Indulge me, for a moment, in a hypothetical. Imagine that a deeply unpopular Democratic President is attempting to persuade a skeptical Congress to undertake a massive restructuring of the American economy, a full-scale expansion of the welfare state that would require taxes to be tripled. Since his credibility lies in ruins, the President hands the task of selling the plan to a career IRS accountant with an imposing Roman-sounding name and a reputation as a brilliant economist. With bated breath, the press awaits the testimony of Accountant Augustus, who over four hours of testimony uses a bevy of charts and graphs to argue that, in his technical, expert opinion, the size of the government should be tripled.
It’s a preposterous scenario, of course, but it highlights some central absurdities of the debate over the war in Iraq. The Bush Administration, which has politicized nearly the entire federal government and subverted the expert opinions of career civil servants to the partisan agenda of their appointed bosses at every turn, now thinks politics should have absolutely nothing to do with deciding whether to engage in a twenty-first-century imperial occupation of a country of 20 million. According to the White House, the war and its duration are technical matters, best left to the judgment of a career Army officer with strong credentials.
And yet despite the manifest absurdity of this position, the real-life version of this hypothetical more or less worked, managing to forestall, yet again, any serious defections among Republicans from the now-explicit White House policy of passing off the occupation to the President’s successor. Why? The answer has a lot to do with a cultural and political ethos that’s come to dominate our national conversation, what might best be called the Cult of the Soldier.
It’s not surprising that during a time of war, civilians and politicians hold an elevated opinion of the nobility and valor of warriors. After all, it is ostensibly for our collective benefit that a tiny fraction of American citizens voluntarily endure (over and over) some of the worst horrors of human existence as both the target of violence and its implacable agent. But the Cult of the Soldier is something more than mere gratitude or appreciation. It’s the insidious belief that since warriors transcend the petty and corrupt world of politics, they are uniquely equipped to make the nation’s decisions about war and peace. In a New York Times/CBS News poll in mid-September, 68 percent of respondents said they most trusted the US military commanders to successfully resolve the Iraq War, as opposed to 21 percent for Congress and 5 percent for the Bush Administration.
Such attitudes are the inevitable result of both political parties and both sides of the war debate reinforcing the notion that the legitimacy of one’s argument about the war derives from its proximity to those in uniform–from Bush’s infamous flight suit landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, to John Kerry’s “reporting for duty” campaign as war hero, to the antiwar movement’s persistent focus on the fact that almost none of the neocons who argued for the war have served in the military. Each side tallies up its stock of current and former warriors advocating its position, and since the military is a massive, heterogeneous organization, it’s not surprising to find plenty of advocates for nearly every conceivable position. (In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that Gen. David Petraeus’s direct supervisor, Adm. William Fallon, thinks Petraeus is dead wrong and that we should begin withdrawing troops in a far speedier fashion.)
In sending General Petraeus to Capitol Hill, the White House was trying to have it both ways: to smuggle in a radical and unpopular agenda under the sainted mantle of an outstanding soldier. When MoveOn called this move bullshit by taking out a full-page ad in the Times accurately pointing out that Petraeus was “cooking the books” to paint a rosy picture, not only Republicans but the majority of mainstream pundits acted as if the group had violated an unspoken taboo. The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen sniffed that the ad “recalls the ugly McCarthy era,” adding that “MoveOn.org and the late senator from Wisconsin share a certain fondness for the low blow.”
MoveOn’s “General Betray Us” ad may have been tactically stupid, but the central point the ad made was sound. When it comes to the debate over whether or not we are going to continue this disastrous and deadly war, there is no neutral, technical, nonpolitical authority to appeal to. Petraeus is as enmeshed in politics as the senators he faced.
We keep hearing from all quarters that there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political one. It’s half true. There is, indeed, no military solution, but the political solution isn’t to be found among the deadlocked factions in Iraq’s Parliament. The ultimate political solution is here in the United States. The only way to end the war is to use the tools of politics to force our government to accede to the will of the majority of Americans, who want to get out of Iraq. Just as deciding how high marginal tax rates should be is fundamentally a political question, so too is the question of how long we will continue to occupy Iraq. War is not some special category of policy that stands outside democratic accountability. Indeed, it is in bringing the self-perpetuating logic of war to heel that the often degrading business of democratic politics finds one of its most noble callings.