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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
A week after we last invaded Iraq, in March of 2003, a local attorney penned a column in the Tuscola Review about how it was high time that we went in and kicked some serious Iraqi ass. His justification, to the best of my recollection, had something to do with making the world safe for democracy, or Jesus, or maybe safe sex. I forget. Anyway, I immediately picked up the phone and called the paper's editor.
"Randy," I said, "I either want my fifty cents back or I want a rebuttal column." His reply was, "Paul, we're all good Republicans here at the Review. Our money is our god, and we never, ever give any of it back. So I guess I have to give you your column." So I sat down with pen in hand, over my lap top, and wrote the column that went to press on April 15, 2003.
As much as I'd like to blow my own horn about my incredible ability to see the future, I have to admit that I got a couple of things wrong. But I figure that if I got even one thing right, I still did a lot better than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz. So here is my review of that column ten years later — the good, the bad and the in-between. You may also score yourselves ten years after the fact. Nobody's watching.
Two months before my column was written, I should point out, Gene Lyons wrote one of his own. Referring to the impending invasion, he wrote, "This isn't conservatism. It's utopian folly and a prescription for endless war." In his own review ten years later, he concluded that "Although the short term outcome wasn't in doubt and Americans could be counted upon to rally around the troops, it struck me as almost mad to imagine that the US could convert Iraq into a Middle Eastern Switzerland by force of arms." My own March, 2003 prediction in this regard, admittedly a trifle long winded, read as follows:
"You all remember 1095. If you guessed that was the last time the Cubs won a pennant, you wouldn't be far off. But no. 1095 was the year Europe launched the First Crusade, which was the first time that Western civilization decided to colonize and civilize the Islamic world. Even the amateur history student will recall how well that one worked out. (It didn't.) 900 years later, this administration's stated goal is to establish representative democracy in Iraq. As much as I'd love to see the House of Burgesses resurrected in Baghdad, I have to tell you that democratic institutions are not flowering shrubs you can pick up at Walmart and put in your front yard. They take time — a whole lot of time — to develop. We've been working on ours since 1607, and I have yet to talk to anyone, Republican or Democrat, who thinks we've perfected them. I do not see long range Jeffersonian democracy as our legacy to that part of the world. If that is your prediction, I would respectfully suggest that you've spent too much time flicking channels between Cartoon world and Presidential press conferences. My dour prediction: about a dozen nameless warlords fighting for turf until one of them winds up as the next Hussein. 'Iraqi freedom' will be short-lived indeed."
I'm happy with the first part of that assessment, but less confident about the prediction. Let's be honest. One man's tyrannical warlord is the next man's liberating hero. I would imagine that if you polled Sunnis and Shia in Iraq that you would get much different answers.
Before I leave the subject of the Switzerland that wasn't to be, let's remember that, at the outset of the war, the administration entitled it Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Actually, the first choice was Operation Iraqi Liberation, but there was some problem with the acronym.) My point is that, for all of the wild talk about 9/11 and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, the administration chose to go with an emphasis on liberating the oppressed Iraqis. Could it be that someone in the brain trust guessed that the first two might not wind up flying as well?
In his 2003 column, Lyons quoted the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, as follows: "We all share the same priority, that of fighting terrorism mercilessly. Invading Iraq without just cause would likely exacerbate the divisions within societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism." My own suggestion at the time was that "It is possible that Saddam, admittedly a despotic pig, and al Qaeda have been longtime co-conspirators, and that Iraq had some involvement with the 9/11 murders. If so, we may only hope that the CIA will soon lay its hands on the first shred of evidence which proves that. It is also possible that conquering a country in the heart of the Islamic world, and in the process doubling or tripling the number of people in that region who hate us, will make us safer from future acts of terrorism, although for the life of me I can't imagine how."
I'm still comfortable with those observations, although I suspect that if Donald Rumsfeld were reading this, his first question would be, "OK, Paul, so when was the last time terrorists flew airplanes into buildings in America?" (I'm safe. I doubt that he belongs to VVAW.)
So let's turn to what else I may have missed. I ended my column by admitting that "I could acknowledge that the $100 billion we're going to spend on this war, and its indeterminate aftermath, really isn't a lot of money. There would be no point in spending it on improved education for our children or on affordable health care and housing for our working poor. But of course I don't believe any of those things, and I don't understand why anyone else would either."
You see what I missed? According to the Onion Book of Known Knowledge, Saddam Hussein "successfully carried out a devastating attack on the American economy by forcing the United States to spend more that $800 billion to invade, occupy and withdraw from his country." To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, a hundred billion here and a hundred billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money.
But what's the worst thing I missed? I never once mentioned The Big Lie about the WMD's, of which Saddam had about as many as the Tuscola Police Department. Why not? Because my old Vietnam buddy Colin Powell promised me that Saddam had them! OK, Captain Powell and I didn't spend a lot of time together sharing a bowl out behind a Saigon strip joint, but Nam vets aren't supposed to lie to each other. Pardon me while I go hang up my stocking on the fireplace for Santa.
I'm actually going to close with something serious. Reviewing his own column from ten years ago, Lyons noted that in 2003, "Skepticism was in short supply. Spooked by 9/11 and intimidated by the intellectual bullies of the Bush administration, American journalists largely abandoned that professional virtue in favor of propaganda and group think." My own experience at the time was very much in tune with that. Well meaning friends cautioned me that I hadn't won any points around town with my column. 'You pissed some people off with that," they advised me. "Don't plan on running for the City Council anytime soon."
That's OK. I never planned to. But hey Iraq, at least some of us are sorry. And good luck. You're apparently going to need it.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he used to work as a probation officer. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.