Thursday, 5 June 2014

The un-strange case of Bowe Bergdahl

The absurd sniping at Obama over the Taliban-for-POW deal just concluded obscures, a bit too conveniently, the larger narrative of what our armies have wrought in their far-flung post-9/11 adventures. It’s no accident that while nothing much is said about the wars themselves we get a sterile but impassioned back-and-forth over the deal Obama cut to get back Sgt. Bergdahl takes the place of a substantive debate. As Jon Stewart aptly noted, the argument can be boiled down to two clichés: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” and “We never leave a man behind.” These are shouted, playground-style, as loudly as possible, a taste of what we can expect during the electoral campaign season approaching this fall.

Pollsters say Americans now tune out foreign policy discussions entirely and don’t want to hear about the wars, certainly not at election time when the hot topics are domestic and economic. That’s not just a pity but a profound shame given that we collectively endorsed the decision to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq 13 years ago and are thus morally responsible for the outcomes. But aside from “Thank you for your service,” there is little taste for contemplating the unglorious recent performance of our armed representatives overseas.

Frank Rich offers a timely and discomfiting recollection in the latest New York magazine about the Iraq debacle, which comes at an appropriate moment—when the monthly death toll in Iraq has reached nearly 1,000 souls yet again, in bombings and attacks of various sorts. He reminds us that ten years ago (an anniversary largely unremarked) Americans went along with what Bush, Cheney, Rice and the other warmakers said we needed to do to keep ourselves safe. That included something like $2 trillion in costs, any tens of thousands of deaths, and a legacy of mentally and physically wrecked veterans that we will be caring (or not caring) for over the next 30 or 40 years.

But Rich’s subtext in “Iraq Everlasting” is that it was not just the Bushites who brought us the Iraq debacle. The rush to war and the beating drums along the Potomac hypnotized and seduced most of the Serious People in both parties. He writes:

What tends to be swept under history’s rug is the leading role that the liberal Establishment played in this calamity. A majority of Senate Democrats voted to authorize the war, including the presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and John Edwards. Most of the liberal pundits and public intellectuals who might have challenged the rationale for the invasion enlisted in the stampede instead, giving the politicians cover.

Rich argues that the Iraq blunder “remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed.” But is a burden inescapable if one refuses to think about it?

There are very few immediately obvious signs of a burden resulting from the failure of these two wars of the 21 st century, aside from the readiness of elite-targeted magazines like New York to describe them as such. The people responsible for pumping up the phony justification for the Iraq conquest (e.g., Rice’s “mushroom cloud”) suffered minimally, and many of them continue to make themselves heard about foreign policy issues today. Modern imperial warmaking apparently means never having to say you’re sorry, even when you lose. Rice herself almost gave the commencement address at Rutgers a few days ago until students objected to sitting politely to hear a war criminal.

Have our national leaders been burdened by a loss of their credibility, a destruction of the citizens’ faith that they know what they’re doing? Certainly yes, but specifically, what about? Have we become more skeptical about what the security establishment tells us? Do we reject their narrative about how to protect the nation, say, in the realm of spying and surveillance? Is there a reawakened appreciation for dissent over decisions to go to war? Is there more questioning of the wisdom of generals and admirals? Are there stronger demands to spend wisely on the military apparatus?

Sgt. Bergdahl’s story is a nice metaphor for how we understand these questions. According to a revealing and just re-published 2012 report by none other than the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings (whose death last year in a fiery automobile crash remains unexplained), Bergdahl believed the whole official story about America’s benign, nation-building role in its overseas military campaigns. He quickly became disillusioned and thought he could simply wander off to try things his own way. One can marvel at his naiveté, but it is hardly more than what the average American has been taught to understand about what our military forces do and why. Perhaps the “inescapable burden” is that our defense establishment still believes it, too.

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