Societies don’t remain the same after a war but find that they have radically changed. Sometimes the change is catastrophic, sometimes not. But it can never be ignored. A major undercurrent in the 2008 presidential campaign centers on this fact, because the people who devised and promoted the Iraq war want to preserve the illusion that nothing in America has really changed, when in fact a host of illusions died on the battlefield. On the other side, the anti-war party (as the Democrats became de facto over the past five years) is struggling to invent new realities to replace these lost illusions. The public is caught in between, for there’s no doubt that comforting illusions have a way of springing back to life, if only history could be reversed.
Consider the major illusions that perished — or should have — in Iraq:
1. The illusion of a “free” war.
2. The illusion that American nationalism is good nationalism.
3. The illusion of America as the friendly superpower.
4. The illusion that alliances are expendable.
5. The illusion that America and the free market are synonymous.
Each one has a complex history and will continue to, but there’s no doubt that reality has shifted so dramatically as to undercut all these false beliefs.
1. The illusion of a “free” war. In the wake of the first Gulf war and the so-called Powell doctrine, it was supposed to be true that overwhelming force could reduce U.S. casualties to a bare minimum. Conflicts would essentially cost us close to nothing as long as victory was certain beforehand and technology could quickly overpower an under-equipped enemy. But this notion of a “free” war was dead before it began, as witness the quagmire of Vietnam and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. A determined insurrection cannot be defeated quickly, easily, or by conventional means.
Iraq was supposedly free in other ways. The war was going to pay for itself through Iraq’s resurgent oil revenues — until the rebels started blowing up pipelines and terrorizing the contractors hired to rebuild the oil industry. Another free aspect was the social cost on both sides. The Iraqi population was going to suffer minimal damage compared to Saddam’s elite corps of soldiers in the shock and awe campaign. Instead, innocent citizens died by the tens of thousands, while the Iraqi army dispersed into the shadows and turned into bitter insurrectionists. As for minimal loss to American civilians, it’s true that only a small percentage have been wounded or killed, but the vast majority became lulled into allowing the war to continue years after it failed, thus promoting and extending its toxic effects.
2. The illusion that American nationalism is good nationalism. (One could easily say the only good nationalism so far as the right wing is concerned, since God approves of it wholeheartedly) Because of the humanitarian effect of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the late forties, the U.S. firmly believes that it holds a patent on good nationalism, the kind that the whole world loves. We are shocked to find out that we might be hated elsewhere, and when that revelation dawns, our nationalism reverts to the bad kind, which invades, kills, and wreaks havoc. After five years of doing this in Iraq, and threatening more of the same in Iran, a realist would abandon good nationalism for something more palatable to the world at large.
Specifically, the U.S. possesses such strength that it can afford to put nationalism on the back burner and reinvent itself as the leader of a global interests vision. There are stirrings of this new role, and it may yet prevail. But a huge amount of old conditioning has to be overcome. We are conditioned to believe that the U.S. is the freest country on earth, which makes no sense given the equal freedom enjoyed in England, Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, and the rest of Western Europe. We conveniently forget the numerous countries, as many as 29 by some counts, that the U.S. has either invaded or tampered with internally since the Fifties. We overlook our greedy overconsumption of natural resources. Most of all, we use nationalism as a wall, protecting our insular view of the world — in large part the fiasco of the Iraq war was due to deep ignorance about that country and Islam in general. Finally, American nationalism is outdated, running on the fumes of victory in World War II and the notion of defeating nation-based enemies through a large standing army, when in reality the enemy is diverse, scattered, and free from national boundaries. The invasion of Iraq was a nationalist cause to begin with based on landing in Normandy on D-Day, again an illusion that should have died in Vietnam but refused to.
(to be cont.)
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