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The Political Animal

Iraq and “Last Days in Vietnam”

At the Los Angeles Film Festival I caught Rory Kennedy’s powerful and moving Last Days in Vietnam. If you think you are familiar with the story of the botched and frantic – and heroic – American evacuation of Vietnam, with the fall of Saigon, including some many tens of thousands of lucky Vietnamese, this film will set you straight. There is an iconic photo from that time of desperate Vietnamese climbing a spindly ladder to the narrow roof top of the American Embassy and the last helicopter out. In truth, it was not the American Embassy (rather the home of the assistant CIA station chief) and there were many more helicopters. There is much, much more to the story. It is a tragic story, and near its close, ex CIA operative Frank Snep, one of a host of American and Vietnamese who recount their experiences of the evacuation, offers the sadness with which he recalls the end of the United States experience in Vietnam and how it represents for him the nature of the whole experience.

The North Vietnamese committed their massive violation of the Paris Peace Accords, by invading the South, in February of 1975, twenty five months after the accords were signed, and the subsequent withdrawal of American combat forces. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The American evacuation, because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin until then refused to even consider planning one, was effected in a single day, April 29, 1975, into the dark morning of the thirtieth.

The consequences for the South Vietnamese, especially those known to be allied with or sympathetic to the U.S. were great. Up to one million Vietnamese were subsequently interned in the infamous reeducation camps, where mortality rates have been estimated at 10% per year. “Boat people” refugees numbered 1.6 million. What followed were decades of economic stagnation, and for those of the South, the loss of political freedom that persists today.

As the North’s rapid advance southward progressed, President Gerald Ford appeared before Congress with a request for over $700 million to fund an American response, including the possibility of the reintroduction of American military forces. The American people and their representatives were in no mood. As the end credits rolled, carrying with them the enormous sense of the loss, the folly, and the betrayals worked into the very start of that American endeavor, the thought occurred to me: who would argue now, after that long war, fought at such price, with no gain, that the United States should have returned to Vietnam in 1975, in the baseless belief it could have achieved in the end any of what it had failed to achieve the last time around?

Instantly, the answer occurred: the same people now arguing for a return to Iraq, who wish we had never left, who never learn from history. For these people the sum total of political wisdom in international affairs is Hobbes, Machiavelli, and von Clausewitz, Munich and the historical anomaly of total victory in the Second World War, and an American Exceptionalism perverted from an empirical historical achievement into a moral inherency that paves an imperial road not only to folly but to ruin.

If one were to draw out the implications of the judgment these voices make on American military dominance in the post-War era, the seeds of national decadence were planted almost at the reaping of the nation’s greatest harvest: from Korea to Cuba to Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, nothing but lack of national will, a weakness of backbone to fight the ultimate fight, the failed moral courage to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Kennedy completed the thought, “in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He neglected to add in foreign lands, and even when one needs to construct the friend out of grass or clay. The only truly morally sufficient, which is to say total, military achievements were the pathetic accomplishment of invading Granada and the discretely achievable goal of capturing Manuel Noriega in Panama. Even the resounding military success of the Gulf War was compromised, to these foreign policy hands, by George H.W. Bush’s careful decision not to move on Baghdad, a decision ratified in its own resounding fashion by the Iraq War. That is to say the judgment not to advance on Baghdad was confirmed for all but those for whom it was a moral as much as a strategic failure, and who hawked a whole new ward to achieve that end.

Who in 1975 would have been led by McNamara, Rusk, or Westmoreland back into the paddies of Vietnam? Who would not have cried out in repugnance at the shameless reappearance of any of them on the national stage in order to pretend to strategic wisdom, never mind moral suasion, while hawking further military misguidance? These are people who would have reduced the Thirty Years’ War to the bromide of “staying the course.”

While the Arab world continues to struggle in its political development, related, profound strains of Islamic culture reject modernity and illiberally, even barbarically erupt against it. Influences go back a century and far longer. The program and the pitch for external imposition of liberal democratic structures over these conditions has been already an intellectual scandal with mortal consequences and of historic proportion. Those who once again make the pitch – the Cheney’s, McCains, Kristols, Wolfowitz’s, et al – deserve the censure of history, not the spotlight of lazy broadcast journalism and the assembly line of op-ed pages.

As tragic were the consequences of South Vietnam’s fall, there is no reason at all to believe a reengagement there would have produced a lesser tragedy to substitute, or a lesser failure than the first engagement. When the mission is mistaken, no amount of backbone, bombast, or bombing will extract success from it.

The arrogant misreading of history is that missionary liberal democracy can redirect world historical and long-term regional social developments through force of imperial might and inherent moral superiority. This arrogance is, in fact, a signature of post-Columbian imperialism. And when the folly has ended, imperial democracy leaves the Sykes–Picot Agreement or the patchwork of African nation-states and comforts itself in mad, blind delusion that it left the places it tarried better off for the visit. The greater and tragic truth is that we are guided through history by the vaguest sense of a destination while wearing a blindfold. Just ask the people unlucky enough to host the imperial visits.

From the fallout of the Arab upheavals, so sadly and natively labeled the Arab Spring, to the theocratic insanity and barbarism that has come to possess too broad a strain of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa will host dangers for the liberal democracies and the United States for an immeasurable time to come. There may well be times, soon and later, when the United States will need to carry out smaller and larger military operations to destroy enemies and counter threats there. It has not been called by some the Long War unknowingly. But such purposeful actions in self-defense and in careful protection of the national interest are a categorical remove from nation building, and from committing the nation’s human and other resources on behalf of nations and governments that offer no manifest political and cultural alliance. Such military miscalculations – such as the Iraq War in the first place, and any return there to bolster the Iraqi government – actually have, and would, work counter to American self-defense and the protection of American interests, by draining will and resources from what must be accomplished in the attempt achieve what cannot.

James Madison, on a very different domestic topic, warned in Federalist No. 10 that

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

He understood that the times, as the leaders, would not always be so great. They were not great or enlightened in 2003. The same figures, unreconstructed and unconscionable, are no greater now, their cause and argument no more supported by the short or longer history of events. They are a danger to the republic. The doors need be barred against them.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon

Something fails to fire. Across the synaptic gap, neurotransmission falls short. For only a moment or forever, we cease to remember – “as if,” Billy Collins writes,

… one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Or there is one phone, in an old inn, and you reach somebody there, the keeper, who was a once a Captain in the British Navy, though he’s old and fuzzy now, and while you keep raising your voice as if louder means clearer, he persists in bellowing, “Hello? Hello?”

There are many agents of forgetfulness. They abound. They are in the water, in the air, in the waves of the air, in the words we read and hear. And they are invisible, like all the silent killers, not just of people, but of memory. To survive them is an act of will and determined focus, for to know one thing, one must remember many, and the agents never cease their attack. They work together, too, in admixtures, compounds, concentrates aiming to wreak havoc on our limbic systems.

About Syria, one agent group has told us all this before, and before, and before, that our decency depends upon it, that good men and women, Syrian Tom Paines all, are just waiting for us – our so little to give all that they need to prevail, storified in paeans to freedom and dignity. They are destined to prevail (the force is with them), yet, oddly, if we do not make their cause our cause, all will be lost, for now it will be our cause, and our failure if it is lost. Come, join in. We must engage them to win their hearts, for Tom Paines are fickle and Iraq was Iraq, Afghanistan Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia so twentieth century, what have you done for us lately, oh, you torpid and craven.

Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the renowned Madisons and Monroes of Vietnam, forget the Sunni-Shia divide, the Alawite hatred, the streams of Kurdish aspiration seeking to conjoin across national borders, the scores of contending forces, the maniacally Muslim among them, and Hezbollah, and crumpled Lebanon, Turkey’s increasingly illiberal leanings, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and, oh, yes. Iran. Forget.

Fouad Ajami, he of the gravelly-wise empathetic voice, white beard and wild brows, beautifully unattractive like an old blind seer, he should play Homer – sing-o-muse – will wax again America toward war, uttering to Anderson Cooper the most foolish professional advice ever uttered by expert lips, that we, America “have to have faith in the Syrian people.”

Bring your American goodness – forged from American degeneracy if you don’t.

But memory is worn away in many directions. Ajami has his responders. We see them every time, they return every time, the End and Stop the War Coalitions that only work to end and stop the wars that the United States or the United Kingdom thinks about entering, otherwise not so much the banners and the burning outrage. War is cruel, but any war that America might join is most cruel, and it doesn’t matter what a president, or a secretary-of, might say, what party from, what history of belief and profession – the exercise of American power is at issue so everything everyone says is now a lie, a conspiracy, and a murderous plan to make a buck. “International law” floats in the air a utopian god-head, until it is a law of war over which the United States might flex a muscle, and then it is time for the hems and the haws, the  hundred indecisions, the visions and revisions, though the world might be more lawless after. They would have you forget that whatever the world’s corruptions and ills, not one pillar of the palace of human safety wrested from the jungle of human horrors was greased with their blood or erected by them.

It is time, instead, for, as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, put it “tough diplomacy,” which is diplomacy with a scrunched up face and a stern reproach. Alternatively, U.N. Security Council resolution can be sought, and if Syria ignores it, well, we don’t actually enforce international laws, though we righteously regret their violation.

Even the sense of violation can be forgotten. There are agents for that, too. They say that to die is to die. The agony of shrapnel in the stomach no less than the eruptions of the organs and the asphyxiated lungs. They offer arguments like this:

It’s not obvious that high explosives are inherently less evil than chemical weapons. People vividly recall the horrifying gassing of soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But it was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.

Strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons and you often find strategic self-interest lying underneath. Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favorable. Washington can defeat most enemy states in a few days–unless the adversary uses WMD to level the playing field.

“It was artillery shelling that killed in hugely greater numbers.” Apparently Dominic Tierney forgets that artillery shelling was used in hugely greater numbers. Yet it was chemical weapons that the perpetrators and victims of chemical warfare during World War I acted to ban. Tierney forgets that the original, 1925 Geneva Convention ban on chemical weapons was sought after the war not when today’s powerful nations might be seeking to enforce a tactical advantage, but when those nations who had used and suffered sought to limit themselves. Because they had the memories. They had not yet forgotten.

What greater crime of international, of institutional memory can there be than to dismiss the experience of those no longer living as unreal, to wave our hands in ideological reconstruction of their experience and cry it was not true. They did what they could. They left us this record of their reasons and their wrongs. And now, to excuse a score of other motives, we will say that the remnant of their wrongs, the extract of our lessons from them is nothing?

Those who forget the reality of chemical weapons are those who only see things in themselves. To reverse Plato, they see only things and not the shadows of things, the extra life of the world. The extra evil of the chemical weapon, like the biological weapon is that it is more than what it is. In the symbolic world, a thing is not only itself, but something else. It represents. What does the chemical weapon represent? Maybe if we remember another weapon.

Remember the neutron bomb? Few will. They were abandoned. It shocked not the conscience, but the imagination, that pathway to the symbolic world. Samuel T. Cohen, the physicist who invented the neutron bomb, insisted all his life that he had invented a saner and more moral weapon – a weapon that limited physical destruction and only killed people.

But many military planners scoffed at the idea of a nuclear bomb that limited killing and destruction, and insisted that deployment would escalate the arms race and make nuclear war more likely. The device was anathema to military contractors and armed services with vested interests in nuclear arsenals. Even peace activists denounced it as “a capitalist weapon” because it killed people but spared the real estate.

We are not just dreams and thoughts, but flesh, too. We live a life of the body. We live in the physical world, in relation to it. To destroy any of it is an abomination, yet what does it mean to separate ourselves in destruction from our worldly shell? Does it raise no specter? Why might it seem, saner, more moral, cleaner, easier to kill only ourselves and spare the world? We are disappearing all the time – this person, here, there, those people, everywhere, always. The life of the world is the loss of people from it. But the world is still there, right? And there are always more people.

Gas the people of Ghouta. People die in war all the time. But Ghouta still stands, and people will return. We will hardly know what was done.

The tragic, melancholy final shots of On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s film version of the Nevil Shute novel, draw their bottomless sorrow from a single vision: the world still standing and the people gone. The nuclear war had physically destroyed very little, but the radiation – in the manner of the neutron bomb –  had wafted over atmospheric currents to kill all still living, finally those in Australia. What a loss. What a symbol of loss. If the world was not created mechanistically for sentient beings, does anyone have the least notion what value there is in all there is without sentient beings to know it, be in it and of it?

The physical world is destroyed every moment in natural decay: the world was born to end. That we were born to end in it, to end ourselves in it, must seem less natural. Streets without people, an empty city, a vacant world should always appear the essential crime.

Chemical weapons, we are told, we can see, produce agony. They encourage use directed at civilians, to clear populations, to terrify in their silence and their stealth, the invisible attack, which was the special horror of Ghouta. They are not weapons of war, they are weapons of inhumanity. Those who used and suffered them before, those who banned them, knew that. To fail to see that is our own inhumanity. To fail to act in response, a crime past forgetting.

AJA

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The Political Animal

This Is Bradley Manning’s Idea of Whistleblowing

.

This is his defense.

According to the defense, Manning was motivated “to do something, something to make a difference,” after arriving inIraq in 2009 and hearing of the carnage that was going on around him.

But Army prosecutor Capt. Joe Morrow outlined how the short, bespectacled Manning fell into a partnership with the silver-haired media celebrity Assange. He said they quietly exchanged personal contact information and crafted Internet chat logs as they exposed about 700,000 pages of classified material, including secrets in the fight against terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

….

Coombs said Manning’s decision to release classified documents came in late 2009, when he was new to Iraq and learned to his horror that a family of five had been grievously injured in a roadside bomb attack.

On Christmas Eve 2009, Coombs said, a vehicle with two adults and three children pulled to the side of the road to let an Army convoy pass, only to hit a roadside bomb. “All five of the occupants were taken to the hospital,” Coombs said. “One died en route.”

What troubled Manning more, Coombs said, was that U.S. soldiers cheered because their convoy had missed the hidden bomb. “He couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

He noted that Manning placed the word “Humanist” on the back of his dog tags, signifying his religion, and said the decision to leak material was his, not Assange’s. “He felt he needed to do something, something to make a difference, from that moment forward,” Coombs said. “He started selecting information he believed the public should see and should hear, and that that would make the world a better place.

A young army PFC discovers that in war innocent people horribly, randomly die. “He started selecting information he believed the public should see.”

Rather than clear knowledge of specific wrongdoing, we have one young man with an emotional response to what he witnesses in war. On this basis he substitutes his judgment for that of the American people, their system of government, and their elected leaders. His defense says he “started selecting information.” He passed “700,000 pages of classified material” to Julian Assange. One wonders if court documents include the written, considered protocol by which each of the documents were “selected” by Manning and Assange and judged suitable for declassification and public exposure. One does not wonder too long.

The nature of this defense account is fitting. This is what defenders of Manning so often represent as well – an emotional response to political realities they do not like. In place of the constitutional rule of law and over two centuries of legislative and judicial history, they offer their sense of righteous indignation. Give them the keys to the file lockers.

Along with their moral indignation, one encounters the incoherence of their thinking about nations and governance, openness and secrecy, the nature of order and of moral responsibility. They think Manning should be hailed as a hero. They find the government’s prosecution of him an affront. They often like to recall Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers. Said Daniel Ellsberg,

I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney began working on “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” with the intent to make his film about Julian Assange. It did not work out that way.

Gibney penetrated the dense circle of agents, lawyers and journalists who surrounded Assange with the help of one of his film’s executive producers, activist Jemima Khan, who had posted some of Assange’s bail in a case involving allegations of sexual abuse by two Swedish women.

After months of discussions about Assange’s possible participation in his film, Gibney flew to England, where his subject was living under house arrest in a country estate, for a six-hour meeting. According to Gibney, at that meeting Assange told him the going rate for an interview was $1 million. When Gibney said he didn’t pay for interviews, Assange asked if instead the director would tell him what others interviewed in the documentary were saying.

“He didn’t see the irony at all,” said Gibney, 59, an unusually prolific filmmaker who often has multiple projects proceeding at the same time. “To him, he was … being attacked by big and powerful forces and he should have the right to do whatever is necessary to protect himself. The idea that spying on other interview subjects would be ironic for a transparency organization didn’t occur to him at all.”

Assange chose to keep what he knew to himself.

AJA

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