Politics & Prose January 2007

The Fuse

Are we on the brink of a hundred years’ "war of civilizations?"

Iraq has exposed the tragic futility of war in an age of   unconquerable peoples motivated by nationalist or sectarian passion to resist foreign occupation. Four hundred billion dollars a year in defense spending can’t secure the ten-mile road between the Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone, but it can encourage fantasies of omnipotence. It fed what Senator Robert C. Bryd (D-W. V.) last week called the "crazed presidential misadventure" in Iraq and is now licensing a new lunacy: war with Iran. The commotion over the "surge" of troops into Iraq is gorilla dust. Congress should be debating how to head off the next "crazed presidential misadventure."

War only breeds war. War against Saddam unleashed the furies of sectarian civil war in Iraq. The civil war threatens to ignite a regional war, turning Iraq into a battlefield between the Sunni regime and Shia Iran. An air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would afflict the West with terrorism sponsored by a powerful state. Terrorism would lead to a U.S. invasion of Iran, which could start a hundred years’ "war of civilizations."

Before Bush lights that fuse,  he must be stopped—through demonstrations, through a campaign to pressure Congress to impeach him if the neo-conservative cabal that "cooked" the intelligence about WMD in Iraq under the dark wing of his vice-president now provokes war with Iran. An expanded war against Iran would last for years and likely require an emergency draft. Self-interest—avoiding serving in Vietnam—brought millions out onto the streets thirty-five years ago. But, to our shame, we have tolerated the slaughter of others’ kids in Iraq. War with Iran threatens all our kids; the youngest would inherit it like a curse.

Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon, labeled it a "crime" for our troops to daily run gauntlets of Improvised Explosive Devices. The troops have done everything asked of them in this Mission Impossible. Congress can’t allow the "Decider" to inject more soldiers into Iraq’s sectarian war of suicide bombers and death squads (to which the only humane response is to grant asylum to the thousands of Iraqis who have put their lives at risk by siding with Americans.) The troops should come home this year; soon—now. Their officers need to speak out against Bush’s clear intent to keep the war going until he leaves office so that he won’t have to admit "defeat," the craven politics of the "surge." Officers have a conflict of interest over war. They need it to win promotions, which come slowly in peacetime, but their first duty is to the enlisted men and women for whose lives they are responsible.

They should follow the example of Captain Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated, thrice-wounded "war poet" who published this letter in the London Times in July 1917. At the time this letter appeared, nearly 500,000 British servicemen had already been killed and the generals of the keyboard were howling for what Lloyd George called "a fight to the finish, a knock-out blow":

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers….

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings…. I am not protesting the military conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them.

Sassoon was pronounced "mad" and sent to a psychiatric asylum for reeducation. But he was invincibly sane. And in his moral clarity, he did not spare civilians like us who will observe a "moment of silence" for the troops during the Super Bowl when silence is complicity in a crime. He wrote his letter in the hope that it might "help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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