HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 25, 2007
From Liberty Street

Draining

John Turner


A seldom mentioned consequence of the war in Iraq is a sapping of the American spirit. Whether people want to admit it, or not, they know that the abomination in Iraq, fueled by American tax dollars, is bad for everyone involved. They also know that as long as our country is engaged in it we will not be able to turn our attention to other urgent matters, nor will we be able to escape being viewed by an overwhelming majority of the educated people in the rest of the world as not only a criminal nation but as a criminal people. It's not a condition to cause the heart to rise up.

Last night, 60 Minutes reran a segment from last fall featuring Joe Darby, the National Guard soldier from Cumberland, Maryland, who gave a CD with photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib to Army judicial authorities. He did it, he said, because he knew that what was going on was wrong. But now, he can't go back to his home town because Army intelligence has told him that if he did his life and the lives of his family members would be in danger. CBS interviewed an official from the local National Guard who said that Darby was widely viewed as a traitor and a rat, and, therefore, pretty much deserved anything he got. This is the form patriotism takes in one small American town, and if the truth were known we would find that it's not much different throughout the country. This is the people we are, or, at least, have become as a result of this putrid war, and as long as we remain that way we will actually be at war with ourselves.

Another debilitating truth is that though a large majority of the population has turned against the war and wants the United States out of it, our political system can't get us out. There are too many special interests which want to keep the war going. As we face the truth that the people cannot have their way about a matter as vital as spending lives of their fellow citizens in a senseless war, we also have to realize that we have permitted our democracy to decay into a sham.  As we continually puff our chests about what a fine, democratic nation we are, we know at the same time our democracy doesn't work. Our government is not an instrument of all the people but only of that small portion of the people who have managed to worm their way into positions of power where they get rewarded for maintaining wars that most of us don't want.  It's hard to take pride in that.

Cynics will say the United States is simply playing the game of great power politics as it has always been played. That may well be true. But as more and more people find that's what their country is doing -- and, in fact, has been doing for decades -- it kills their civic energy. They find less reason to join with fellow citizens to construct a great society, as we used to call it.  We're down in the gutter with everybody else, and it's very hard to distinguish our political actors from those in Russia, or Uzbekistan, or Pakistan, or China, or anywhere else.

Maybe it's a good thing to learn this. It could, over time, lead us to more sensible politics, in which we scrutinize the actions of power mongers in Washington as they must be scrutinized if we want to avoid being taken for a ride.

But in the meantime, while we're learning, we have to admit it's a deflating experience. The danger is that it may be so deflating we'll run out of the energy to do anything about it. It's easy to say that if that's the way things are there's not much we can do about it so everyone should just mind his own business and look out for himself -- as well as he can. The delusion that public business is not going to invade private business has taken lots of other nations down the road to disaster.

I don't want that to happen to my country, and I don't think it will. But, I confess, there are times I find myself being dragged into lassitude. When I see President Bush on the TV spouting false platitudes, I have to fight off the urge to ask, what's the use? I hope most other citizens of this country can fight it off at least as well as I can. And if they can be better at it than I am, that would be good too.


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