Hal Crowther

No Time For Sergeants

The Bush administration is a cadaver decomposing on America’s doorstep — yet no one will take responsibility for it, no one will give it a decent burial, no one even has the courage to step over it and try to get on with a nation’s decent business. This is the president who cannot be resuscitated and cannot be removed. A lame duck is a thing we’ve dealt with before. But never a pressed duck, duck confit, duck sausage, duck a l’orange. George Bush is the devil’s dinner, the entrée from Hell’s Kitchen. A dead duck in the White House is a constitutional crisis no scholar ever anticipated and no think tank ever analyzed.

The president’s Memorial Day speech at Arlington was a crowning outrage, one that pushed many a patient, hopeful citizen over the edge into incoherent despair. If the dead could literally hear and rotate in their graves, a seismic wave of Richter-scale magnitude would have rolled across the endless green lawns and white marble headstones. “Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes,” he declaimed. “I hope you find comfort in knowing that your loved ones rest in a place even more peaceful than the fields that surround us here.”

“Aaaargh,” (with seven “a”s) wrote a friend who had watched him on TV, as I have never been able to do. Hypocrisy of such concentrated toxicity seems almost superhuman. “Shame!” we cry, but in America shame died years ago and lies buried in an unmarked grave, perhaps at Arlington. I tried and failed to think of some historical analogy. It was as if a wolf had returned to the sheepfold disguised in a clerical collar, to say a few words over the slaughtered lambs whose blood was still glistening on his whiskers. I could say this more harshly, but the plainest truth is that none of these young soldiers would be dead if George Bush had done his job half as well as they tried to do theirs. Americans are an optimistic and amnesiac people who give their politicians and celebrities a dozen chances — Richard Nixon was half rehabilitated and Don Imus still may be — but what this smirking fool has done to his country will never be forgotten or forgiven.

As Baghdad disintegrated, body bags proliferated and his henchpersons’ many scandals reverberated — as his approval rating scraped bottom near an historic 25%, meaning he’s squandered the trust of at least half the people who voted for him in 2004 — President Bush faced no future but no certain reckoning. Can no one rid us of this albatross? In another culture, not yet entirely contaminated by American shamelessness, Japan’s minister of agriculture hanged himself to atone for his role in a bid-rigging scandal (and his corporate accomplice jumped off a bridge). What a painless and dignified way to rid ourselves of disgraced public servants like George Bush. But it violates Page One of the Karl Rove Manual for power maintenance, the bible of modern American politics — stonewall, spin, distract, threaten, lie outright if you must, but never confess or apologize and never, never resign. (Suicide never enters the picture.) Across the country, from Hawaii to Maine, 70-odd city councils and 14 state Democratic parties have voted to impeach both Bush and Vice President Cheney. Their arguments, well-researched, offer compelling constitutional strategies in a dozen different colors. But in Congress no one seems to have the stomach for the job. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who would move to the White House if a double impeachment succeeded, declared last winter that impeachment is “off the table.” The most convincing explanation for her reluctance, the one I keep encountering, is that Democrats are so desperate to win the presidency in 2008 that they refuse to relinquish their two most persuasive, most visible arguments for regime change. Voters have no memories, is their unspoken fear, and without these great rotting carcasses stretched out in the national foyer, America might not even remember who gave us the war.

Eighteen more months of the Mesopotamian meltdown might work out well for the Democrats, and for whichever candidate survives the infamous cannibal orgy they call the nominating process. It won’t work out so well for the nation formerly known as Iraq, where as many as a million citizens may now be dead or disabled and two million have fled the country, three thousand more every day (a third of Iraq’s physicians have fled, and 2,000 have been murdered). A genocidal civil war was not a thing Bush anticipated, though of course he should have. If the destiny of Iraqi Muslims is to slaughter each other to the last man over what most outsiders regard as arcane theology, no one and nothing is likely to save them. But congressional schemers are responsible for another class of victims who can ill afford 18 more months of partisan gridlock with a dead-duck president dangling portentously in the butcher-shop window for the benefit of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. These victims wear the uniforms of the United States armed forces.

As the president’s failed “surge” drove up the body count — April was the cruelest month yet for American soldiers, with 104 deaths, and May was close behind — the administration’s brutal disregard for its undermanned, under-equipped and exhausted fighting units in Iraq was becoming the dirtiest scandal of all, compounding the viciousness of the patriotic cant we heard on Memorial Day. Even more depressing than the neglect of the wounded at Walter Reed was Mark Benjamin’s story for Salon, documenting the fate of the walking wounded from this ghastly miscarriage of a war: they’re shipped back to the battlefront as soon as they can feed and dress themselves. Doctors at Fort Benning, Benjamin reported, held a meeting in March for the express purpose of reclassifying 75 injured infantryman of the Third Division — including some with severe psychological disabilities — so they could redeploy with their units. Unlike our other wars, most of them fought with healthy and adequate manpower, Iraq is a meat grinder for the luckless few, a black hole from which no soldier can count on walking away. Individuals serving their fourth and even fifth tours of duty are common; 80% of the Army National Guard has already been deployed in Iraq, and guardsman have suffered heavy casualties. In spite of the desperate, unscrupulous recruiters Michael Moore satirized in Fahrenheit 911, Iraq and Afghanistan are using up our able bodies much faster than they can be replaced.

Naturally many soldiers resist perpetual combat, leading to tragedies like the death of Sgt. James Dean, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Dean went on an armed, drunken rampage when he received his redeployment notice (“I just can’t do it anymore”), confronted deputies with his shotgun and was shot dead by a state police sniper on the front porch of his parents’ house in Maryland. Naturally morale in Iraq is at a poisonous low. After his unit killed a man setting a roadside bomb and discovered that he was an Iraqi army sergeant, Staff Sgt. David Safstrom of the 82nd Airborne unburdened himself to New York Times reporter Michael Kamber. “What are we doing here? Why are we still here?” asked Sgt. Safstrom, serving his third tour. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

“Why are we still here?” is a question the sergeant should ask the Democratic presidential candidates, who are belatedly united in calling for a troop withdrawal but unwilling to push for impeachment or for a military draft, a measure so unpopular it might end the war overnight, along with the careers of the politicians who supported it.

Is the sergeant still there because the Democrats want to win the White House so badly? The Bush administration, of course, is deeply concerned about our escalating casualties in Iraq — concerned not to stop the bleeding, unfortunately, but to conceal it. The dwindling and restricted press corps in Baghdad has been frustrated by new regulations that prohibit any photographs of identifiable dead soldiers; even the wounded must sign permission forms before the media can publish their images. The New York Times has consistently published photographs of amputees and bleeding bodies on its front pages, but most newspapers and TV stations avoid them or find none available. Many newspapers have begun to bury the daily bombings and body counts on the back page of the first section, where they’re easy to overlook. But soon the mutilated and disfigured from this war will be among us in visible numbers, too many of them to ignore, like the unavoidable mutilated veterans painted by George Grosz and Otto Dix in the 1920s, to the horror of Germans who were trying to forget World War I.

The only military skills the authors of the Iraq war have mastered are concealment and media manipulation, which first became fine arts during the Gulf War. Now that historians, diplomats and political scientists are lining up to label the invasion of Iraq as the most terrible blunder an American president has ever committed — and argue whether that makes Bush a worse president than James Buchanan or Warren G. Harding — it seems certain that the enormity of his failure will be no secret. (“The Iraq War in all its aspects has turned into a calamity — in the way it was internally decided, externally promoted, and has been conducted — and it has already stamped the Bush presidency as a historical failure,” concludes Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s hawkish Cold War guru.) But what the media blackouts have concealed more successfully is the great crime committed against our own forces, caught between their hopeless assignment and their president’s hopeless egotism. He is simply wasting them, with no thought to what will replace them. What those forbidden photographs are concealing is a policy of passive genocide against the warrior class in America. And since our warrior class is now restricted to the working class, a class war lies at the heart of this disastrous designer war that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz — remember them? — designed to be a triumphant cakewalk.

A word about the warrior class, to which I do not belong, though I’m the son and grandson of officers. To judge from their policies, Republicans regard the volunteer army as an expendable rabble of roughnecks, rednecks and lowlifes whose loss, as Gen. Wolfe said of his Scots Highlanders at the Battle of Quebec, is “no great matter.” I admit that I don’t understand some of these warriors, like the lieutenant who kills time between deployments competing on the World Extreme Cagefighting circuit, or the Marine sergeant in Illinois who’s furious because many marines have fought in Iraq three or four times and he’s never been out of country. No doubt many warriors are naturally violent, no doubt many are highly impressionable. War is nothing more, finally, than organized insanity (why not settle disputes by arm wrestling or throwing darts, instead of cyclically butchering generations of healthy young males?) made possible by the fact that young men tend to be gullible and belligerent. As a pacifist, I can’t always understand them. But I understand, in a world infested with terrorists, jihadists, free-lance killer militias and endless, mindless wars, that we need them. Most likely we always will.

This reckless depletion of the military’s human resources, in an ill-chosen war that can only end badly, might turn out to Bush’s most fatal legacy — especially if our true and more powerful enemies are counting casualties and licking their chops. When the blue-collar warriors have been decimated, shot up and stressed out until no sane general would redeploy them, then, George, where are your reinforcements? Will a surge of sudden patriots from the MBA schools drop their laptops and lacrosse sticks and take up arms to save us? This contempt for the lives of the less well-to-do is a throwback to the Civil War with its draft riots and hired replacements, when the rich paid cash and the poor dodged bullets. In fact, this entire volunteer army that we’re destroying in the Middle East is a paid replacement for middle-class children whose parents support politicians who promise to keep them safe. It’s a typical Bush policy of cynicism and political expediency, aided and abetted by the timid Democrats, and the gross indignities these sacrificial soldiers have suffered, on and off the battlefield, betray the hollowness of the patriotic rhetoric that hails them as heroes.

Last night I watched a cable news channel for a couple of minutes, and saw an alarmingly empty suit identified as the chairman of the Republican party in New Hampshire. He was one of those cloned-looking Young Republicans — like Mitt Romney without the heroic chin — that you seem to encounter whenever you go somewhere you don’t really want to be. He was very clean, very confident and not especially bright, and if he and his litter-mates are the future of America, I feel so fortunate that most of my life is now behind me. They have that waxy half-bored look on their faces, these guys, and serve up boilerplate like someone delivering an after-dinner speech to the Kiwanis Club. If you meet one of them who mentions “the noble sacrifice” in Iraq or “fighting them in Baghdad so we don’t have to fight them here” — like this robot from New Hampshire — ask him if he urges his own children to enlist, or supports a military draft to distribute “the noble sacrifice” more equably. If he answers “no” or even equivocates, don’t just hang your head and sigh. Spit on him. The middle-class dismissal of selective service epitomizes the soiled values that prevail when a faltering republic begins to deteriorate into a kingdom of the users and the used.

Hal Crowther’s most recent book of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2007

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