Telling Stories About War

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Joan Didion wrote that line about 20 years ago, explaining how the writer's mind imposes narrative on disparate events -- but she easily could have been speaking about politicians.

As she wrote at a much later date -- in the forward to her 2001 collection of political essays, "Political Fictions" -- she came to realize that "the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about the American experience."

Didion could have been writing about President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. The president is building his failed policies on a series of stories crafted by the neoconservatives with whom he is surrounded -- a mythology of an invincible America that has a right and responsibility to impose democracy and police the world, an America that has a duty to project its military might around the globe.

The story of the US military in Iraq, however, has not played out according to the underlying narratives offered by the neocons. There were no weapons, no connection to worldwide terrorism, Iraq is in civil war and mired in an anarchic violence. But Bush and company refuse to alter their stories -- or to listen to the stories being told by the American soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

Consider the soldiers and family members interviewed for a July 15 story in the New York Times:

Cpl. April Ponce De Leon, of Virginia, no longer believes in the war -- an opinion she came to after a telephone conversation with her Marine husband in June.

"He said that 'we have all decided that it's time for us to go home,'" she told the Times. "I said, 'You mean go home and rest?' And he said, 'I mean go home and not go back.'"

Penny Preszler, of Phoenix, told the Times that her son, a soldier in Iraq, wished he would be injured so he could come home.

"There was no pride left in his voice, just this robotic sense of despair," she said.

Given stories like these, it's not surprising that organizations representing disaffected members of the military are growing. According to the Times, groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Appeal for Redress Project and Military Families Speak Out have all reported a spike in membership.

A New York Times/CBS News poll from May showed that members of the military and their families have a growing sense that the war is going badly -- about two-thirds of those responded compared with about half in 2006. And the portion who said the United States "did the right thing" by invading fell below half, as well.

And yet the president and his supporters continue with the fiction that this war was necessary and that it remains winnable. President Bush talks about not legislating defeat, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks about the impact of a potential defeat on the American military -- as if these impacts are not already being felt. Desertion figures are up, reports the Times, and recruiting has become more difficult.

"Despite granting more waivers for recruits with criminal backgrounds, offering larger cash bonuses, loosening age and weight restrictions, and accepting more high school dropouts, the Army said it had missed its recruiting targets in May and June," the Times wrote on July 15.

The president has responded by shifting deadlines and rewriting the war's rationale, making it clear that the president is prepared to remain in Iraq no matter what.

As Frank Rich pointed out in his July 15 op-ed in the Times, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow transformed a surge announced in January and that began in February into something "brand-new" by offering new stories. Snow told a network morning show in early July that the United States was just "at the starting line," Rich said, a fiction meant to obscure the fact that little progress is being made in Iraq.

"Mr. Snow's television hosts were not so rude as to point out that the Pentagon had previously designated Feb. 14 as the starting line of the surge's first operation, and had also said that its March report on Iraq should be used as the 'baseline from which to measure future progress.' That was then, and this is now. The Baghdad clock has been reset. July is the new February."

September is the new target date, of course, the point in time when we are supposed to get a meaningful progress report and everyone says they will be ready to make some honest decisions. But September, to paraphrase Rich, is likely to be little more than the new February as the president and his minions rewrite their fictions to fit the latest facts on the ground.

The American public knows better, knows, as Bill Moyers said on his July 13 Bill Moyers Journal, the war "is killing us now, body and soul."

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2007

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