Nox Vox Populi: Kevin O'Brien's Universe

Like most people, I have a fairly casual attitude toward op-ed columns and letters to the editor in other publications. I read them and pass on. But occasionally a piece will appear that is so noxious it must be challenged and dissected. Kevin O'Brien's column in the August 10 Plain Dealer, on the occasion of the memorial for troops lost in the Iraq War, is such a piece.

O'Brien's strange thinking appears in his very first sentence, wherein he states that our fallen troops were killed by "cowards." This is hard to understand. By what reasoning can we apply the term "coward" to suicide bombers? Call them evil - no argument. Call them cruel - no argument. But cowards? O'Brien devotes ten paragraphs to praise for American troops who laid down their lives, but he terms their opposite numbers "cowards" for doing the same thing. It doesn't make sense, especially since the claim seems to be a useless one. Even if true, it adds nothing to the argument (such as it is) on behalf of the war. So why make the claim? I'll get back to this later.

The main thrust of O'Brien's column is criticism of the protestors who were at the memorial. He quotes just two messages delivered by the protestors: "Drive out the Bush regime" and "Our boys have gone to war for a lie and under false pretenses." On the basis of these messages, he claims that what the protestors really mean to say is, in his words, that "our military men and women are fighting so that evil will triumph." From there he goes on to say that any such protest deeply harms the U.S., because it displays a lack of resolve. ("Resolve" is key for him.) He says that "our only real choice" is to be active or passive - to "take the war to the enemy" or to "wait for the enemy to bring the war to us." He asserts that we can't leave Iraq immediately, but the reason he gives is not that precipitate withdrawal would create a chaotic situation for terrorists to exploit, but rather that it would embolden the terrorists to "seek us out and pick us off" (an echo of the "We're fighting them over there so we don't need to fight them here" mantra).

O'Brien makes a number of other noxious statements which you can track down if you care to, but what I wish to pursue are his basic points, expressed in his blanket reference to "the enemy" (identified as "the forces of radical Islam") and his claim that our "only real choice" is to act or not to act. These make up a view that O'Brien shares with other Bushist proponents of the Iraq War.

This view is so superficial and so obtuse - so much at odds with the facts we see around us, if we take the trouble to look -- that O'Brien seems to be living in another universe.

O'Brien's is a block universe -- there is no cause and effect, there are no distinctions, no gradations or complexities, no change through time, but only an eternal battle between Good and Evil.
For O'Brien, the story of the Iraq War is not a narrative but a morality play, in which the Good Guys are eternally good and can suffer no flaws except failure of will, while the Bad Guys are eternally evil, no other explanations allowed.

And this, I believe, is why apologists for the War like to call terrorists and insurgents "cowards." They want to do away with any attempt to explain, in terms of political or social context, why the terrorists or insurgents oppose us, and so they ascribe the terrorists' or insurgents' behavior to unchanging traits of character. On this view, terrorists and insurgents are cowards by nature, now and forever, and that (along with other unchanging traits of character, perhaps) is why they do what they do. Apologists for the war can forever avert their eyes from any suggestion that our enemies' behavior is connected to the historical relationships between Islam and the West, or to U.S. policies, in particular to U.S. warmaking.

But let's look at our own universe, a universe in which there are effects and causes and explanations, in which we must recognize complexity and distinguish issues. In our universe there are truths about the Iraq War that do not appear in O'Brien's super-simplistic universe. (If these are boringly obvious, I apologize. They clearly are not obvious to O'Brien.)

1) The Iraq War was not forced on us by the terrorists, but rather was a war of choice initiated by Bush. He manipulated the intelligence and he manipulated the Congress in order to achieve his aim of seizing Iraq.
2) The Iraq War is not part of the battle against terror. Rather, it is a serious impediment to the battle against terror. It diverts resources (and not only material resources but also human resources, such as interpreters) from the worldwide battle. In particular, it takes away from our efforts in Afghanistan, where things are not going as well as the administration would have us believe.
Nor are we fighting the terrorists over there so that we don't have to fight them here. Rather, we are fighting them over there and as a result we will have to fight MORE of them over here. For Iraq is a recruiting ground and a training ground for terrorists. This is easy to understand: The chief motivating force in terrorism is humiliation, and nothing could be more humiliating for a devout Muslim than seeing a Muslim country conquered by a Western power. In this respect, the Iraq War is analogous to the struggle of the Afghans against the Russians in the 1980s, a struggle that spawned and spewed forth bin Laden and his ilk. Who knows what future terrorists are being spawned now in Iraq, to be spewed forth later?
(And by the way: U.S. deaths in Iraq are approaching the 2,000 mark, and climbing. So the War promises not to prevent a duplication of 9/11, but rather to produce a duplication of that calamity.)
3) Furthermore, there is no justification for the Iraq War. One rationale after another has been stripped away - WMD, support for terrorism, the desirability of spreading democracy - until there is only one left, namely, that we have freed the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's barbaric rule. If this is the justification for invading Iraq, then at the very least the war was waged under false pretenses. But let's set that aside and get to the substance -- the contention that the war is justified, if only in hindsight, because it achieved the overthrow of Saddam. (Exactly how much of a blessing that will be for the Iraqis remains to be seen, but let's set that question aside also.)

If the sole justification for the Iraq War was to give the Iraqi people their freedom from Saddam - if that was the only reason, without our thinking being influenced by other pretended reasons - then it cannot stand. To begin, why Iraq instead of one of the other barbarous governments around the world -- for example Myanmar (aka Burma), which by all accounts has a government at least as oppressive as Saddam's? Suppose Bush proposed invading Myanmar, purely and simply to free its people from oppression - don't you think the American people would balk at that? It is wrong, on principle, for one government to unilaterally overthrow another simply because the latter is deemed to be oppressive. It is unconscionably arrogant and morally reckless for one country to play God, arrogating to itself the privilege of deciding which governments deserve to exist and which do not. Proof lies in the precedents such an invasion would establish, both for our own country (Myanmar today, Venezuela tomorrow?) and for other countries (we invade Myanmar today, Russia invades Ukraine tomorrow?). No, the end does not justify the means in this sort of case, even though the invading nation is well-meaning (or perhaps because it is well-meaning.) And if it is morally wrong to unilaterally invade Myanmar simply to topple its government, so also for unilaterally invading Iraq.

Furthermore, from a practical point of view the Iraq invasion was wrong for reasons that are only too evident.

In short, if we ask what is the cause of the Iraq War, the answer is Bush's unjustified decision to invade. Bush is responsible for the war and all the evils that have followed and will follow from it. For this he must be held accountable, lest his evil influences persist, and holding him accountable is just what the demonstrators whom O'Brien denounces were trying to do.

But this still leaves the question of what to do now. And to this there is no good answer. Bush has led us into a terrible situation in which staying is a bad choice, yet leaving is even worse - which is to say that he has led us into a quagmire. If we stay in Iraq we can look forward, for several years at least, to the same strife and bloodshed we see now; the prospects of Iraqis managing their own security are unpromising at best, and who knows what kind of government will emerge from their new and imperfect constitution.
But if we do not stay, the prospects are even worse. The country will probably descend into a chaos in which Islamic radicals will thrive and a group reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan may well come into power.
Let me repeat: This quagmire is not built into the nature of things. It is not the result of the unchanging evil nature of terrorists, as in O'Brien's universe. It is the result solely of Bush's decision to invade along with his inept handling of the war.
So what do we do? In an ideal world, Bush would appear before the United Nations to humbly apologize for his war of aggression and to appeal for international support which would spread the burden and possibly broker a solution.
This of course will not happen. So as far as I can see, we will have to stumble along on the same path and pick up the pieces, while day by day our frustration, rage and despair burn ever deeper into our consciousness the conviction that Bushism must be repudiated and removed from our public life, partly in 2006 and totally in 2008.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 7, Posted 07.54 PM / 18th September 2005.