I saw the Iraqi defense ministry disintegrate on primetime television. It looked half video game, half movie.
I had a cockpit view of the fastest ground assault in the annals of human warfare; 30,000 troops were covering hundreds of miles of enemy territory in mere hours.
I witnessed the beginnings of what is quite possibly the most lopsided military conflict since the days of Roman legions.
Then I finished my Cheerios.
So much history, so little time.
* * * * *
Maybe it’s the syndrome of a post-Sept. 11 American, but it seems we’re hard to throw from our armchairs these days, and quite a few of us have become generals in much the same way that we become quarterbacks from that slumped posture.
A week or so ago, I was taking in the awesome, frightful and wholly hyper-dramatic sight of 21st century American war while simultaneously — almost cheerfully — watching Wisconsin play basketball on a neighboring television set, sucking down a beer with some buddies. Root for Bucky, insert commercial, root for Uncle Sam.
This seemed twisted on multiple levels. I put the two on par. We can now enjoy the unraveling of the traditional concept of the nation state, the rules of engagement, the authority of the United Nations and 200-some-odd years of reactionary or isolationist foreign policy — all on commercial-free cable!
A notion that is both attractive and deceptive in the same breath.
We get the sanitized version of the facts. We get the side that you can mistake for a game, because no one really wants to see the grit, the substance. American broadcasters determined that footage of executed American servicemen and their captured comrades was too graphic for television — was too sensitive. I looked up the censored images online and, true to the warnings, felt nothing less than physically ill.
This at the site of several Americans interrogated by their Iraqi captors. Just the interviews — not the torture that eventually ensued. Not their weeping families. No blood. No screams. None of the stuff of war or the stuff of evil; rather, cackled reports from videophones and flashes in the green Baghdad sky.
I shut off the television after the game that night and I haven’t looked back. Sure, I check the papers, but not with anticipation. I’ll certainly read the histories, memoirs and reports in months and years to come with an eye endeavoring to appreciate and understand, but for now, you can’t watch cable news to “understand,” and I can’t bring myself to “spectate.” There’s just too much at stake.
But no more “us against them.” No cheers for due victory for victory’s sake; just prayer — for “us,” for “them,” and, most of all, for swift and hasty escape from the fog.
This war, especially now that Baghdad is in view, seems a bit like shooting the old and suffering family dog. Most of us likely haven’t experienced this ordeal, but it used to happen all the time, out behind the shed. Someone had to pull the trigger. It was probably a dad, or uncle, or grandpa, or a neighbor with a .22 who completed the dirty, violent, legitimately-humane, heart-wrenching and wholly necessary duty. Someone stepped up to the plate.
Now, all we have to do is drive the shaggy old lab to a vet. We get pain and the necessary result, but the ugliness happens behind closed doors, where it’s digestible. We like it that way. We expect it that way. And we watch the FOX News War.
* * * * *
I think I’ve finally figured out why so many on this campus are so opposed to the war in Iraq. It seems the American public can be broken down into roughly three groups. First are those who simply hate the president — who could find fault with George W. Bush while watching him save a deserted kitten, simply because he is who he is — a patriot, a Christian, a wealthy oil man, a child born with a silver spoon and advance access.
For the sake of discussion, let’s set that crowd aside. They’re the knee-jerkers– those who dubbed Clinton “courageous” when he blew up a few aspirin factories and embassies to distract us from a stained dress. They’re the ones who called our foreign policy “lofty” and “purposeful” when we engaged the Bosnians and placed American troops in harm’s way without a goal or an endgame. They’re Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Crow, Michael Moore. They remember Florida, and would probably be anti-yogurt if the president publicly claimed an affinity for it.
Second, we find those who are opposed to war and might loosely be called intellectuals. They need not be academics, but simply to present an opposition to the war that is rooted in the weight of pros and cons, positives and negatives, plausible scenarios, potential pitfalls and rationalized risk. You can find them on the left (Nicholas Kristof), the right (Bob Novak), even in the Vatican. You can find a lot of them here on campus, and for good reason. They know how to think.
“This course may serve to de-legitimize the foundations of liberal democratic intellectual discourse,” they say. And, frankly, most concur that such an outcome is quite possible.
“Because the results are so uncertain” they say. Militarily, no. Geopolitically, ‘uncertain’ is understatement.
Here we stand at the crossroads of history — at the crux of what may prove a seminal moment in the nature of power and of mankind — where a single nation-state invokes its own military authority over another, worlds away, to bring about the liberation of its people without a retaliatory self-interest. All of it is true, and in the sway of human events, not at all insignificant — a massive undertaking overseen by a man they view as an inferior for motives they deem dubious and in search of a justice they find flaccid.
So they wring their hands. They sweat. They see Iraq, the proverbial Black Dog, as everyone does. They’ve studied it and come to understand it for what it is. They deconstruct it while watching it growl, struggle to contrive suitable alternatives to their fear, and call the fruits of their labor peace. Peace, the only suitable end, is progress, they say. Meanwhile, the Black Dog growls and tugs at his chain. The Black Dog has menacing teeth.
So scramble for a bone.
Others, the third group, see the Black Dog as well. They know he is waiting, and they know without parsing words that whining never done anything except to separate the men from the boys. Maybe they learned this in some unfashionable place like Midland, Texas, or Macon, Georgia, or Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Maybe they learned it in Basic. Maybe they learned it by working for a lifetime with their hands. Maybe they learned it from their fathers. Maybe they just can’t sit idly by.
The Black Dog growls and tugs its chain. The Black Dog has menacing teeth.
So break it — out behind the shed.
Eric B. Cullen ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in history and political science.