Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner


Turning Around

The most common reason I hear for maintaining the occupation of Iraq is that withdrawing our military forces would diminish our standing in the world. Foolish men such as Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham pump this nonsense at us ceaselessly.

They don't know what the standing they speak of is, and if it's anything it's hard to imagine its sinking lower than it is at the moment. Now they want us to try to enhance it by riddling more houses in Baghdad with bullets and killing masses of innocent people in an attempt to kill a few we've decided to call bad.

We have never been more in need of a revaluation of values, one based on turning away from abstractions and turning toward the specifics of life, which is life itself. If a child is sick, heal it. If a person is murdered, dig to the actual cause and try to eliminate similar causes from social life. If the cost of heating houses is too high, find less costly ways to heat. Forget about the glory of the nation and think instead about the loving care of the country right in front of your face.

Sentimental abstractions are an emotional addiction and they work, as any other addiction does, by worsening the condition they're supposed to relieve. The people who are pushing them at us now deserve not a speck of our attention.


New Modes

My phone rang. I picked it up, said hello, and was told, instantaneously, that was an improper response.

"Wow!" I thought. "Can't even say hello anymore."

Over the past weeks I've been talking to machines more than ever before. I can't say I enjoy it. They have no imagination, no wit, and are boring conversationalists. Still they may be the wave of the future so I guess I have to accommodate myself to them. Exactly what that will do to me I can't say.

Every now and then, when my conversation with a machine turns out to be futile, I write a letter to someone trying to resolve something. I get no answers. Letters are so retrograde. If anyone ever looks at them they probably conclude I'm insane.

Maybe the machines will get better, develop a little splash of irony or satire. I don't know much about robotics so I can't say what the chances are.

When I was young, people talked about human nature as something permanent, unalterable.  That was silly. A species that can be made to talk to machines, even shout at them in anger, has nothing stable about it. It can be transformed into almost anything. Come to think of it, that makes them pretty much like machines. The only difference is that when we're dealing with machines we know who the machinists are.


Unacceptable

President Bush says conditions in Iraq are unacceptable to him. And since they are, they've just got to change. This is the essence of his new plan. There's not much difference in what he's going to do. But now, he's going to make it clear that he's really fed up.

Every time we think we have plumbed to the bottom of Mr. Bush's simple-minded arrogance, he shows us we are wrong. Evidently, there is no bottom. We are dealing with a bottomless pit.

We the people of the United States have got to spend billions of dollars, kill thousands of people, lose thousands of our own citizen to death and hideous wounds because Mr. Bush finds something unacceptable. He's incapable of imagining that there's anything wrong with that.

Yes, I know that he says terrible things will happen if we are not "successful" in Iraq.  But the president doesn't know what will happen any more than any one else. Political chatterers in Washington have constructed a myth of inevitable disaster for Iraq if we withdraw our military forces. It has no place for the thought that the occupying army is the cause of the current disaster. We can't be sure we know exactly what's in the minds of the people initiating violence in Iraq. But we do know that virtually all of them are trying to kill Americans, and that their hatred of Americans is adding to the violence. Now, the president announces we are going to try to kill even more of them and that's supposed to make the country more peaceful.

What Mr. Bush thinks will happen is not the driving force behind his escalation of violence in Iraq. He's angry because it's unacceptable to him that the Iraqis are not behaving as he tells them to. And, so, his answer is to kill more people than he's killed already. This is the plan that required two months to think up.


Unnoticed

In all the blather over George Bush's surge I have heard no one make the point that the entire strategy is based on asking the Iraqi prime minister to commit suicide. I can't figure out why he would want to do that.

Bush is demanding that Maliki use the so-called Iraqi army to go after his own followers. They would be bound to see that as a stab in the back. And as soon as U.S. forces stop providing Maliki a protective cocoon, his former adherents would cut his throat. Maliki knows that as well as anyone. He's trying to use the United States just as the United States is trying to use him. He knows he can't live in the cocoon forever, so unless he thinks he is building a nest for a comfortable exile in America he, ultimately, has no motive for going along with Bush's plan.

The president is basing his whole plan on the cooperation of a man who has already shown he has no intention of cooperating. Is the president so delusional he thinks Iraqi leaders are willing to destroy their own future just to please him. If he is, his thinking amounts almost to a God complex.

Mr. Bush has shown some signs of mental instability. But I doubt he's that crazy. It's more likely he's just trying to buy time because he can't think of anything else to do.

Meanwhile, people die.


Rather Redux

I was happy to see Dan Rather on Chris Matthews's Sunday morning talk show. Rather seemed a lot more clear-minded, articulate, and decisive than when he was the CBS anchor. It would be good if greater numbers of people in their later years came to see that at a certain point in life, independence and integrity are more important than success.

In discussing the value of the term "surge" for Mr. Bush's new policy in Iraq, Rather quoted Mark Twain to the effect that the difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  I hope we can count on Rather for more comments that incisive. It could help him to a late career more distinguished than his stint at CBS.



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Harvard Square Commentary, Jaunuary 15, 2007