Redefining “Realism”

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

The war regroups. What if Barack Obama, as he pursues his pragmatic strategy that so far seems to be 10 parts “reassurance” (to the defense and financial establishment) to one part “change,” is really finished with his anti-war base for the next four years?

I don’t know if this is true, but his early moves in the game are gasp-inducing in the extreme: Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel “still refuse to renounce their votes in favor of the (Iraq) war,” Jeremy Scahill writes in The Guardian U.K. And then, of course, Robert Gates, Bush’s own secretary of defense, will keep his job, and James Jones, retired commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, will become national security advisor, creating what starts to look like a serious war cabinet.

I feel a bad case of betrayal coming on.

“What ultimately ties Obama’s team together,” Scahill writes, “is their unified support for the classic U.S. foreign policy recipe: the hidden hand of the free market, backed up by the iron fist of U.S. militarism to defend the America First doctrine.”

Maybe this is merely the politics of the doable, and Obama intends to yoke these savvy pragmatist-hawks to a strategy of slow, careful disengagement from the Bush disasters and toward a vision of a green and, God help us, peaceful global future. This is the politics of hope in full disengagement, I fear: “hope lite,” the gruel of the cloutless. The Times (U.K.), for instance, was only too pleased, in announcing the Gates and Jones appointments, to remind “the antiwar wing of the Democratic party” of its permanent outsider status: “They will have to come to terms with the fact that Mr. Obama appears intent on governing as a muscular foreign policy realist.”

Well, OK, Obama voters, let’s do what the paper says. Let’s come to terms with what the evidence so far seems to tell us: The U.S. governing establishment is so addicted to militarism and war — which, by the way, is not “realism”; think President Bush preening in his flight suit — that it cannot change course of its own volition, no matter who’s at the helm. We can love Barack and believe he speaks our language, but we must also insist, passionately, unstintingly, as though the future of humanity were at stake, that he hear us.

In the process, what we will be doing is redefining “realism” to mean, well, realism, not hubris, ignorance or insanity — and certainly not a state of endless war against phantom enemies who only grow in numbers the more damage we inflict on them, and on ourselves.

“Realism” means, at the very least, looking at the reality of these wars and listening to the young men and women who are fighting them and, in increasing numbers, refusing to fight them. It means becoming conversant with the horrors they face and, in our name, inflict, and the real cost these wars are exacting on all concerned.

Supporting our troops in the truest sense, supporting them when they are ill and shattered, when they are AWOL, may be the most readily available way for ordinary Americans to begin finding the wherewithal to make their voices heard: helping to create, as Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier put it, Canada-style havens throughout the United States, where troops who refuse to participate further in these illegal wars, or who simply cannot, will find support and refuge.

Last week I wrote about how, 17 years after the fact, the VA has finally received the official word that Gulf War illness is a real phenomenon, caused by pesticides, vaccines and, likely, an array of toxins — the smoke from burning oil wells, micro-particles of exploded depleted-uranium munitions — the war stirred up. I also wrote that the same ignorance and denial is in place in our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and today’s troops, as well as the inhabitants of those countries, are getting the same horrific exposures.

Welcome to the hell that is the byproduct of New York Times-style realism. Corresponding to this is an inner, psychic hell called post-traumatic stress disorder, with which every soldier or vet so afflicted struggles in consuming isolation. I recently talked with a young man, Pvt. Trevor Loope, who served 15 months in Afghanistan and was driven to go AWOL a year ago by PTSD, and by the military’s mocking refusal to treat or even acknowledge it. I read the psychologist’s report making the diagnosis.

Loope, with the help of Citizen Soldier, a New York-based organization that helps soldiers attain their basic rights, plans to surrender at Fort Drum, in Watertown, N.Y., where he was stationed. Before doing so, he also plans to appeal for the support of the nearby city of Ithaca, which recently passed one of the nation’s first “Community of Sanctuary” resolutions, designating itself a safe place for members and former members of the U.S. military to oppose “the immoral wars in and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

As I write, Pvt. Loope’s fate is undetermined; I will write more about him in a future column. For now, I simply call on everyone who opposes Bush’s wars to realize that ending them remains up to us. And the hard work has just begun.