Ignorant Armies

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

“If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish?”

We’ve been in Iraq how long? Spilled how much blood? Squandered how much treasure? Spread how much toxic waste? Alienated how much of the planet? And even the former secretary of state, who lent his name and dignity to the trumped-up intelligence that made this war possible, doesn’t know why we’re there.

“. . . And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

A strain of humanity has been crying out against the cosmic foolishness of war, articulately and futilely, for as long as there have been art and poetry, with the cries increasing in volume and intensity in recent centuries (e.g., Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” above, written in 1851) — yet we keep waging slaughter on the same tired, transparent pretexts, mobilizing for short-term advantages and trapping the future in the aftermath.

Oh, what I mean is happy holidays. Merry Christmas. The Season of Platitudes — “peace on earth” — stays discreetly out of the way of national politics, off in its tinselly corner of the culture, ringing its bells for commerce and credit-card debt. But what if our most sacred values counted for something more than a boost to Wal-Mart’s bottom line? This is just a wild thought, of course, tossed into the wassail. What if we were so serious about peace on earth that we inconvenienced ourselves on its behalf, or at least tried to understand what it requires?

Most of us want it, but, except under exceptional circumstances, we are at best passive-aggressive in our expression of it. For instance, Colin Powell, when he spoke last week on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” also said, regarding the counterproposals engulfing the Iraq Study Group recommendations, in particular the calls for a troop “surge”:

“I’d want to have a clear understanding of what it is they’re going for, how long they’re going for. And let’s be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops. . . .

“The active Army is about broken.”

For all our vaunted status as the world’s only superpower, Bush and Co. are playing their game with remarkably limited human resources. This strikes me as cause for serious reflection, beginning with Rep. Charles Rangel’s long-standing dare to Bush and Congress to reinstate the draft. This is not on the agenda for one reason only: U.S. young people (and their parents) for the most part want no part of the geopolitical chess game the ruling class likes to play, and would create holy hell if coerced into donating their lives and body parts to it. Best, you know, to go to war with the army you have (that is, the one you can get).

So instead of “pacifist nation,” which stands four-square for a just, peaceful and rational future, we have “gone shopping nation,” which is in denial and leaves the future to the capitalist cowboys and war profiteers. But it’s not as though Bush and Co., along with the remarkably clumsy Department of Homeland Security, aren’t doing their best to wake up the sleeping giant of peace.

For instance, the U.S. Coast Guard, which is part of Homeland Security, managed to create an instant Coalition of the Rational in the Great Lakes region to head off its lunatic assault on national security and the environment and the abrogation of a 194-year-old treaty with Canada.

The leadership of this worthy, life-protecting organization, co-opted by the war on terror, decided recently to militarize the Great Lakes. Without informing the public, the Coast Guard created 34 live-fire zones in the five lakes — one just off the shoreline of north suburban Chicago — so that crewmen could get target practice with M-240B mounted machine guns, which, according to the Chicago Tribune, “fire up to 600 rounds a minute and send the bullets more than two miles away.”

Presumably they were preparing for a full-scale naval battle with terrorists. Anyone want to wager the likely kill ratio of recreational boaters to terrorists? And, of course, dumping 430,000 lead bullets a year into the fragile ecosystem of the Great Lakes — source of drinking water for millions of people in the U.S. and Canada — would have had catastrophic consequences. The plan was scuttled not long after the sound of gunfire was heard on the lakes.

The rest of George Bush’s war on terror is hardly any more rational. ’Tis the season, I say, to realize we’ve outgrown war and begin building a world without it. Fa-la-la-la-la.