Litkicks Message Board Archive


Posted to Poetry and Politics

Tom Engelhardt,
The president and his men have been living in a fantasy world that
makes 'The Lord of the Rings' look like an exercise in reality.

......But here's a lesson for the year (also retooled from the 1960s): You can't rule this bedeviling planet with weapons systems based in the United States, or on offshore aircraft carriers, or even on military bases dotted across the globe, no less via a series of delivery vehicles from outer space. The resistance in Iraq has made this point staggeringly clear: We smote -- and given our fundamentalist administration that word is surely on target -- Saddam Hussein's regime with our techno-best and from its ruins arose an armed opposition centered in but not limited to Sunni Iraq. 5,000 armed men, if you believe the Pentagon, up to 50,000 if you believe a recent CIA report; all Baathist "bitter-enders" and al Qaeda warriors from elsewhere, if you believe Don Rumsfeld or the President, up to 23 different mostly home-grown resistance groups if you believe various foreign journalists. But the most curious thing is that no one in Washington or among our military and civil administrators in Baghdad quite knows who the armed opposition actually is and they tend to identify themselves mainly through roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

This is either some kind of bleak miracle, or an illusionist's trick. After all, it took years in Vietnam against a powerful southern insurgency backed by the militarily strong and determined North Vietnamese regime backed in turn by the Earth's other superpower, the USSR, and for good measure by Mao's China with which it shared a border, with copious supplies flowing in from abroad and sanctuary areas in bordering Cambodia and Laos, before a desperate American president even began considering calling up the reserves. In Iraq, against relatively lightly armed, no-name insurgent forces of a few thousand or tens of thousands, without a significant power behind them, without sanctuaries, or major supply channels (other than the copious arms already cached in the country), with largely homemade bombs and small numbers of fanatical individuals willing to turn themselves into suicide weapons, the mightiest military power on earth has already been stretched to the breaking point. Its leaders, scouring the planet for new recruits, are having trouble finding enough troops to garrison an easily conquered, weak, and devastated country.

The foreign legions they've managed to dig up -- a few thousand Spaniards and Poles, hundreds of Bulgarians and Thais, handfuls of Mongolians, Hondurans, and the like -- add up modestly indeed, when you consider who's asking for a hand. And even our own version of the Gurkhas, the British who, thanks to Tony Blair, have shipped out sizeable numbers of troops to garrison the -- at present -- more peaceable Shiite southern regions of the country, turn out to be doing their much needed work for sixpence and a song. Their cut of the Iraqi pie looks beyond modest. Like a child with a roomful of toys, all the Bush administration knows how to say is: "Mine."

A global Enron moment

In a sense, our new Rome already lies in ruins without even an enemy fit to name to oppose us. And the true face of our home-grown regime in Washington is ever more visible. The visages on display aren't those of an emperor and his administrators, proconsuls and generals, but of so many dismantlers, strip-miners, and plunderers; less Augustus, more Jesse James (the real one, not the movie hero).

They may be building weapons for 2050, but they're plundering in Iraq and at home as if January 1, 2004 were the beginning of the end of time. Having ushered into office the Halliburton (vice-)presidency, we now have a fitting "empire" to go with it. While empires must to some extent spread the wealth around, our proto-imperialists turn out to have the greed level and satiation point of so many malign children. Other than "must" and "mine," the words they – and their corporate companions – know best, it seems, are "now," "all" and "alone." It's a vocabulary that doesn't contain a future in it, not the sort of vocabulary with which to rule the world.

No matter how many times we insist that all we carry in our baggage train is "freedom" and "democracy" for the oppressed nations of the Earth, those elsewhere can see perfectly well that our saddlebags are full of grappling hooks and meat cleavers. Bad as 2003 was for us, it may not be long before it's looked upon as their global Enron Moment.


Unfortunately, as representatives of insecurity rather than security, they have let loose forces for which they feel no responsibility. We are a nation of adults, living largely in denial, led by overgrown, malign children excited by the thought of sending other people's actual children, a whole well-led army of them, including the older "weekend warriors" of the reserves and the National Guard, off to do the impossible as well as the unjust. And this is happening in part because – I believe – they don't imagine war as carnage, but are energized by an especially shallow idea of war's "glory," just as the President has been thoroughly energized by the ludicrous idea that his is a "war presidency." ........


What "chickenhawks" doesn't catch, however, is both the immature mock solemnity and the fun of war play for them, something they first absorbed in their childhoods on screen and carry with them still. War for them – as they avoided anything having to do with either the Vietnam War or opposition to it – remains, I believe, a matter of toy soldiers, cowboys-and-Indians games, and glorious John Wayne-style movies in which the Marines advance, while the ambushing enemy falls before them and the Marine hymn wells up as The End flashes on screen.

In a similar way, the neocon utopians who dreamed up our distinctly unpeaceful Pax Americana in deepest, darkest Washington and out of whole cloth seem to have imagined global military domination as something akin to the board game Risk. They too were, after a fashion, Risk managers, seeing themselves rolling the dice for little weapons icons (most of which they controlled), oil-well icons (which they wanted) and strategic-country icons (which they needed). They were consummate game players. It just so happens our planet isn't a two-dimensional gameboard, but a confusing, bloody, resistant, complex place that exists in at least three dimensions, all unexpected.

I mean if you think I'm kidding – about children playing games – just remember that we have a President who, according to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, keeps a "scorecard" in his desk drawer with the names/faces and personality sketches of al Qaeda adversaries (and assumedly Saddam) and then X's them out as they're brought in "dead or alive." Think tic-tac-toe here.

The president and his men, in short, have been living in a fantasy world that makes The Lord of the Rings look like an exercise in reality. Even before the Iraq war, this was worrisome to the adults who had to deal with them. This is why there was so much opposition within the top ranks of the military before the war; this was why there was no Pentagon planning whatsoever for the post-war moment (hey, you've just won the Iraq card in your game, now you fortify and move on); this was why, for instance, General Anthony Zinni, Vietnam veteran and former CentCom commander, who endorsed young George in the 2000 race, went into opposition to the administration; this is why a seething "intelligence community" has been in near revolt after watching our fantasists rejigger "intelligence" to make their "turn" come out right; this is why our great "adventure" in the Middle East pitched over into the nearest ditch.