Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lies are part of the package

The most recent Radio Open Source show dealt with the future of the all-volunteer Army in the United States. One interesting thing to note is the assertion by one guest that, even at the beginning of the professional armed forces in the 1970s, it was assumed that for any long-term fight the United States would bring back conscription. But the most common lament of all the guests was the divide between the armed forces -- which are engaged in one of the bloodiest fights of the last 60 years, easily -- and the broader American nation, which is barely engaged at all.

Or, as Ralph Peters quoted one General: "An army at war, a nation at Wal-Mart."

This is a really clear example of the unavoidable conflict between imperialism and democracy. However you want to gussy it up, Iraq II is pretty clearly an imperial war. Whether you, like Henry Kissinger, think the point was to control the precious, precious oil or whether it was really all about deterring Iran (how's that goin'?) or whether, again like Henry Kissinger, you simply think it was all about humiliating the darkies, it's clear that Iraq was part and parcel of the imperial project.

The problem is that America is a democracy, if a poorly-functioning one. And the American people are generally opposed to the kinds of wars that empires need to fight. This requires that Washington -- which really, really likes those same kinds of wars -- pursue one of two strategies: Hide or Lie. Hide is easy enough: keep the war out of the papers, as with US advisers in Vietnam for many years. That way, when the "enemy" finally attacks the US in some public way (Tonkin) the American people have no idea that they've been at war for years, and thus see this as an unprovoked attack. And yes, Bush had a plan like that on tap for Iraq.

But "Hide" doesn't always work, and couldn't possibly have worked with Iraq, so there's the flat-out lies. Such as, "Iraq will only cost a couple billion", calling Shinseki's troop estimates "wildly off the mark", and claiming that the troops would be coming home within months. The specific lies aren't really that important -- the lies are really always the same.

America isn't mobilized for war in any major fashion, and certainly not in the way the guests on Lydon's show would like to see. But no matter how clearly they advocate it, it's not going to happen. At this point, the American people want out of Iraq, and mobilizing the kind of force needed for Iraq would require taxes, lots of them, and possibly conscription if the Army can't raise it's numbers voluntarily.

Moreover, America was never going to mobilize for war properly. Why? Because to fight any major war effectively would have required substantial sacrifices, in terms of taxes or manpower. But these kinds of wars -- the preventive ones that don't involve direct threats to the country -- can only be sold to wealthy, democratic populations on the assumption of low-cost fighting. Hence the lying.

But those same lies make it impossible to win the war later, if you need to get the people to support escalating their involvement. (And escalation is no guarantee of success, anyway.) It's not just the Americans -- it's hard to imagine any population, gulled in to believing in a cheap war, would then support costly measures to win an unpopular war. And these wars inevitably become unpopular, not just in democracies. Nixon was only able escalate the air war in Vietnam because, at the same time, he was withdrawing the bulk of US ground forces.

The lesson for us here today? Don't hide or lie your way in to war. You can lie your way in, but generally you can't lie your way out of a war.

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