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Vietnam Syndrome, Iraq Malaise

Read Fergeson's Colossus [2004] this week, he's center-right [was much more disgusted by Clinton's skittishness following the Black Hawk Down incident, which kept us from committing copious ground troops to the Balkans, than he was by Bush's failure to stay in Afghanistan and actually accomplish anything useful there beyond a temporary setback for Osama, which Fergeson doesn't like but notes & accepts]. He likes comparative history, trying to learn from the history of the British empire to better understand our own empire. Useful for me mainly in the effort to pin down in what ways our nation is an empire unlike the previous 67 [he cites this statistic]... but full of idiotic misunderstandings, such as his failure to grasp in what way current "Harvard & Yale graduates" [italics mine] have any desire to be "foreign proconsuls" the way their British counterparts 100 years ago did. He seems to think Americans don't want to be an empire, they are simply forced into being one by circumstances...

Anyway, there's a bunch of handy charts in it, and one of them tracks U.S. public support for the Iraq war across last year against the growing casualties. It's predictably enough an X, with falling support as casualties rise. The author is too dumb to realize that he's making an error of correlation, because it surprises him that public support could dwindle so rapidly after such a tiny amount of casualties compared to glorious Vietnam, which shows a similar X graph, only over a much larger time frame and body count. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that public support for the Iraq war hasn't really dwindled that much, in fact most people don't really care because they've figured out that it literally doesn't have a whole lot to do with them. Probably it's expensive, but maybe the government will figure out how to pay for it. Probably some poor people will die, but war is also good for the economy and it has [many believe] salutary effects on a nation's character. There was a patriotic surge at the beginning of the war and that disappeared, and now approval of the war is roughly on par with other republican indicators - that change has nothing to do with any casualty count.

This makes me think, however. You get all kinds of liberal sputtering these days about how the news outlets have stopped covering the war now that sovereignty's been nominally transferred, now that it's too repetitive and the public's bored by it, now that it's worse than ever for the republican side, now that it's the Olympics or whatever. But think about it - the official body count's just passed 1000, and America doesn't give a fuck. We should stop sputtering, and think about what that means.

To me, it means any talk of Iraq being a quagmire is rhetorically empty. Why, exactly, should Americans care about 1000 dead? Wake up! We lost 50,000 in Nam, and the current consensus is that we didn't fight hard enough! Do you hear a single voice anywhere in the media that has said, "...You know, I respect John Kerry's returning from combat and taking a stand against the Vietnam War"? No: such a concept is treasonous, even today, especially today, 9/11 changed everything [mothafucka.] And Iraq is a cakewalk, as far as the American public is concerned. That's not brainwashing from Big Brother - that's the truth.

There cannot be any outrage over Iraq, why? Because in the end, history has been sufficiently rewritten so that any outrage over Vietnam is a sign [in politics] of weakness, of wanting to cut the Pentagon budget, of wanting to second-guess the hawks, of hating American empire and American hegemony.

Just accept it: it is inconceivable that there will ever be outrage over Iraq - unless we get kicked out. The war is not a mistake, people. We need the oil. [or so the public believes - it fucking shit its pants this summer when the inflation-adjusted price of gas hit 1/2 of what it was in 1979] We need the enemies; we need to hit the terrorists any way we can, no matter how ineffectively. It's a question of honor - if all we can do this year against the forces of Islamic extremism who have so offended us is depose Saddam and cause chaos in Iraq, that's what we will settle for. Face facts: most Americans love the idea that Iraq is in turmoil, that it's nearly a civil war over there.

Moreover, America running out of Iraq with its tail between its legs would be almost as symbolically painful as 9/11 or Vietnam. What you need to understand is that in war, casualties beyond a certain minimum level don't matter much - all that matters is the symbolic outcome. [note that this concept, that casualties beyond a certain level don't change things much, has a strong philosophic basis in concepts of one soul counting for many, or redeeming many, or representing many...] This is emphasis on symbolism is exactly the same as in elections - the specific numbers may not add up, the policies may on deeper analysis be absurd and destructive, but if they are symbolically appealing, the voters will respond.
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