The President Alone in the Dark
By Tom Engelhardt
A Surge of Bodies
On January 4th, the Pentagon "announced the identities" of six American soldiers who had died between December 28th and New Year's Eve. It was just one of many such listings over these last years and, like similar announcements, this one had a just-the-facts quality to it -- spare to the bone, barely more information than you would get from a POW: rank, age, place of birth, date of death, place of death, type of death, and the unit to which the dead soldier belonged.
These announcements, which blend seamlessly into one another, also blend the dead into a relatively uniform mass. You can, of course, learn nothing from such skeletal reports about the dreams of these young men (and sometimes women), their hopes or fears, their plans for the future or lack of them, their talents and skills, their problems, their stray thoughts or deepest convictions, their worlds, and those who cared about them.
So few paragraphs are almost bound to emphasize not the individuality of the dead, but their similarity in death. Five of these soldiers died due to roadside explosives (IEDs), one from small-arms fire. Two died in Baghdad; two in Baqubah; the embattled capital of Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, where civil war rages; one in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency; and one in Taji, also in the "Sunni Triangle." None had a rank higher than sergeant. The oldest was only 22; the youngest, 20. Another thing five of the six had in common was not coming from a major American city.
In order of population:
Sgt. John M. Sullivan came from Hixon, Texas, halfway between New Ulm and Cat Spring. It has never had a post office and, reports the Handbook of Texas online, "A 1963 map showed no trace of the community."
Pvt. David E. Dietrich came from Marysville, Pennsylvania, (population, 2,428 in 2005), not far from Harrisburg.
Pfc. Alan R. Blohm came from Kenai, Alaska (population, 7,166 in 2003), 150 miles south of Anchorage.
Cpl. Jonathan E. Schiller came from Ottumwa, Iowa, (population 24,998 in 2000), best known as the home of Radar O'Reilly in the TV show M*A*S*H. It supposedly has "the highest unsolved murder rate (per capita) in the free world."
Spc. Luis G. Ayala came from South Gate, California (population of 103,547), part of Los Angeles and once the home of a huge General Motors plant.
Spc. Richard A. Smith came from Grand Prairie, Texas, population 145,600 in 2005. "Legend has it," the Wikipedia tells us, "that the town was renamed after a famous female actor stepped off the train and exclaimed ‘My, what a grand prairie!'"
Some of them, in other words, grew up in places with vanishingly small populations but even those who didn't came from places you're likely to have heard of only if you grew up there yourself. As Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren put it, in examining the last thousand American deaths in Iraq for the New York Times:
"The service members who died during this latest period fit an unchanging profile. They were mostly white men from rural areas, soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of high school football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in Iraq for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployment."
All you have to do is look through the most recent of these Pentagon announcements of deaths in Iraq to find more evidence of that parade of places you just haven't heard of: Vassar, Michigan (pop. 2,823), Paris, Tennessee (pop. 9,763), Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 5,470), Tamarac, Florida (pop. 55,588), New Castle, Delaware (pop. 4,836), and Vancouver, Washington (pop. 157,493).
This isn't new. You could say, in fact, that here, as elsewhere in the American experience of war in Iraq, the Vietnam analogy seems to apply, at least to a degree. Historian Chris Appy in his book Working-Class War comments:
"Rural and small-town America may have lost more men in Vietnam, proportionately, than did even central cities and working-class suburbs… It is not hard to find small towns that lost more than one man in Vietnam. Empire, Alabama, for example, had four men out of a population of only 400 die in Vietnam -- four men from a town in which only a few dozen boys came of draft age during the entire war."
But in the present all-volunteer military at the height of an increasingly catastrophic, ever less popular war, this trend toward sacrificing the overlooked young from overlooked American communities seems especially pronounced.
What does this mean, practically speaking? Assistant Professor James Moody of Duke University recently estimated that somewhere between 4.3 and 6.5 million Americans "may know people who were killed or wounded in the recent fighting" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That may sound like a lot of people, but as Globalsecurity.org's director John Pike put the matter, "The probability of knowing a casualty was about 100 times higher in [World War II] than today." Similar figures for the Vietnam years would have been significantly higher than the present ones as well (and, of course, the omnipresence of the draft gave so many more Americans a sense of being at war). As University of Maryland sociology professor David Segal put the matter, in considering Moody's research, "The bottom line is that the American military is at war, but American society is not. Even in Vietnam, everybody knew somebody who was killed or wounded."
When, last night, the President announced that he had already "committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq," when he "surges" them into Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, he is surging from Kenai, from Hixon, from Wasilla, from South Gate. And he is ensuring a spate of future Pentagon "announcements" that will again take us to what's left of the hamlets, villages, small towns, and out of the way smaller cities of this country, the places Americans increasingly don't notice.
When the President talks to us, as he did last night, about "a year ahead that will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve," this is who he is mainly sacrificing. Today, in our civilized world, we are shocked when we read of the bloody rites, the human sacrifices, of the Aztecs whose priests ripped hearts, still beating, from human chests to appease their bloodthirsty gods. These were, of course, the hearts of captives. In all his fervor, George W. Bush looks ever more like an American high priest who, for his own bloody gods, is similarly ripping hearts from the chests of the living. Make no mistake, in his speech last night, he was offering up human sacrifices from the captive villages and towns of the United States on the altar of blind faith and pure, abysmal folly.
A Surge of Words
In our country, last night's "surge" was mainly a surge of words, twenty-minutes worth, 2,898 of them. In the build-up to the speech, as almost every last detail of it was leaked to the media, untold hundreds of thousands of words surged onto news pages, onto the TV news, into talk radio chatter, and on-line -- and so many hundreds of thousands more, these included, will follow in the days to come.
As Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, the President's "new way forward" plan is guaranteed to run into a "wall of words on Capitol Hill," but, she added, "not much more." The New York Times front-paged that the Democrats were planning "symbolic votes" against the President's plan "which would do nothing in practical terms to block Mr. Bush's intention to increase the United States military presence in Iraq."
Practical terms means, not words but Congress's undeniable power of the purse, and so its right to deny at least some part of the tsunami of money the Bush administration is demanding to carry out its latest plan. Only in recent days has the possibility of using the purse to rein in the war begun to make its way from the distant frontiers of critical pariah-hood onto at least some mainstream agendas.
In the lead-up to Bush's speech to the nation, almost nowhere did words not surge -- despite the odd irony that the President did not actually use the word "surge" in his speech. Amid the deluge of words, only George Bush resorted to the resounding sound of silence. As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek:
"[T]he new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Carl Levin, an important character now -- sent Bush a private letter three weeks ago offering his counsel. Levin never got a reply. Bush can be just as deaf to Republicans. At a recent White House ceremony, Sen. Susan Collins offered to brief him on her Iraq visit. He responded by escorting her to the office of his deputy national-security adviser -- and then left before she told her story."
Given the crisis atmosphere, much of the speech itself, when the President was not plodding through his tactical changes in Iraq or offering insincere thanks to James Baker's Iraq Study Group, was remarkably ordinary Bush boilerplate. The newest (and most ominous) note struck hardly related to Iraq at all. It lay in these two lines clearly aimed at Iran, a country the Study Group wanted to draw into negotiations: "I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing ¬ and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies." At a moment when at least one American air strike had just taken place in Somalia, it hinted at a different kind of surge entirely.
Otherwise, we had heard it all, including the plan, before. The President struck only a few Iraq notes that, with a modest stretch of the imagination, might be called new and which are already all over the news. He called the situation in Iraq "unacceptable to the American people" and to him. (No mention was made of the Iraqis, of course). He offered this: "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," which, though already being headlined, managed in typical fashion to sound as if he was somehow taking responsibility for mistakes he had little or nothing to do with making.
He did speak of "benchmarks" twice -- "So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced…" -- but where exactly those "marks" were and how the Iraqis were to be held to them no one listening to the speech could have had a clue. Perhaps the single novel statement was this one: "I have made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended." Of course, it too went utterly undefined, but assumedly when the present surge fails, it does leave the President some vague kind of out, were he ever to decide to use it.
When it came to much of the rest of the speech, you could easily have taken his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, or his September 11, 2006 anniversary address on the World Trade Center attacks, shaken the words up and simply dumped them randomly into last night's speech without reaching for a bit of new vocabulary. As in either of those previous speeches, he created his usual hair-raisingly Manichaean vision of an embattled us-and-them world (one he and his top officials have worked assiduously to bring into being), of simple good and pure evil (though, a rarity for him, he did not actually use the word "evil" last night), of longed-for security and utter terror.
If you were simply to do a word count comparison to his 9/11 anniversary speech (almost 400 words shorter), there would be little way, except possibly by the rise in the use of the word "sectarian," to note the passage of time in Iraq. Just to take the dystopian side of his official presidential vision, here are some word counts from last night (with the September counts in parentheses).
Terror, terrorists: 13 (17)
Violence, violent: 13 (3)
Sectarian: 9 (1)
Al Qaeda: 10 (3)
Extreme/ists: 6 (6)
Enemies: 5 (14)
Attack: 5 (13)
Insurgents: 5 (0)
Kill, Killing, Killers: 4 (3)
Fight, fighters, fighting: 4 (6)
War: 3 (13)
Struggle: 3 (4)
Death, Deadly: 3 (1)
Islamic (Radical Empire, Radical Extremists): 2 (1)
Murder, Murderers: 2 (1)
Threat: 1 (6)
Defeat: 1 (5)
Destroy, Destruction: 2 (2)
Hateful: 1 (2)
Danger, Dangerous: 2 (1)
Aggressive: 1 (1)
Conflict: 1 (1)
On our side of the black/white divide were all his (and his speechwriters') usual favorites: "protect," "secure," "defend," "democracy," "liberty," and even, against all expectations, not just "success" and its cognates, as well as "prevail," but "victory" itself (twice), even though it long ago went missing in action in the real world.
Awkwardly, even uncomfortably delivered, last night's Way-Forward-in-Iraq speech was, in sum, a speech to be forgotten, a speech certain to be buried -- and quickly -- in the coming carnage.
And here's a strange footnote to the administration's surge of words. The most secretive White House in our history, ever ready to accuse others of leaking or releasing information that could hurt national security, has over the last week essentially released the full American "surge" plan for the Baghdad area -- as if we weren't in one world, as if those resisting the American military didn't watch CNN and couldn't read our press on-line like anyone else. Whether you belong to a Sunni insurgent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, you now know that the American plan involves dividing the Iraqi capital into nine sections; more or less how many American (as well as Iraqi) troops and police will be assigned to live in each of them; that new mini-bases for the surging Americans will be created throughout the city, and so on.
Given administration and military leaks, copious official background briefings for the media, Bush's speech, and the endless comments of key neocon planners and presidential briefers Frederick Kagan and retired General Jack Keane, can there be anyone on our planet who doesn't know a great deal about the American "way forward" and the exact schedule on which it is to be rolled out? Since the President's plan sounds so much like past "surges" into Baghdad, military and economic, just as the speech itself caught so many past presidential speech patterns, planning to avoid, outwait, outfight, or outwit it should be well underway as you read this.
The Man Who Met the Man Who Shot Abu Masab al-Zarqawi
On January 2nd, there was a strange piece of news buried in a back paragraph of a front-page New York Times story by the reportorial team of David E. Sanger, Michael R. Gordon, and John F. Burns. It had the wonderful headline, "Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in '06, Bush Team Says" (as if they were just standing around, when the tsunami of chaos happened to hit…) and here was the passage:
"By May 2006, uneasy officials at the State Department and the National Security Council argued for a review of Iraq strategy. A meeting was convened at Camp David to consider those approaches, according to participants in the session, but Mr. Bush left early for a secret visit to Baghdad, where he reviewed the war plans with General Casey and Mr. Maliki, and met with the American pilot whose plane's missiles killed Iraq's Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He returned to Washington in a buoyant mood."
The italics are mine. And yes, the week after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took an American missile in the teeth, the President made a visit to Baghdad, so quick and secret that even he hardly knew he was there. At the time, the American death toll had just hit 2,500. As a signal of trust, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was given a full five-minutes notice that he was about to have the President of the United States look him "in the eye."
All of this was covered in our news, including a presidential meeting with cheering American troops and Bush's comments on his return flight -- that seem as up-to-date as last night's surge speech -- "I assured [the Iraqis] that we'll keep our commitment. I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment and be successful, they themselves have to do some hard things. They themselves have to set an agenda. They themselves have to get some things accomplished." This is the sort of thing that, almost seven months later, gives you confidence that the "new way forward" is, in fact, the traditional way backward.
At a moment when the Iraqi situation was already visibly devolving into chaos, civil war, and catastrophe, that the President came home "buoyant" remains a striking detail, more so perhaps because of the fervor with which he described his own mood at the time. "I was," he claimed, "inspired."
But what was it that actually "inspired" him that week in June 2006? The death of Zarqawi certainly. The President, whose approach to his war is unnervingly personal, had built up Zarqawi's importance not just to the American public but evidently in his own mind until the man stood practically co-equal with the ever-missing Osama bin Laden. So, it may not be surprising that he would have wanted to meet the pilot whose plane's missiles killed Zarqawi -- but it's still news, all these months later, and revealing news at that.
You can search the coverage of that June moment from MSNBC and the Washington Post to Fox News in vain for mention of it. All I found was this oblique reference in a presidential radio address: "…And I was honored to meet with some of our troops, including those responsible for bringing justice to the terrorist Zarqawi."
At the time, no one in the media seems to have picked up on the meeting with the pilot, although presidential doings of any sort are usually closely scrutinized. Even the White House, it appears, chose not to publicize it. So I think we have to assume that the meeting may actually have represented a private presidential desire (or, at least, the decision of someone who knew that this would give Bush special satisfaction). If so, it catches something of the character of the man who is now so ready to surge other people's sons and daughters onto the streets of Baghdad.
It's reasonable to assume that, in his heart of hearts, George Bush never really wanted to be President and, before the 9/11 attacks woke him up, many observers noted that he acted that way. On the eve of the 2001 attacks, even Republicans were griping that he wasn't into the nation's business, just the business of vacationing at the "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. One Republican congressman complained that "it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing' sign on it."
What 9/11 seems to have awoken in him was a desire not so much to be President as to be Commander-in-Chief (or maybe sheriff). It's an urge that anyone who grew up in the darkened movie theaters of the 1950s, watching American war films and Westerns, might understand. Sooner or later, most of us, of course, left behind those thrilling screen moments in which Americans gloriously advanced to victory and the good guys did what was necessary to put the bad guys down, but my own suspicion has long been that George W. Bush did not -- and that avoiding the conflicts of the Vietnam-era helped him remain a silver-screen warrior.
In launching his Global War on Terror and the "hunt" for Osama bin Laden, the President famously said, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West... I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'" That "old poster" was, of course, "recalled" from childhood cowboy movies, not from any West he ever experienced. Similarly, from his "Top Gun," Mission-Accomplished moment landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to the way he kept his own "personal scorecard of the war" (little bios with accompanying photos of leading al-Qaeda figures, which he crossed out as U.S. forces took them down), from his visible pleasure in appearing before hoo-aahing American troops wearing G.I. Joe doll-style dress-up jackets (often with "commander-in-chief" stitched across his heart) to his petulant "bring ‘em on" comment of game-playing frustration when the Iraqi insurgency wouldn't go away, it's hard not to register his childish urge for role-playing.
Every signal we have indicates that he experienced himself as, and savored finding himself in, the specific role of Commander-in-Chief, and that he has been genuinely thrilled to do commander-in-chief-like things and act in commander-in-chief-like ways, at least as once pictured in the on-screen fantasy world of his youth. Being the man who met (and congratulated) the man who shot Abu Musab al-Zarqawi certainly qualifies, even if the antiseptic act of missiling a house from a jet isn't quite the equivalent of the showdown at the OK Corral, six-gun in hand. In other words, George Bush dreams of himself in High Noon, while, in reality, he's directing a horror movie or a snuff film.
This is all so woefully infantile for the leader of the globe's last superpower. Take his response to being presented with the pistol found near Saddam Hussein when he was finally captured in his "spiderhole" in 2004. According to Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper that same year:
"Sources say that the military had the pistol mounted after the soldiers seized it from Saddam and that it was then presented to the President privately by some of the troops who played a key role in ferreting out the old tyrant. Though it was widely reported at the time that the pistol was loaded when they grabbed Saddam, Bush has told visitors that the gun was empty--and that it is still empty and safe to touch. ‘He really liked showing it off,' says a recent visitor to the White House who has seen the gun. ‘He was really proud of it.' The pistol's new place of residence is in the small study next to the Oval Office where Bush takes select visitors…"
The military knew their man -- or perhaps boy; someone deeply involved not in the actual bloody carnage of Iraq, but in a fantasy Iraq War of his own imagining, a man who could still tell us last night: "We can and we will prevail" and predict "victory." This is the man who is now going to launch an "aggressive effort" to sell Congress and the American people on further madness and bloody carnage in Iraq. And this is the plan after which, according to Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe of the Wall Street Journal, may come the already named "nightmare scenario" -- civil and regional war across the Middle East -- according to some worried American officials and Arab diplomats. This is the man who holds in his hands the lives of countless Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans about to be sent into Hell.
It's no news that George W. Bush has been living in a bubble world created by his handlers, but it's hard not to believe that his own personal "bubble" isn't far more longstanding than that. The problem, of course, is that only Mr. Bush and a few neocon stragglers are left inside the theater still showing his Iraq War movie. The Iraqis aren't there. The man who pushed the button to shoot that missile surely wasn't; nor were Zarqawi's Shiite victims; nor were the 120 or more Iraqis who died this Tuesday, including the 41 bodies found dumped throughout Baghdad and the five found scattered around Mosul; nor was Dustin Donica, the 3,000th American who died in the war; nor was Pfc. Alan R. Blohm from Kenai, Alaska. None of them could put up a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster, cross-out the faces of the bad guys, land gloriously on an aircraft carrier, or dress up for war -- and then go home "inspired." They had the misfortune to be in a horrific reality into which a President, thoroughly in the dark, had sent them stumbling.
Now, George W. Bush is about to send even more young (and some not so young) Americans from hamlets, small towns, distant suburbs, and modest-sized cities all over America on yet another "last chance" mission. Perhaps he's even still dreaming of that moment when, in those movies of old, the Marine Corps Hymn suddenly welled up and, against all odds, our troops started forward and the enemy began to fall. But before we're done, if there's a commander he might bring to mind, it's not likely to be George Patton, but George Armstrong Custer.
What if that last chance comes to look more like a last stand? The least the President could do for the rest of us is step out of the dark of his brain, where those old films still flicker, and look around. If only…
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
[Note: Special thanks go to Nick Turse for his research prowess and endless support.]
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt