Letter From Ground Zero

Letter From Ground Zero

Read special extracts from Jonathan Schell’s new book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and The Will of the People.


Sometimes when I feel I want to raise my voice against the American folly in Iraq, my zeal is infected with boredom. I get the urge to say that the war in Iraq is worsening the nuclear proliferation problem (Iran and North Korea are speeding up their nuclear programs in part in order to avoid regime change); that there is no proven alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; that we are inflaming the peoples of the Middle East against us; that we are driving away even our traditional European allies by our highhanded policies; that we are making ourselves less secure, not more. But then I realize that these things are by now obvious, and to state what is obvious is boring. I want to say them not because they are fresh and interesting but because they are not heeded. But if to state the obvious is boring, then to repeat it is the very definition of boredom. The point was impressed on me when I read a quotation in the indispensable website Tomdispatch (www.tomdispatch.com) from President George H.W. Bush’s memoir, A World Transformed, which was written with Brent Scowcroft. Bush was talking about why he did not overthrow Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War:

Trying to eliminate Saddam…would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible…. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq…. there was no viable “exit strategy” we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. And this was written five years ago, by the father of the current President. So much for feeling brilliant for insisting upon such things now.

I’m reminded of my experience as one of those who opposed the war in Vietnam. In the mid-to-late 1960s, we tirelessly pointed out that the war was mainly a nationalist rebellion against foreign occupation, not mainly an advance probe of world Communism; that the issue could only be solved politically, not militarily; that the war was weakening, not strengthening, the United States; that the only solution was to withdraw America troops–and so on and so forth. We considered ourselves brave for saying such things, all of which were rejected by mainstream opinion. And yet at that time, too, the antiwar arguments were obvious, or soon became so. Just how obvious is revealed by Kai Bird’s excellent biography of William and McGeorge Bundy, The Color of Truth. Bird reveals that as assistant secretary of state, William Bundy–widely seen as a Vietnam hawk–confessed in a 1964 paper that “a bad colonial heritage of long standing, totally inadequate preparation for self-government by the colonial power, a colonialist war fought in half-baked fashion and lost, a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent–these are the facts that dog us today.” Bird says that in this sentence Bundy prefigured “just about all the points that I.F. Stone, Bernard Fall or other early critics of the war would make within a year.”

Even more striking is a conversation in 1964 between President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee. “I don’t believe the American people ever want me to [abandon Vietnam],” Johnson told Russell. “If I lose it, I think they’ll say I’ve lost it…. At the same time, I don’t want to commit us to a war.” Russell’s answer was a prophecy that turned out to be exact. A full-scale effort would “take a half million men.” he said. “They’d be bogged down in there ten years.” In short, all the arguments against the war were privately well-known–obvious–to the Administration. Yet it plunged deeper and deeper into the war.

Why? There appear to be two closely related answers. One is political. As Johnson’s comment hints, ever since the United States had “lost” China to Communism in 1949, it was considered politically fatal to “lose” another country. As McGeorge Bundy wrote to Johnson, “The political damage to Truman and Acheson from the fall of China arose because most Americans came to believe that we could and should have done more than we did to prevent it. This is exactly what would happen now if we should seem to be the first to quit in Saigon.” The second answer was strategic. Policy-makers of the day believed that nothing in the foreign policy of the United States was more important than American “credibility.” If American power was defeated anywhere, they believed, it might crumble everywhere. The idea of a strategic retreat was ruled out. Both motives, then, had to do with power–in the first place, domestic political power, in the second, global power.

Today, too, the obvious is trumped by the argument of power. The need therefore is not just to produce more facts and better arguments (though those are always needed) but to challenge the powers that uphold illusion. The best antidote is the counterforce of public opinion, which means, in the last analysis, the force of voting. Today, as in Vietnam thirty years ago, it is possible to win this battle. In the Vietnam years, public opinion gradually changed. It drove a President–Lyndon Johnson–out of office. It forced another, Richard Nixon, to end the war, and then he was driven out of office, too. Today, public opinion is already shifting. A recent ABC-Washington Post poll records that 60 percent of the public opposes George W. Bush’s request to Congress for $87 billion for the war. The antiwar candidate Howard Dean has become the acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination. In some polls, Bush’s overall approval ratings are in negative territory. This is the kind of argument that Presidents understand.

The question is, How many more people, American and Iraqi, will have to lose their lives to teach our leaders the obvious?

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