It’s one measure of the decay–and the promise–of American political discourse that Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command arrives at a moment when John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi’s Unfit for Command sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. Hersh’s book, based largely on his groundbreaking reporting for The New Yorker, is an unsparing indictment of the current Administration. It is animated not only by a determination to bring down those ultimately responsible for the torture at Abu Ghraib but by the belief that the government–and the military–will do better if the public demands it. O’Neill and Corsi’s book is a compendium of lies and distortions, pandering to the worst instincts of Americans at a time of perceived danger, exploiting the powerful vein of nationalism that pulses through our culture.
Whereas Hersh’s subject is the moral corruption of our government, O’Neill and Corsi take aim at one man, John Kerry, who, they say, didn’t deserve the medals he received for service in Vietnam. Their implicit premise (shared by the Bush campaign and by its proxy organization, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) is that dissent in wartime is unpatriotic–that Kerry’s real betrayal was in denouncing the war after he came home. In this view, truths must be rejected if they call into question the idea of American innocence–whether revelations by veterans like Kerry in 1971 of widespread US war crimes in Vietnam, or reports of the systemic problem of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo today.
The Bush Administration’s strategy has been to promote a culture of denial, in which American abuses are first covered up, then acknowledged with shock and horror, then absorbed and neutralized (“excesses” by a few “rotten apples”) and finally forgotten–so that when new scandals surface, a new cycle can begin. To a troubling degree, this strategy has been effective. It hinges on the image of the United States as a nation that enjoys overwhelming military, economic and political power yet is also a nation of victims, in whose defense any amount of aggression is justified. (“We face an enemy that lies in the shadows, an enemy that doesn’t sign treaties,” declared White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as the torture scandal peaked.) The White House’s Abu Ghraib damage-control operation was largely directed, Hersh reveals, by Vice President Cheney, and it allowed the Administration to emerge from the scandal relatively unscathed, even though Defense Secretary Rumsfeld personally authorized a covert program whose main purpose was to circumvent the Geneva Conventions and allow for the torture of terrorist suspects.
And yet, for all the potency of its appeals to nationalism and the viciousness of its counterattacks, the Bush team has not succeeded in silencing its critics or in allaying the public’s growing doubts about its conduct of the war in Iraq. In Sasha Abramsky’s article, on page 11, about Shelbyville, Indiana, the voices of conservative military families are taut with anger at the Administration. As one mother said, “I don’t appreciate what they’ve done to our boys, what they’ve done to families…and the situation we’re in because of what they’re deciding and how they’re directing.”
Tapping into that well of anger would seem natural for an antiwar candidate with Kerry’s military credentials. Unfortunately, Kerry is not an antiwar candidate, one reason why so much campaign debate has focused on what the candidates were doing during Vietnam, instead of what the United States is doing in Iraq. As chaos and carnage force Iraq back into the headlines, Kerry has another chance to combat the culture of denial and lies that has defined Bush’s campaign and his war. Let’s hope he takes it.