February 01, 2006

Bush and the Legions of the Damned

[Because it unfortunately connects in many ways with the issues I discussed last evening about Bush's continuing war on dissent, I reprint here an essay first published on May 22, 2004. As you read this, you will see that all of the identical, erroneous and dangerous arguments have been endlessly recycled: from World War I, through Vietnam, to Iraq and the "War on Terror" today. We learn nothing, and we repeat it all again. What is even worse is that the great majority of Americans know absolutely nothing of this history. You may note as well disturbing precursors of the current NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal in certain of Wilson's actions. I also offer this article once more to emphasize again that the crackdown on dissent began immediately after 9/11, and it has never stopped.

As I discuss in what follows, people ought to remember the utterly disastrous results of Wilson's military campaign to make the world "safe for democracy." And as terrible as those results were, no one had nuclear weapons in Wilson's time. Bush's Wilsonian foreign policy may still lead to catastrophe on a scale the world has never witnessed.]

Toward the beginning of February [2004], in an entry entitled "They Are the Damned," and after setting forth a particularly relevant excerpt from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly, I wrote the following about some vicious and especially dangerous Vietnam lies. The target of my criticism at that time was Mark Steyn, but what Steyn wrote then has been and is being repeated by many others, as we shall see in a moment:
[T}here is a lie that is even worse: the revived claim that "[t]he only relevant lesson from Vietnam" is that the enemy's "only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself" -- and that defeat is the direct result of a "loss of national will." The claim is not true now with regard to the "war on terror," and it was not true then. ...

It is curious indeed that, in their constant efforts to denounce anyone who dares to suggest parallels between our current tactics in the "war on terror" (including the Iraq invasion and occupation) and Vietnam, the war propagandists simply make those parallels clearer, and more precise.

The claim that it is only "weakness" and a "failure of will" that can lead to defeat should be seen for what it is: a dishonest and dangerous attempt to shift the focus, and the blame, away from our policies themselves and how they are implemented, and to put the blame -- and the responsibility for failure -- on anyone who dares to criticize or question those policies. It is a vicious and childish lie, for the simple reason that the people the war propagandists thus seek to blame are people who have no control whatsoever over what our policies are, or how they are carried out. How in the world can a military failure be the fault of someone sitting at home in the United States, or even demonstrating against the war, rather than the military itself, and the policies it is implementing?

It shouldn't be necessary to state such obvious truths, but in the corrupt intellectual atmosphere of the war debate, it unfortunately is. Once again, keep this in mind: "But there's always a purpose in nonsense. Don't bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes." What this particular folly accomplishes is, first, the hawks' attempt to avoid all responsibility for the policies they adopted and that they themselves are carrying out. No one else is to blame for any failures they may experience, and it is a measure of their moral cowardice that they won't even accept responsibility for what they are doing.

But there is a second goal of this particular nonsense: the attempt to stifle and shut down all dissent, and all the voices who question our policies. In this way, the war propagandists hope to achieve a complete uniformity of opinion (despite any claims they may make to the contrary), and they simultaneously seek to avoid ever having to explain or defend their views.

What you are witnessing is psychological projection on a massive scale, across an entire culture: the guilt which the Vietnam hawks felt -- which they fully deserved, in view of the endless list of horrors that their decisions and actions unleashed, all for something which had nothing whatsoever to do with the defense of the United States -- was shifted to the Vietnam war protesters, and all the others who questioned our involvement there. And now the "war on terror" hawks are trying to do the same thing. They deserve to feel profound and tremendous guilt -- for the lack of wisdom in their policies, for picking wars and occupations which do nothing to enhance our security, but only worsen it, for unleashing yet another train of horrors, to say nothing of the damage their actions are causing on the domestic front -- but following the example of cowardice from the Vietnam era, they once again try to shift their own earned guilt onto those who merely dissent from the official view.

It is quite remarkable when you think about it. The hawks are endlessly proud of the fact that the United States has the greatest military in the world. And the hawks constantly complain about the "weakness" and "lack of will" of those who question our government's actions, apparently forgetting that it is the hawks who control our government. What would it take to make these unhappy warriors content? A world where everyone agrees with them, and repeats all day long how wise and brave they are? It would appear so.

But in the meantime, it is amazing that despite the fact that we have the strongest armed forces known in all of history and that hawks control all the levers of power, somehow people armed only with placards, words and keyboards can threaten to destroy all that the hawks hope to achieve, at least according to the hawks themselves.

Perhaps what they genuinely desire is a return to censorship of the kind we had in World War I and World War II, when people were thrown in jail for reading the Bill of Rights in public. Thus do these particular hawks reveal their true lack of confidence, their moral cowardice, their refusal to accept responsibility for any of their actions, and the traitorous nature of their own souls.

They are the damned -- and in time, history will treat them accordingly.
Now, Mort Kondracke -- and it would be impossible to imagine a person who more perfectly embodies, in every attribute, "respectable," utterly conventional and robotically "Establishment" thinking -- throws himself into the pit of the damned, willingly and totally:
The American establishment, led by the media and politicians, is in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq. And the results would be catastrophic.

The media - unperturbed by mistakenly likening both the Afghan war and last year's invasion of Iraq to Vietnam - focuses overwhelmingly on the bad news coming out of Iraq. There is plenty of bad news - but there is also much good, and it is being almost completely ignored.

Some Members of Congress - either out of a passion to defeat President Bush, pique at not being listened to by the Bush administration, or simply a need to hear their own voices - are declaring the war "unwinnable" or "a quagmire," or are demanding an "exit strategy." ...

In this respect, there is a real danger that Iraq could become like Vietnam - a self-inflicted defeat. Public support for the war is down, and even conservative columnists such as David Brooks and George Will are implying that Bush's aims are unachievable.

Although everyone says they support American troops in Iraq, soldiers have to wonder whether the country is fully behind their mission. Iraqis, too, have to be wondering: Will America stay the course?

President Bush surely will. He strikes me as being as resolute as George Washington was at Valley Forge, Abraham Lincoln after the early defeats of the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt in the darkest days of World War II. They didn't have "exit strategies," either.

But if Congress and the media raise doubts that Bush can "finish the job," then Iraqis - who already have good reason to doubt American resolve, given our performance during and after the 1991 Gulf War - will lose all faith that they can have a stable country.
Note the one aspect of this subject that Kondracke never considers: facts, and whether our objectives are actually capable of being realized. Here is a very short list of the questions that Kondracke, like almost every other defender of our foreign policy (including the invasion and occupation of Iraq), never addresses: (1) whether "democracy" can be successfully imposed from without, or whether it is a destructive Utopian delusion; (2) to what extent our current foreign policy grows out of and reinforces the corporate statism that has been the one fundamental underlying constant in our nation for close to one hundred years; (3) whether the profound damage to our country's fiscal health, and to the increasingly precarious state of individual liberties here at home, is worth pursuing adventures such as those in Iraq; and (4) to what extent our foreign policy makes the return of a compulsory draft inevitable the longer this policy is pursued, thus destroying the concept of individual rights at the most fundamental level.

As I say, this is only a partial list. Note that I have not even included whether our foreign policy is actually increasing, rather than decreasing, the dangers we now face. [And the answer to that question has been indisputably clear for some time.] You would think that anyone seriously concerned about the actual state of our nation would address most, if not all, of these issues at some point. Remarkably, most hawks never have, and they clearly hope they will never be required to.

In this manner, most hawks reveal their complete lack of seriousness about any of these issues, including the genuine needs of our national defense. These are people who are swept along by the prevailing intellectual currents, who are incapable of originating any ideas of their own, and who simply throw their weight behind whatever they "feel" is the "right" view at the moment. Those who are genuinely serious about ideas, any ideas at all including foreign policy, should give such individuals precisely the amount of time they deserve -- which is to say, none. I take the time to address views like Kondracke's only to make clear how completely baseless and dangerous they are.

And here, Kondracke announces his real aim, and the true goal of all other war propagandists of this kind:
My model for the political handling of the war - and, yes, on lots of other issues, readers of this column may have noticed - is Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

On April 26, Lieberman delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution in which he literally "pleaded" with his fellow politicians "to stop the bickering, to overcome the mistrust, to appreciate how similar are our current goals in Iraq and to work together to achieve them. I am calling for a bipartisan political truce on the homefront that will greatly help us achieve the victory that we all desire on the battlefront."

A truce does not imply an absence of criticism, as Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) demonstrated in an op-ed in Monday's Washington Post. In the column, they called for a "significant" troop increase, a detailed post-June 30 plan for Iraq, and a speedup of Iraqi elections from next January to this fall.
Going back to one of the points from my earlier post, Kondracke thus confirms that what he seeks is a total uniformity of opinion, i.e., "a bipartisan political truce." "Criticism" is allowed -- but only so long as that "criticism" accepts all the premises advanced by people like Kondracke, and the "criticism" consists only of saying, as loudly as possible: "More! Faster!"

As I noted before, these are people confessing their own intellectual and moral cowardice, and their refusal to take responsibility for what the policies they advocated have led to. This also represents an especially pernicious phenomenon, particularly when taken into the realm of international relations: the approach represented by people like Kondracke is essentially the reverse of that captured in the saying, "Wishing won't make it so."

For these anti-intellectual, cowardly hawks, wishing will make it so, or so they desperately hope. If only everyone will agree, if only we accept a meaningless "bipartisan politican truce," if only no one dares to disagree about underlying principles, if only no one will name facts for what they are -- then everything will be alright.

But of course, it won't. While many politicians and members of the media may be cowed by tactics like Kondracke's, reality is not quite so accommodating. As history has demonstrated countless times, if a policy rests on incorrect assumptions, if it is implemented in ways which are ultimately self-destructive, and if in fact it is supported by indefensible ideas, it will fail. The only questions are how long it will take that failure to manifest itself, and how great the devastation will be.

In the meantime, cowardly hawks like Kondracke should look to history for the manner in which to protect themselves from those aspects of reality which seem to be so upsetting to them. Since all the advocates of our current foreign policy, everyone from liberal hawks, to the neoconservatives, to even some badly misguided "libertarians," now seem to view Woodrow Wilson as their ideal political leader -- Wilson with his vision of spreading "democracy" throughout the world, even at the cost of millions of dead and injured and the destruction of a continent, while his "ideals" in fact led to the rise of three of the bloodiest dictatorships in history, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, as well as directly to World War II -- here are some details of Wilson's approach on the home front during World War I.

Wilson's record with regard to individual rights was entirely deplorable. Here, courtesy of Thomas Fleming in his wonderful book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, is a partial description of Wilson's reprehensible actions [and see here for more information about the Espionage and Sedition Acts] :
In Congress...another brawl raged over an "omnibus bill" that gave the president wide powers to deal with spies, saboteurs and other forms of subversion; to control exports of materials that might be needed for the war effort; and to bar "treasonous" materials from the mail. The quarrel erupted when senators spotted in the middle of the bureaucratese the president's demand for the power to censor the nation's newspapers. Almost as infuriating was an appropriation of $100 million to fund the Committee on Public Information--with no accounting to Congress on how this large sum would be spent. Republicans--and many newspapers--were already viewing Creel's committee as a Wilson publicity machine.

Woodrow Wilson's low opinion of the press and fears of its supposed distortions had not been assuaged by George Creel's arguments in favor of government expression. The president's demand for censorship powers had Democratic support, but Republican progressives such as Senator Hiram Johnson of California went berserk over this attempt to repeal the First Amendment. Predictably, the New York Times and other papers agreed, calling the "spy" bill a tyrannous measure. ...

After weeks of wrangling, in which the president was repeatedly described as a would-be tyrant by the Republicans, Congress finally voted down the sweeping censorship powers Wilson demanded. But the lawmakers left in the hands of the postmaster general the authority to decide which newspapers were seditious and liable to prosecution. The Committee on Public Information also emerged with its power to control official war news largely intact. Even more worrisome--and largely ignored by the bill's opponents--was a passage stating that anyone who made "false reports or false statements with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces" or interfered with the recruiting of those forces would be subject to a $10,000 fine and twenty years in jail.

These words would soon inflict misery on thousands of Americans. The sponsors of the bill brushed aside worries about free speech expressed by some members of Congress. They were told that "policies of the government and [the] acts of its officers" would always be open to criticism. Only makers of "willfully false" statements would be prosecuted.


Elsewhere in the United States, the reality of the war was being brought home to people in less heroic ways. At Columbia University in New York, President Nicholas Murray Butler fired two professors, one for working with antiwar groups, the other for petitioning Congress not to send draftees overseas. The New York Times praised Butler for "doing his duty" by striking this blow against "disloyalty." Historian Charles A. Beard resigned in protest. Many other colleges soon followed Butler's lead, firing professors who declined to support the war.

[L]ike most Americans, including the president, [Attorney General Thomas W.] Gregory was convinced that the country swarmed with German secret agents and homegrown admirers of Kaiser Wilhelm. How to track them down was the problem. ...

The answer to Gregory's predicament emerged in Chicago, where a middle-aged businessman named Alfred M. Briggs offered to recruit twenty or thirty affluent men of his vintage who would hunt spies and other hidden enemies of the war effort gratis. They would even provide their own automobiles. ...The [Bureau of Investigation] head listened attentively while Briggs proposed a nationwide organization, the American Protective League (APL), which would operate under cover as "Secret Service Divisions" in cities and towns throughout the United States.

Bielaski swiftly persuaded Attorney General Gregory to approve this bad idea. By June the APL had 250,000 activists in its ranks and was rooting out dissent in six hundred cities and towns. It was ridiculously easy to join. A dollar bought a man membership and entitled him to call himself part of the "Secret Service."

Local APL leaders were usually prominent men in their communities--bankers, lawyers, clergymen. Unfortunately, their presumably good education did not include a course on the Bill of Rights. Their methods frequently involved opening suspects' mail, burglarizing their homes and offices, tapping their telephones and planting listening devices in their parlors and bedrooms. ...After the APL turned out in massive force to make sure there were no disruptions on draft registration day, Gregory told the president he thought they were a wonderful group of 100 percent Americans, and Wilson dropped the subject [of whether the APL should be stopped].

The government also played a direct role in suppressing dissent. ... In Boston, labor union members staged a protest parade down Tremont Street, near the Common. They carried banners such as : "If This Is a Popular War Why Conscription? We Demand Peace!" The paraders were attacked by well-organized squads of soldiers and sailors commanded by uniformed officers. For three hours the military pursued, clubbed, kicked and battered the paraders, often forcing them to kiss the American flag on their knees. Afterward, the police, who watched the fracas in bemusement, arrested five of the marchers on charges of assault and battery. The Boston Journal called the riot a disgrace that would "harden the hearts of our already numerous skeptics of our war for democracy."

In West Virginia, the state secretary of the Socialist Party wrote a pamphlet attacking the draft as a foreshadowing of a "militarized America." He got six months in jail. In Philadelphia, another socialist was sentenced to six months in jail for possession of an antiwar pamphlet, Long Live the Constitution of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the sentence; liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes affirmed the legality of the Espionage Act under the doctrine that in time of war, antigovernment critics can be "a clear and present danger" to victory.

At first, some judges dismissed charges against men and women who distributed literature or spoke out against the draft. Popular among the protesters was the pamphlet The Price We Pay, which described the war in France in horrific terms. In Albany, a man named Pierce gave a copy to one John Scully, who was holding forth against the draft in a saloon. Scully was working undercover for the American Protective League, and Pierce was soon in jail. His indictment declared that the statements in the pamphlet, which included a diatribe against fighting for J.P. Morgan, were "wholly false and untrue." Therefore Pierce was obstructing the war effort. When Pierce was convicted, this interpretation of the little-noticed clause in the Espionage Act swiftly became gospel in courts across the country.
And here is Wilson's solution to the problem about which many hawks like Kondracke endlessly complain today: there is a lot of "good news" in Iraq, but our traitorous press won't cover it. Wilson certainly knew how to deal with that:
Oblivious to the looming disaster in France, George Creel's Committee on Public Information was hard at work creating the war will in America. By July he had assembled a small army of writers, editors, artists, actors and speakers who were churning out patriotic pamphlets, books, films and speeches for the American public. An upper echelon of former muckrakers, all ardent progressives like Creel, were given prominent roles. The CPI's motto was "faith in democracy...faith in fact." ...

[T]he centerpiece of Creel's early propaganda effort was the Official Bulletin, an eight-page daily newspaper (eventually thirty-two pages) in tabloid format, which went to every paper in the United States, as well as to government agencies, military camps and the nation's 50,000 post offices. Below its title were the words "Published Daily Under Order of the President by the Committee on Public Information, George Creel, Chairman." Individuals could subscribe for five dollars a year, and the circulation climbed rapidly to a peak of 115, 031. The paper published nothing but good news about the U.S. war effort. Wilson considered this hybrid creature his invention--which it was in some respects. Creel had initially opposed the idea. The president gleefully told Joe Tumulty that the Official Bulletin was an immense success. He added that Creel was astonished by the way it was being lapped up and reprinted by thousands of newspapers.
Clearly, this is precisely what many hawks (and many warbloggers) devoutly desire.

If they truly wish to go down this road, they might as well adopt all of Wilson's methods, as set forth above and offered in much more nightmarish detail in Fleming's book. And then they should throw in some refinements from World War II adapted to today's needs, such as detention camps for all those who dare to speak or publish "seditious" or "traitorous" thoughts.

But they should also keep in mind what Wilson's policies led to: the laying and strengthening of all the foundations for the system of corporate statism and neofascism that has only continued to grow in the decades since, the ongoing erosion of individual rights, and the spread of worldwide chaos and destruction. And then, in another decade or two, we can all enjoy today's equivalent of World War II -- but this time, with any number of countries lobbing nuclear weapons at each other.

On some days, I think that is exactly what the hawks truly desire. Perhaps only the strength of good, decent, and thinking people can prevent it at this point -- possibly with an assist from a fortuitous and kind fate, a fate which many of us daily demonstrate that we may no longer deserve.