Posts filed under ‘War’

Pirates of the Mediterranean

By ROBERT HARRIS
Kintbury, England

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”
Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury — 144 million sesterces — to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome’s democracy — imperfect though it was — rose again.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.

Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome.”

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October 6, 2006 at 3:16 pm Leave a comment

America’s New Fascism

From Keith Olbermann:

The video: http://www.crooksandliars.com/2006/08/30/keith-olbermann-delivers-one-hell-of-a-commentary-on-rumsfeld/

The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.

Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands the deep analysis–and the sober contemplation–of every American.

For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence — indeed, the loyalty — of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land. Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants — our employees — with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of human freedom; and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as “his” troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq.

It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile it is right and the power to which it speaks, is wrong.

In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their time, there was another government faced with true peril–with a growing evil–powerful and remorseless.

That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the “secret information.” It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s — questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England’s, in the 1930’s.

It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England.

It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords.

It knew that the hard evidence it received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions — its own omniscience — needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth.

Most relevant of all — it “knew” that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused.

That critic’s name was Winston Churchill.

Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill.

History — and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England — have taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty — and his own confusion. A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the man, but that the office can also make the facts.

Thus, did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy.

Excepting the fact, that he has the battery plugged in backwards.

His government, absolute — and exclusive — in its knowledge, is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis.

It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.

But back to today’s Omniscient ones.

That, about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely.

And, as such, all voices count — not just his.

Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience — about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago — we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their “omniscience” as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris.

Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies have — inadvertently or intentionally — profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

And yet he can stand up, in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer’s New Clothes?

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

The confusion we — as its citizens– must now address, is stark and forbidding.

But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note — with hope in your heart — that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too.

The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and this administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld’s other main assertion, that this country faces a “new type of fascism.”

As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that — though probably not in the way he thought he meant it.

This country faces a new type of fascism – indeed.

Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow.

But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew everything, and branded those who disagreed: “confused” or “immoral.”

Thus, forgive me, for reading Murrow, in full:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he said, in 1954. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

And so good night, and good luck.

September 5, 2006 at 5:50 pm Leave a comment

An Open Letter To The World

by Ted Lansing

Dear World, I understand that you are upset by us, here in Israel.

Indeed, it appears that you are quite upset, even angry. (Outraged?)

Indeed, every few years you seem to become upset by us. Today, it is the “brutal repression of the Palestinians”; yesterday it was Lebanon; before that it was the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Baghdad and the Yom Kippur War and the Sinai campaign. It appears that Jews who triumph and who, therefore, live, upset you most extraordinarily.

Of course, dear world, long before there was an Israel, we – the Jewish people – upset you.

We upset a German people who elected Hitler and upset an Austrian people who cheered his entry into Vienna and we upset a whole slew of Slavic nations – Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians and Romanians. And we go back a long, long way in the history of world upset.

We upset the Cossacks of Chmielnicki who massacred tens of thousands of us in 1648-49; we upset the Crusaders who, on their way to liberate the Holy Land, were so upset at Jews that they slaughtered untold numbers of us.

For centuries, we upset a Roman Catholic Church that did its best to define our relationship through inquisitions, and we upset the arch-enemy of the church, Martin Luther, who, in his call to burn the synagogues and the Jews within them, showed an admirable Christian ecumenical spirit.

And it is because we became so upset over upsetting you, dear world, that we decided to leave you – in a manner of speaking – and establish a Jewish state. The reasoning was that living in close contact with you, as resident-strangers in the various countries that comprise you, we upset you, irritate you and disturb you. What better notion, then, than to leave you (and thus love you)- and have you love us and so, we decided to come home – home to the same land we were driven out 1,900 years earlier by a Roman world that, apparently, we also upset.

Alas, dear world, it appears that you are hard to please.

Having left you and your pogroms and inquisitions and crusades and holocausts, having taken our leave of the general world to live alone in our own little state, we continue to upset you. You are upset that we repress the poor Palestinians. You are deeply angered over the fact that we do not give up the lands of 1967, which are clearly the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Moscow is upset and Washington is upset. The “radical” Arabs are upset and the gentle Egyptian moderates are upset.

Well, dear world, consider the reaction of a normal Jew from Israel.

In 1920 and 1921 and 1929, there were no territories of 1967 to impede peace between Jews and Arabs. Indeed, there was no Jewish State to upset anybody Nevertheless, the same oppressed and repressed Palestinians slaughtered tens of Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed and Hebron. Indeed, 67 Jews were slaughtered one day in Hebron in 1929.

Dear world, why did the Arabs – the Palestinians – massacre 67 Jews in one day in 1929? Could it have been their anger over Israeli aggression in 1967? And why were 510 Jewish men, women and children slaughtered in Arab riots between 1936-39? Was it because Arabs were upset over 1967?

And when you, dear world, proposed a UN Partition Plan in 1947 that would have created a “Palestinian State” alongside a tiny Israel and the Arabs cried “no” and went to war and killed 6,000 Jews – was that “upset” caused by the aggression of 1967? And, by the way, dear world, why did we not hear your cry of “upset” then?

The poor Palestinians who today kill Jews with explosives and firebombs and stones are part of the same people who when they had all the territories they now demand be given to them for their state -attempted to drive the Jewish state into the sea. The same twisted faces, the same hate, the same cry of “itbach-al-yahud” (Massacre the Jew!) that we hear and see today, were seen and heard then. The same people, the same dream – destroy Israel. What they failed to do yesterday, they dream of today, but we should not “repress” them.

Dear world, you stood by during the holocaust and you stood by in 1948 as seven states launched a war that the Arab League proudly compared to the Mongol massacres.

You stood by in 1967 as Nasser, wildly cheered by wild mobs in every Arab capital in the world, vowed to drive the Jews into the sea. And you would stand by tomorrow if Israel were facing extinction.

And since we know that the Arabs-Palestinians dream daily of that extinction, we will do everything possible to remain alive in our own land. If that bothers you, dear world, well think of how many times in the past you bothered us.

In any event, dear world, if you are bothered by us, here is one Jew in Israel who could not care less.

July 28, 2006 at 6:04 pm Leave a comment

A Real Solution

The final and perfect solution is at hand, for the United States and it’s the last one we’ll have. What an opportunity!

Let’s begin IMMEDIATE and massive troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and bring them to the United States to help our own citizens in the Gulf States who have just experienced a real and honest WMD from Mother Nature.

Why will this work?

  1. The rest of the world will certainly understand.
  2. The citizenry will have nothing to worry about except our own domestic problems which are becoming insurmountable.
  3. In hindsight, we could have saved thousands of lives if our military had been HERE for OUR people who have already paid for these services.
  4. Oil prices will plummet.
  5. Jobs will be created FOR AMERICANS.
  6. We’ll be able to control our borders.
  7. It will save the Bush administration from going down as the worst in recorded history.

This is our last chance at saving face and the continuing threat from “terrorists” here in the U.S. and healing OUR COUNTRY.

– Saint Kupe 1:7

September 2, 2005 at 12:29 am 1 comment

Crawford Texas by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Dear Friends,

I’m back from a lightning trip to “Camp Casey” in Crawford, Texas, just outside the Bush vacation ranch.

Before I tell you the story of my trip, here’s an Email I received, after getting back home:

<< Dear Rabbi Waskow:

<< Thank you so much for coming to Crawford to participate in the service on Friday with all of us military and gold star families who are continuing to demand answers while Cindy is away tending to her mother.

<< If there is such a thing as being too angry to cry, that’s what I’ve been for the last two and a half years, but this service moved me to tears and for that I thank you.

<< Many of the participants who I spoke with afterward expressed the same feeling I’ve had, that our own places of worship have been silent about this war, and that has compounded our sense of alienation.

<< Having our government betray us by sending our loved ones to fight and die in this immoral war is bad enough, but then hearing silence from the very community that should be crying out in indignation is almost too much to bear. Of course, this is not true across the board but for too many of us this has been our experience.

<< This is why I am so grateful to you and all the others who led the service. You did a wonderful thing in coming to Crawford to pray with us.

<< Sincerely yours,
P— V—
(the one who asked to hold your hand as we processed)>>
*********************

So if at first I wasn’t entirely sure why I went to Crawford, now I know.

How can we respond to these events? One way is to talk with our own religious leaders, friends, fellow-congregants. Notice “P— V—“‘s outcry about religious silence.

The other way is to address our elected officials. For that, I have some suggestions close to the end of this letter. If you need to jump ahead, here’s the click:

http://www.demaction.org/dia/organizations/tsc/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=1124

And here’s part of the story: (The whole thing is on my Weblog at our Home Page:

http://www.shalomctr.org

When I got home last Wednesday night after a vigil in support of “Camp Casey” sponsored by a nearby church in Philadelphia, I found a message awaiting me from Glenn Smith, the devoted organizer of a religiously-rooted national antiwar bus tour who lives in Austin. His message, confirmed by a conversation with Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches, invited me to take part in a multireligious service at Camp Casey in Crawford, at noon on Friday.

So I went. What I found at “Peace House” in Crawford was a crew of Texans whose quiet peace-organizing outfit had been transformed in the last two weeks to the nerve center of a national movement.

Homely notes – “Please shut the door. We can’t afford to air-condition all of Texas.” Delicious food made by local housewives, ranging from Texas barbecue to a vegetarian Iraqi delicacy, made by an Iraqi-American in town.

Cindy’s mother in California had suffered a stroke, wasn’t speaking. Cindy herself had flown to see her. May the gentle strength, the boldness and bravery she taught her daughter, flower in her own life and in all our lives.)

When I arrived, I joined a planning session of other clergy who were planning the noon service. All were Protestants, mostly men but a few women; one was a Methodist bishop. A dozen pastors from Texas, others from the East and West Coasts. Some had driven for a couple of days to reach Crawford.

They asked me to start off the service with a “lament” after three minutes of silence of memorial for the dead. So I actually went to the Book of Lamentations, chose four or five verses I thought especially apropos, and prepared to chant them in English, using the special mournful melodic trope for Eicha.

And I added the same expanded “Oseh shalom” I had used back home at the vigil on Wednesday evening.

Then would come prayers by the various ministers from the Psalms, from the Gospels, from the heart.

Up the road near the Bush ranch was Camp Casey itself, just a short strip of asphalt, part of a narrow, dusty road. So narrow a road that when a car came by, the police bull-horned us to walk in the ditch so the traffic could pass.

Lining the ditches alongside the road were hundreds of crosses and at least one Magen David, for Lt. Seth Dvorin who was killed in February 2004. His photograph showed a tall, broad, open-faced man with a big smile.

Now he’s dead.

May he rest in peace in the world beyond, and may his death awaken us to the need for peace in this world right here.

So at noon we created our dusty, hot “procession” and service and heartfelt memorials to the dead – and afterwards, we schmoozed – the Texans, the clergy, and the survivors.

Then as evening came on, the camp was moved still closer to the Bush ranch, so close that to get there you have to pivot to the left at a stake-out of Secret Service guarding the President from seeing or meeting the people whose sons and daughters he sent to die for a “noble cause” he cannot explain to them.

— Into a big tent rented with small donations that are pouring in from around the country, emplaced on an acre of farm offered by a local man who is the cousin of the angry neighbor who fired a shotgun dangerously at/near the vigillers. Farmer Fred Mattlage was evidently doing penance on behalf of his family. Now THAT’S “family values” in the old-fashioned way! And besides, he’s a veteran — and he thinks it’s a bad war.

And in the tent, on Friday night, there were folk songs and prayers and a visit from three African-American daughters of the South who had lost sons in Iraq – accompanied by Rev. Joseph Lowrey of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, still talking the – outmoded?? – language of The Beloved Community.

Below are the verses from Lamentations, Eicha, that I chanted. Some are very slightly “midrashified”; I trust God and the author of Eicha won’t mind too much. And then the “Oseh shalom” prayer I used.

What can we do now?

One impact of Cindy Sheehan’s boldness has been to crystallize the deep doubt and disgust now endemic throughout America about the war. That opens up space for elected political leaders to take their own kind of gutsy stand.

So Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, God bless him — he was the only Senator to vote against the “Patriot” Act, and he battled all the party bosses to insist on new rules for campaign financing — has spoken out to demand that all US troops be brought safely home from Iraq.

Says the Washington Post (page 3, Thursday Aug 18):

<< Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called on the White House yesterday to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of next year and criticized fellow Democrats for being too “timid” in challenging the Bush administration’s war policy.

<>

You don’t have to be a Democrat to thank him and support him. You just have to reread that letter from “P — V— .”

Please fax him by clicking here:

http://www.demaction.org/dia/organizations/tsc/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=1124

And though we are supplying a VERY short “model” letter, PLEASE add your own words; MAKE THE LETTER YOUR OWN in some way.

If you feel comfortable making clear your own religious and moral value system – please do. – It could be important to counter the widespread assumption that the only real moral values in America are right-wing.

A little down the road, it might make sense to write other Senators as well. But we think the first task is to make clear to Senator Feingold that many of us support him.

And remember what “P—- V—-” wrote. Speak out yourself in the name of God, and ask your religious colleagues, friends, congregants to do the same.

Here is what I chanted from the Book of Lamentations:

Eicha!! – How lonely sits the city,
Once filled with life and joy,
Now sorrowful.

My eyes fill with grief
At the fate of the youth in my city.

I call on Your name, O God,
You Who are the Breath of Life;
For you have seen all their malice,
Their whispers and murmurs against me.

May You come near to say –
Do not fear!
Do not close Your ear to my outcry
But give me relief.

And then I recited, first in English and then in Hebrew:

May You Who make peace in the ultimate reaches of the universe teach us to make peace within ourselves and between each other — among all the families of Abraham, all the families of the human race, and all the forms of life that You have created on our planet;

May You bring near the day when strength and gentleness are woven together;

May You give gentle strength to all who today dare to face those leaders who make war — as long ago the midwives faced Pharaoh and the prophets faced kings;

— And may You give such leaders the wisdom not only to hear and see face-to-face the pain of those stricken by war, but to bring that suffering to an end by doing Your will and making peace.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol Yishmael, v’al kol yoshvei teyvel.

With blessings of shalom,
Arthur

August 24, 2005 at 4:49 pm Leave a comment

This President Does Not Know What Death Is

An essay by E. L Doctorow

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow occupies a central position in the history of American literature. He is generally considered to be among the most talented, ambitious, and admired novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. Doctorow has received the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the residentially conferred National Humanities Medal.

Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931. After graduating with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, he did graduate work at Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army. Doctorow was senior editor for New American Library from 1959 to 1964 and then served as editor in chief at Dial Press until 1969. Since then, he has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and over the years has taught at several institutions, including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Irvine.

I fault this president (George W. Bush) for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our twenty-one year olds who wanted to be what they could be.

On the eve of D-day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn’t the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the WMDs he can’t seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man. He does not mourn. He doesn’t understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for
him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be.

They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life…. They come to his desk as a political liability, which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq.

How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled plan for the war’s aftermath has made of his mission-accomplished a disaster. He does not regret that rather than controlling terrorism his war in Iraq has licensed it.

So he never mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war of his choice. He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options, but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because you have to.

This president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing — to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of themselves and their friends. A war will do that as well as anything. You become a
wartime leader. The country gets behind you. Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and wives and children.

He is the President who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead; he does not feel for the thirty five million of us who live in poverty; he does not feel for the forty percent who cannot afford health insurance; he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills — it is amazing for how many people in
this country this President does not feel.

But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest one percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the safety regulations for coal mines to save the coal miners’ jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a- half benefits for overtime because this is actually a
way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.

And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it.

But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember the millions of people here and around the world who marched against the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneously aroused oversoul of alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There are little wars all over the world most of the time.

But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than pre-emptive war.

The president we get is the country we get. With each president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get us into, is his characteristic
trouble.

Finally the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail: How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.

E. L. Doctorow

August 9, 2005 at 4:13 am 1 comment

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