Conservatism’s cherished fantasy of American omnipotence has died once again, this time in the sands of Iraq, and the grieving process has begun. But conservatives mourn differently from you and me. They begin with denial, anger and bargaining, just like everyone else. And that’s where they stay–forever paralyzed by a petulant refusal to acknowledge their fantasy’s passing, a simple inability to process reality.
The denial: Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative godfather and Rudy Giuliani adviser, confidently posits that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction all along–but somehow surreptitiously shipped them to Syria. The bargaining: The White House’s fervent remonstrations that if we squint at the problem in just the right way–counting “sectarian violence” but not car bombs, say–civilian killings are actually declining in Iraq. The anger: How dare the liberals refuse to understand that under our new commanding general, with his brand-new “strategy” that magically wipes the slate clean of everything else that’s happened during the past four years, we’re actually on our way to victory?
Computers have cut-and-paste functions. So does right-wing historical memory. Eventually, the articles, op-eds, press briefings and speeches now rehearsing these fantasies about Iraq will be complemented by books, and the holes in their reasoning will be big enough to march a combat division through. The contradictions, between them and among them, will be embarrassing to any but the conservatives desperate to embrace them. But embrace them they will, just as they have embraced a recent batch of right-wing revisionist Vietnam books–titles like Unheralded Victory, The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam, Stolen Valor and Lost Victory. Their arguments used to be limited to a rarefied coterie of disillusioned veterans and right-wing propagandists. Now they’ve gone mainstream, in the Republicans’ desperate attempts to justify Iraq. Giuliani recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress…. But America then withdrew its support.” Whereupon, said President Bush, veritably completing the thought in his August speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields.'”
The revisionists’ books on Iraq will achieve the same thing these specious arguments do for Vietnam: therapy and propaganda. Their readers will say, Someone has finally told the truth. And yes, those quislings on the left really did foul everything up. That’s what they’re saying about the two books I have before me, two of the most respectable examples of the Vietnam para-literature, both published by mainstream presses and written by historians of considerable industry. Let us read them. It will better prepare us for what we can soon expect on Iraq. It will better prepare us for when bad arguments are used to justify the next generation’s wars.