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At War -- Commentary

Bush leads ‘peaceful people’ to war


The first suggestion that war was inevitable, it seemed to me, was the decision made by ABC’s “Nightline” many weeks ago to take an extra hour to produce a special program from the war college with a panel of generals and correspondents on how they would cover the war.

The media were not going to invest that much time and money in something that just might not take place.

Since then most of the talk has been not if but when. And soon two of my best friends, former students, reporters at The New York Times, were shopping lower Manhattan for flak jackets, camouflage suits and gas masks, getting their shots and saying goodbye. Today they are “embedded” with military units in Kuwait.

In mid-February, one, Mike Wilson, spoke to my journalism ethics class on the qualities of a good reporter: politeness (be a “nice guy”), hard work and courage. As this is written, those qualities are being tested.

His first Page 1 story (March 14) was on preparing for death. Carry your personal items in the cargo pocket of your trousers, which will be cut open and quickly emptied if you are killed. Search dead Iraqis for military items such as maps. No trophies. The reporters have taken their malaria pills and expect diarrhea if they get wet in the Euphrates River or eat local food. They have practiced pulling on their masks before taking a breath if someone cries “Gas!” and will drape plastic ponchos over their bodies if there’s no time to don protective suits.

The morning of March 17, CNN broadcast a simulated urban warfare training exercise in which a platoon attacked an enemy house, firing paintball guns -- like college kids playing “guns” in the woods -- in which half of the participants were “killed.” If the previous Gulf War is a guide, the American public will not be allowed to see anybody -- American or Iraqi -- die for some time.

And what will be the effect on the coverage of “embedding” the reporters with the troops when reporters must maintain some emotional distance from the troops? Some press critics suggest it is a Pentagon ploy to guarantee booster stories; the reporters will “fall in love” with the enthusiastic, beautiful young men and women and censor themselves if the war goes badly. Others suggest that the writers’ affection for their subjects will turn to just anger against the Bush administration, which has needlessly turned these young people into killers or marched them to their deaths.

* * *

In late February and early March, the Pentagon softened up Iraq with an intensified bombing campaign, knocking out not just antiaircraft sites but military headquarters and field artillery within range of our advance routes.

They softened up the American public with a media blitz embedding a “paintball” image of the war in the national psyche before it happened. Time and Newsweek have bombarded readers with foldout maps, high-tech battle gear (M-4 carbine rifle with daytime telescopic sight, laser sight, two 20-round magazines, flashlight, and old-fashioned bayonet). The strategy is to pound Baghdad for 48 hours with 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles, more bombs and missiles than used in the whole last Gulf War, as ground forces sweep across the desert and surround the capital.

* * *

The last time, we killed outright an estimated 3,500 civilians.

This time we could kill many more. Two Washington lawyers from the Reagan and first Bush administrations, David Rivkin and Lee Casey (The Washington Post, March 6) argue that attempts by Amnesty International and the Red Cross to make war more humane through “international humanitarian law” prohibiting cluster bombs and armor-piercing uranium ammo will only weaken us in our fight against terrorism. After all, war is supposed to be war.

But their views represent a coarsening of the national conscience in which the deaths of dark-skinned foreigners are no more real to us than the deaths of cartoon figures in video games or those who die in car pile-ups in movie chase scenes.

* * *

Meanwhile the administration seems able to simply commandeer the Sunday morning TV news shows to trumpet its agenda. March 16 Invisible Man Dick Cheney came out of hiding for the whole hour of “Meet the Press,” repeating the stale lie that this is a war against terrorism, as if Iraq were responsible for 9/11.

In these months the small-circulation opinion media such as America, The Nation, Commonweal, The New York Review of Books, and recently Mark Danner in a forum on C-SPAN have spelled out how the war is neither necessary nor just. In Foreign Policy (January/February), John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt systematically refute the arguments that Saddam Hussein is a serial aggressor, an irrational madman who cannot be contained and who is likely to share chemical or nuclear weapons with terrorists. They remind us that whatever biological materials, such as anthrax, Iraq has, it got through the Reagan-Bush-Rumsfeld administration in the 1980s when Iraq was our “friend.” Both Mich-ael Walzer and the editors of Newsday have spelled out alternative policies combining sanctions, inspections and force short of war.

* * *

But the most remarkable aspect of the discussion these weeks has been the final willingness of writers to deal with what is going on inside the head of the man who happens to be president.

I used to think it was good to have a president who believed in God. Abraham Lincoln’s faith, though not theologically complex, prevented him from identifying God with either the Union or Confederate causes. The Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson had to be dragged into World War I. When Episcopalian Franklin Roosevelt composed a D-Day prayer, he included the fact that many men would not return. Their faiths made them humble and the pain of the war ravaged their faces.

George W. Bush’s religion has hardened his certitude. Bob Herbert (The New York Times, March 17) says Bush leads us straight ahead, blind and deaf to all other human considerations. Bush’s running times are down, his weightlifting up. The photos in the papers show his face unchanged in two years. He has taken on a swagger when he walks.

Joan Didion writes (The New York Review of Books, Jan. 16), “ ‘I made up my

mind,’ he had said in April, ‘that Saddam needs to go.’ This is one of the many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I’ve made up my mind, I’ve said in speech after speech, I’ve made myself clear.” The Bush administration is driven, she says, by one fixed idea, “the New American Unilateralism,” “the theory that the collapse of the Soviet Union has opened the door to the inevitability of American preeminence, a mantle of beneficent power that all nations except rogue nations -- whatever they might say on the subject -- were yearning for us to assume.”

In withdrawing its resolution before the U.N. Security Council, the United States paid the price of its foreign policy arrogance when, in spite of billions offered in bribes, only England and Spain accept its leadership. We are in the bizarre situation of claiming to carry out a U.N. resolution against the collective wish and wisdom of the United Nations.

The president’s odd March 7 White House press conference, staged to present him “as a leader impervious to doubt” (The New York Times, March 9), where he systematically called on only friendly reporters, undermined public confidence in both the president and the press corps who lacked the gumption to toss him anything but softballs.

The columnist to finally say what others saw was the The New York Times’ Paul Krugman: Bush, like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny novel and film, who, in the middle of World War II is obsessed with the ship’s strawberry supply, has become unhinged.

Like children, he and his staff deny every aspect of reality -- like North Korea, environmental catastrophe, unemployment, the deficit -- that does not match their obsessions.

But war turns them on. Wallace Shawn, in a personal diary of this crisis published in The Nation, puts it simply: These men are sick.

In his address March 17, Bush described us as a “peaceful people,” as he ordered up a war against a country that has not attacked us. He imagines himself as the sheriff of a Texas frontier town with the largest military force in the world at his command and with the authority to tell the “bad guy” to get out of town. Even though Baghdad is not Bush’s town -- yet.

As historian Howard Zinn said in a discussion on “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” following Bush’s talk: “This is a shameful moment in American history. ... We are going to kill a lot of innocent people. … They will die for Bush’s ambitions.”

But we’ll make a better Iraq, Bush says. God bless America, he says.

Tell that to the dead.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003