Monday, September 03, 2007

When analogies attack.

First, if you have the time, I’ll ask you to read yesterday’s op-ed piece by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and resident war drum beater Jonathan Last. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

So, I’m sure you’ve heard this sort of “argument” before, when it comes to our current wars of empire in Afghanistan and Iraq. Conservative radio talk show hosts and columnists, like, for example, the historically and factually-challenged Michelle Malkin, just love invoking past American wars as a way of saying, “See? Told ya! 3,739 (give or take, plus however many will die this weekend) deaths isn’t so bad! Look how many died on the beaches of Normandy! So there!” And they can just never quite stop themselves from mentioning D-Day as part of this riff.

Now, young Mr. Last (yes, his age is relevant) could have mentioned the fact that approximately 8,000 Americans died in the three days of fighting that took place during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, or the fact that over 3,600 Americans died during a single day of fighting at the Battle of Antietam the year before, making it the single bloodiest day in American history before September 11, 2001. But instead, interestingly enough, Mr. Last chose to focus on The Somme. Why? Well, his point, if I’m reading him correctly, is to say that this battle was the “turning point,” or, to borrow the more popular cliche of the moment, the tipping point, in British history, in terms of Britain being an “empire.” “It was in the aftermath of Somme that the British mind first began to flinch at the price of empire. Within 20 years the British would be actively turning a back on the world, allowing slaughter to bubble forth from Germany again.” That, I guess, would be a not-so veiled reference to Neville Chamberlain, that other name out of history that warmongering conservative commentators like Mr. Last just can’t seem to reference enough. Especially considering that it allows them to ignore inconvenient little tidbits like The Battle of Britain and Britain’s role in the Allied campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and - yes! - the Normandy invasion. You know: battles they won. Is he really trying to tell us that after tallying up the gruesome numbers from this battle, that the Brits just quit? That’s news.

In other words, after losing over 420,000 young men to gain just seven miles of useless French real estate, the Brits lost their stomach for “empire.” That’s what this is about: not deaths, but “empire.” Having one, and keeping one. And so, the analogy goes, Mr. Last wants to know - as is the case in all these so-called arguments - what’s the “big deal” about losing “only 3,800″ Americans in three years of war in Iraq? Besides common sense and morality, I guess. It’s really about America’s “role" in the world. “You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet,” as a guy who was giving me grief over my “Peacemonger” bumpersticker yelled at me once. Yes, 420,000 eggs would be a lot of “eggs” wasted simply to re-establish a stalemate on the Western Front. It’s difficult to imagine the utter bewilderment and total sadness that must have overcome the British population at the news.

“With the Somme in mind, it is interesting to consider Iraq today and wonder if this will be the moment when Americans begin to ponder putting aside the burdens of their empire…” That, of course, assumes that all Americans are enamored of the idea that America should be an empire. Those of us who know our history understand that ever since somebody came up with the notion of Manifest Destiny, America has sought to be - and has succeeded in becoming - an “empire.” Most of our wars have been fought for reasons of “empire.” But empire and democracy cannot coexist. Do we want to be an “empire” and NOT a democracy? Because you really cannot have it both ways. Maintaining empire requires the loss of democratic freedoms and civil liberties. We’re witnessing that right now, and some of us have experienced this first-hand. And one would hope that by now, in light of the collapse of world communism as a threat and the increasing importance of economic power over military might in deciding “who runs the world,” that most Americans would want America to be something other than an “empire,” in the traditional sense that Mr. Last (and others) seems to long for. I’d hope folks would understand that “leadership” involves more than just a head count on the parade ground. And those of us who are old enough to remember KNOW the moment when we as a nation put - or should have put - whatever delusions we had left about “empire” behind: for most of us, it came when we sat in front of our televisions and watched as that last American helicopter left the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

Mr. Last must be too young to remember that. I am old enough. I watched it. And even though I was young at the time, even I knew what it meant.

“One of the many dispiriting exhibitions of the last four years has been the American public’s amnesia concerning the nature of war. Countries that shoulder the load of global leadership must, from time to time, fight wars, and wars are unpleasant things.” Mr. Last obviously isn’t paying attention. Besides having almost 4,000 deaths caused by our invasion of Iraq (600,000+ dead Iraqis don’t factor into Mr. Last’s equation, obviously, just as they are ignored by the rest of the warmongers), we have over 20,000 wounded, many of them having suffered the loss of at least one limb and/or severe and permanent head trauma. These injuries continue to mount, along with untold numbers of cases of post-traumatic stress that will haunt us all - and cost us in many ways - for decades to come. Mr. Last obviously doesn’t know anyone who has suffered this way, and he’s been lucky enough, I guess, to have been able to avoid having to go to any of the funerals many of us have attended. Otherwise, he would have avoided that tired, condescending, insulting old chestnut used by so many who have never seen combat, “… wars are unpleasant things.” (I could further cast aspersions by asking why someone who is obviously so young and fit as Mr. Last’s photo makes him appear hasn’t put down his keyboard and enlisted to fight for the Empire, but I really don’t want to see anyone’s child go off to fight, so I won’t go there.)

But the lines that just slay me are in his closing: “There are honorable, perhaps persuasive, reasons to think our Iraq project wrong-headed, counterproductive, or even deeply, conceptually flawed. But if the public’s sole reason for turning on the war is the cost in lives - as much of the criticism suggests - then America has already fought its Somme, and our fortitude is on the wane.” The war in Iraq is not a bedroom that needs painting or a paper mache volcano, so calling it a “project” is worse than patronizing. The FACTS show that this war is wrong-headed, counter-productive, and deeply flawed. Worse than that - worst of all - are the things he fails to mention: that the reasons for going to war have all been shown to be complete lies, deliberately told, and that the war was and continues to be totally unnecessary. That part of the World War One analogy he actually gets right. The First World War was fought entirely for reasons of empire (read Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece The Guns of August sometime), which means it was fought for bad reasons, and it, too, was a war that could and should have been avoided entirely. The horrific cost of that war, in terms of human life and the economic devastation of much of an entire continent, should have been enough to put the whole planet off war and “empire” for good, but instead, it simply led to another series of stupid mistakes that led to even more slaughter and destruction.

Just as this war is doing and will continue to do.

Mr. Last would do well to avoid such analogies in the future. I’ve read enough of his stuff to know that he supports the war in Iraq without pause or question, but he’s going to have to do better than to defend his reasons for doing so than using the senseless slaughter at The Somme as a useful analogy or point of reference for his cause. Anyone who knows the history of The Great War looks at what happened there and shakes her/his head in horror and disgust. Because that’s really all you can do.

Much as I do now when I read the work of columnists and pundits who continue to defend this utterly indefensible, thoroughly obscene war.

(Cross-posted at The Quaker Agitator.)

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