Iraq’s Million

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

In the Fantasy Middle East, the troop surge is helping plucky Iraq get its act together; and Iran, as serious a threat as ever and still lusting to start World War III, awaits liberation by the superpower known as “Johnny Democracy.”

In the reality version, our legacy is bad water, cancer and social chaos. Iraq has, by one scientific extrapolation, surpassed the million mark in war dead and continues to rack up other numbers (4 million internal and external refugees, for instance, but not to worry, only 133 of them got into the U.S. this year) that . . . I dunno, maybe it’s just me . . . seem antithetical to the idea of democracy. And of course, as the latest National Intelligence Estimate has just embarrassingly informed the world, Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

But so what? The president and his coterie of “High Nooniacs” want to invade Iran anyway and spread our pretend — and, unavoidably, our real — legacy to that country as well, and if they really set their minds to it, make the right calls, rally the media, pound the fear button, pound it again, they’ll do it, reality (and its wide-eyed, stunned adherents) be damned. We won’t stop them. We have nothing but our scattered selves.

War has America.

Like it or not, all the war protest in the many forms in which it is currently flowering — from the impeach-a-dope movement to the public rallies to the political dissent to the courageous independent reporting that gives citizens unprecedented access to war-zone reality — does not a nation make. Only war and war culture do that, which means, it’s infinitely easier to start a war than it is to stop or prevent one, because going to war, however gratuitously, is just a nation being itself, doing what it was built to do.

And, as we witness these days with the behavior of so many Democratic congressmen, even a politician who has no enthusiasm for or in fact “opposes” a given war will nevertheless support it by default in far more ways than he or she will dare commit the patriotic heresy of attempting to outright thwart it.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in “Blood Rites,” her extraordinary 1997 examination of the history of the passions of war, writes of the evolution of the phenomenon: “Meanwhile, war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.”

Saying this, I return to the figure of a million war dead in Iraq, pause in horrified awe that, one, it could be possible, and two, it hasn’t made mainstream headlines, where big, round numbers normally scream with significance.

The estimate, by the organization Just Foreign Policy and corroborated by the market research firm Opinion Research Business, extrapolates from data published just over a year ago in the respected British medical journal Lancet, which indicated a violent-death toll, as of May 2006, of 650,000. The death rate has been accelerating in the past year, making the current estimate of 1.2 million dead at least feasible.

And I mention this number with the caveat that it refers only to deaths directly attributable to the war: by bomb, missile, bullet, IED, etc. The total indirect war dead, from disease caused by the war’s stupendous environmental contamination combined with the destruction of Iraq’s medical infrastructure, may be incalculable.

But again, so what? And the fact that the war, in times that are otherwise so tight we have to cut back on actual security expenditures, is running up a tab of, oh, a buck a nanosecond and will tally maybe $2 trillion when all bills are in, gets a double so what. That won’t stop it.

Media coverage of this debacle has, admittedly, worn a frowny face of late, but it has stopped short of bringing the wasteland Bush’s war on terror is creating into our living rooms. The delicate problem the war-media face is to draw down this disaster with face-saving decorum and dissipate blame to the extent possible so that no high-level people are punished; and, above all, to be protective of future wars so that “Iraq syndrome” doesn’t do some sort of permanent damage to military culture or, God forbid, the defense budget.

The Bush presidency has pushed the paradox of nationalism to a crisis. We owe it to Iraq’s million dead, and to our own wounded future, to stand for the impossible. The building of human societies that have transcended war begins today.