by Aaron Karmin
(Swans - April 21, 2008) Mark Twain described war as "a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater." President Bush has vowed that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Bush has posited that "the American experience with democracy is urgently useful to the wider world." True, but there is another side of the coin: that America basically inherited its institutions from the Anglo-Saxon tradition and thus its experience over 230 years has been about limiting despotic power rather than creating power from scratch. Because order is something we've taken for granted, anarchy is not something we've feared. But in many parts of the world, the experience has been the opposite, and so is the challenge: how to create legitimate, functioning institutions in utterly barren landscapes.
Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. Now as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient tests, as in the Antigone of Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."
Our military currently has up to 168,000 troops in Iraq, which includes a "surge," as it is called, to help promote security. But isn't this exactly what we have always done in the past? If we examine the history of American conflicts, we find the dismal story repeated time after time. Every time -- at every crisis -- we have sent more troops; and issued increasingly confident communiqués. Every time, the public has been assured that this one last step would bring victory. And every time, the predictions and promises have failed and been forgotten, and the demand has been made again for just one more step up the ladder. But all the escalations, all the last steps, have brought us no closer to success than we were before. Rather, as the scale of the fighting has increased, Iraqi society has become less and less capable of organizing or defending itself, and we have more and more assumed the whole burden of the war. And once again the president tells us, as we have been told for years, that "we are going to win"; "victory" is coming. But what are the true facts? What is our present situation?
All this bears directly and heavily on the question of whether our troops should stay in Iraq -- and if more are sent, what their mission will be. We are entitled to ask -- we are required to ask -- how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams? But this question the administration does not and cannot answer. It has no answer. None, but the ever-expanding use of military force and the endless loss of lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military force has failed to solve anything in the past. The president has told us that he seeks victory. But there can be no "victory" for either side; only a painful and difficult waiting game.
Let us have no misunderstanding. The insurgents are a brutal enemy indeed. Time and time again, they have shown their willingness to sacrifice innocent civilians, to engage in torture and murder and despicable terror to achieve their ends. This is a war almost without rules or quarter. There can be no easy moral answer to this war, no one-sided condemnation of American actions. What we must ask ourselves is whether we have a right to bring so much destruction to another land, without clear and convincing evidence that this is what its people want. But that is precisely the evidence that we do not have. What they want is peace, not dominated by any outside force.
There is no question that some of the Iraqis have fought with great bravery. The Iraqis are a courageous people. Yet, if the Iraqis will not carry the fight for their cities, we cannot ourselves destroy the insurgents. If insurgents or invaders held New York or Washington or San Francisco, we would not leave it to foreigners to take them back, and destroy them and their people in the process. Rather I believe there is not one among us who would not tear the invaders out with his bare hands, whatever the cost.
For it is long past time to ask: what is this war doing to us? The cost is in our young men and women, the tens of thousands of their lives cut off forever. The cost is in our world position -- in neutrals and allies alike, every day more baffled by and estranged from a policy they cannot understand. It may be asked, is not such degradation the cost of all wars? Of course it is. That is why war is not an enterprise to be undertaken lightly, nor prolonged one moment past its absolute necessity. All this -- the destruction of Iraq, the cost to ourselves, the danger to the world -- all this we would stand willingly, if it seemed to serve some worthwhile end. But the costs of the war's present course far outweigh anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for ourselves or for the people of Iraq. It must be ended, and it can be ended, in a peace of brave men who have fought each other with a terrible fury, each believing he and he alone was right. We have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been answered fully. So instead, the war goes on, year after terrible year -- until those who sit in the seats of high policy are men who seek another path. And that must be done this year. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be partly answered, now is the time to stop.
Our country is in danger, not just from foreign enemies but above all, from our own misguided policies -- and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best, hope of man. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. In these next months, we are going to decide what this country will stand for -- and what kind of society we are. It is my hope that as a nation, we can go forth and work for new policies -- work to change our direction -- and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our own hearts, and all around the world.
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