Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Kevin Tillman

I wish everyone would read the remarks of Kevin Tillman, posted on October 19th, to the web site Tillman is the brother of Pat Tillman, former NFL player who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004 (how bullets that kill you are "friendly" is a little rhetorical twist I've never quite grasped). Kevin was also an Army Ranger who joined up in 2002, at the same time his brother did. Now he has decided he can't stand to remain silent any longer and has to speak the truth. And he speaks it eloquently. Here's one of his summary statements:

"In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people.  So don't be shocked
when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world
and to humanity.  Most likely, they will come to know that "somehow" was nurtured by
fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchal-
lenged parasites."

I hope the grandkids come on sooner rather than later so that the behavior of this torpid generation of Americans can be seen for what it has been.


The New York Times says almost no one wants to tell the American people the bitter truth about Iraq, which is that virtually all the options have run out. This raises two questions. If it's indeed the case that nobody wants to tell the truth, why is that? And, second, why do the people need to be told a truth that any sane person ought to be able to grasp by reading his newspaper everyday? Telling people that the military occupation of Iraq by the United States has created a monumental and murderous mess should be about the same as telling them that gravity pulls objects towards the center of the earth. What kind of intellectual standards do we have for ourselves when major voices regularly assert that the people need to have obvious truths explained to them by so-called "leaders?" If that's actually what the editorial writers at the New York Times believe, then they must also believe that democracy in America is impossible. And if they do believe the latter, that's the even more bitter truth they ought to be proclaiming.


In George Packer's The Assassin's Gate -- a fine book, by the way -- Drew Erdmann, a young American bureaucrat in Iraq in 2003, is quoted to the effect that Americans have a hard time conceiving of the ramifications of the use of force. Mr. Erdmann understates. Most Americans find it impossible to conceive of the consequences of using military force in a given situation. They think that all that counts is what they want to do. Once that's clear in their minds, military action presents itself as the clearest, fastest, most effective way to get it done.  In Iraq, the Americans wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and turn the country into a stable -- and capitalistic -- democracy. So, the obvious action was to blast it apart with the U.S. military and then empower the military to put it back together in a better form. Sure, a few thousand people would be killed, but that was simply the regrettable price of getting the country the Americans wanted. It didn't occur to them that using the wrong instrument to attain a goal is often worse than not trying to attain it at all. The American approach to the problem of Iraq was exactly like using a chain saw to perform brain surgery. Why do Americans think armies can do things they can't? Because they have romanticized the military to an insane degree. In their minds, every dull-witted boy dressed up in a soldier's suit becomes a hero, who is not only prepared to sacrifice himself for noble aims but is also endowed with almost superhuman wisdom. How could such paragons not move into Iraq and make it what it ought to be? I used to think I didn't learn much from having been a soldier myself. But I did learn this: soldiers are not the creatures described in the American media. The nation now seems on the verge of recognizing that things have gone horribly wrong in Iraq. But I'm not sure that most of the people yet understand that Iraq is a bloody quagmire because we didn't have enough sense to recognize that you can't do good work when you employ the wrong tools.


In April 2003, Jay Garner -- remember him? -- in Kuwait, just a few days before he flew to Baghdad to take over running the country, told his administrative team that by August Iraq would have a sovereign functioning government. Many of his staff glanced at each other in disbelief. Why couldn't a man in Garner's position see that in the minds of the upper administration figures Iraq, regardless of its ostensible form, was to be in reality a permanent American military and commercial base from which power could be projected throughout the Middle East? If he, supposedly at the center of things, could be deluded about the government's genuine purpose, perhaps we ought to forgive the general public for not comprehending it. Still, it's difficult to be understanding about a failure to see the obvious, particularly when that blindness has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the waste of vast treasure, and continues to cause waste at the rate of $380,000 every minute. The Bush administration has not, to this day, renounced any intention to have permanent military bases in Iraq. That may not figure much in the minds of Americans, but you can be sure it is very much in the thoughts of those who get up every morning with the intention of killing U.S. troops.

Who Are They?

You'll notice that we seldom see human interest stories in the press or on TV about the people of Iraq. Our tax dollars and our military power have been used to turn their country upside down and yet we seem to have little interest in the people to whom we have done this.  They have no individuality for us and so we don't much care when they are slaughtered. And we don't appear to care about the number slaughtered. Is it 100,000, or 600,000, or even more? The differing numbers don't register much with the American public. Americans often express bewilderment about why so many of the rest of the people of the world dislike us intensely. How can this be the case? Americans ask. After all, we're good. But when an entire people cannot imagine the humanity or the individuality of the other people with whom they share the globe, or can't express any interest in that individuality, the other people are not going to like them very much. When the troubles caused by this dislike began to cascade upon us more rapidly than they have done up till now, the public will probably remain bewildered. We tend to call this "American insularity" but that's just a detached abstraction for something that is in reality pretty nasty.


Timothy Noah of Slate says that Rush Limbaugh is pretending to be more stupid than he really is. He's "exaggerating his stupidity to advance political ends." It's an interesting thought: that one can win political influence by being dumb. Presumably, some portion of the public looks favorably upon stupidity, seeing it as a mark of "regularity." Limbaugh's remarks about Michael J. Fox have stirred a pot of controversy, with many finding them beneath the radio host's common bottom-feeding. That's mainly because only the ditto heads know how vulgar Rush is day after day. But since Rush manages, from time to time, to climb into the real news (if that can be said to exist any more), it might be worthwhile for genuine journalists to begin to investigate the question of what portion of the people sees stupidity as a virtue. Most, of course, will say they don't, if they're asked directly. But, maybe there are valid techniques for getting beneath the surface response to the truth of how much stupidity really is prized in America. That would be a valuable thing for us to know, though it might also give rise to more careers like Rush's.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 30, 2006