Peacock feathers

Thursday, November 20th, 2003

“‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.”

The only link the Bush administration ever needed to establish, in order to go to war, was the one to the president’s base of true believers, whose extraordinary confidence in their rectitude has the brilliance of a supernova (a star’s stage just before it turns into a black hole). While the religious among them, like my e-mail correspondent from North Carolina, quoted above, invoke God to justify the war, what’s really on the line is their manhood.

“Remember Christ’s response to the money changers in the temple?” the writer continued, laying out for me the theological underpinnings of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions. “He attacked and physically assaulted them with a stick. He is not some pacifist wimp.”

It isn’t just our fears that are being addressed — manipulated — in the war on terror, the preemptive invasion, the manufactured rape of Jessica Lynch; it’s the very tick, tick, tick of being a man.

The clues poke you in the eye: the stunt landing on the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln. The padded flight suit. The brazen defiance of all things politically correct. “Rumstud.” “Bring ’em on!”

Yes, the war’s planners and beneficiaries are chicken hawks — almost to a man — but that only seems to matter to the administration’s critics.

To its supporters, the crowing, the acting out of manliness, is sufficient, because the war’s appeal is at the mythical level. Take away the myth and W’s shenanigans are nothing but peacock feathers.

Consider how Saddam Hussein equals Osama bin Laden equals Adolf Hitler: None of these links was ever established, but so what? They activated our testosterone. The link with the most staying power in the post-invasion quagmire is not Saddam-bin Laden, which was jettisoned as soon as the facts made it untenable, but Saddam-Hitler, which is impervious to factual assault.

The war’s supporters, most of whom descend from the tradition of the isolationist right that was, in the ’30s, sympathetic to Hitler and accommodationist, have not stopped beating their chests over how we avoided another Munich ever since our F-16s began pounding undefended Iraqi cities and slaughtering its civilian population.

The grisly reality on the ground — all the “bad news,” the guerilla war, the 8,000 civilians dead, the toxic holocaust — doesn’t matter, because we’re winning the war against our own ghosts. We’re thumpin’ Adolf like we should have way back when. Mission accomplished! (And, ironically, Hitler and Saddam are now both equally missing.)

This is also a war against Yossarian, the lone sane character in Joseph Heller’s 1961 best seller, “Catch-22,” who responded to the ghastly stomach wound of his young gunner thus:

Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.

For those who had doubts, rest assured, this is your father’s Army — the very same one that tormented Heller’s antihero in 1945. Today’s Yossarian is Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, who was formally accused of cowardice by the Army when he sought counseling “after he saw the body of an Iraqi man cut in half by American fire.”

Poor Pogany, cursed with the sanity of Yossarian: “He said he began shaking and vomiting and feared for his life. Soon … he had troubles sleeping and started suffering what he thought were panic attacks,” according to ABC News online.

The romantic myth is that boys grow into men by going through combat and seeing what Pogany saw. Maybe they do, if being a man means getting the shakes when you see other men turned into garbage.