of the Islamic State maybe a few hundred bucks and two grim videos, featuring three men on a featureless plain in Syria, to create utter, blind hysteria here. Think of this as confirmation of Karl Marx’s famous comment that the first time is tragedy, but the second is farce.
One clear sign of the farcical nature of our moment is the inability to use almost any common word or phrase in an uncontested way if you put "Iraq" or "Islamic State" or "Syria" in the same sentence. Remember when the worst Washington could come up with in contested words was the meaning of “is” in Bill Clinton’s infamous statement about his relationship with a White House intern? Linguistically speaking, those were the glory days, the utopian days of official Washington.
Just consider three commonplace terms of the moment: “war,” “boots on the ground,” and “combat.” A single question links them all: Are we or aren’t we? And to that, in each case, Washington has no acceptable answer. On war, the secretary of state said no, we weren’t; the White House and Pentagon press offices announced that yes, we were; and the president fudged. He called it “targeted action” and spoke of America’s “unique capability to mobilize against an organization like ISIL,” but God save us, what it wasn't and wouldn't be was a “ground war.”
Only with Congress did a certain clarity prevail. Nothing it did really mattered. Whatever Congress decided or refused to decide when it came to going to war would be fine and dandy, because the White House was going to do “it” anyway. “It,” of course, was the Clintonesque “is” of present-day Middle Eastern policy. Who knew what it was, but here was what it wasn’t and would never be: “boots on the ground.” Admittedly, the president has already dispatched 1,600 booted troops to Iraq’s ground (with more to come), but they evidently didn’t qualify as boots on the ground because, whatever they were doing, they would not be going into “combat” (which is evidently the only place where military boots officially hit the ground). The president has been utterly clear on this. There would be no American “combat mission” in Iraq. Unfortunately, “combat” turns out to be another of those dicey terms, since those non-boots had barely landed in Iraq when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey started to raise the possibility that some of them, armed, might one day be forward deployed with Iraqi troops as advisers and spotters for U.S. air power in future battles for Iraq’s northern cities. This, the White House now seems intent on defining as not being a “combat mission.”
And we’re only weeks into an ongoing operation that could last years. Imagine the pretzeling of the language by then. Perhaps it might be easiest if everyone -- Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and Washington’s pundits -- simply agreed that the United States is at “war-ish” in Iraq, with boots on the ground-ish in potentially combat-ish situations. Former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren spent his own time in Iraq and wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about it. In “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition,” he catches perfectly the mind-boggling strangeness of Washington doing it all over again, this time as the grimmest of farces.