Politics & Prose March 2007

The Politics of War

The Iraq war, like most American wars, is a "poor man's fight."

"The great error of nearly all studies of war...has been to consider war as an episode in foreign policies, when it is especially an act of interior politics; and the most atrocious of all." —Simone Weil

We made a sorry company the other morning standing on the snowbank where the local mall road joins the interstate holding up our "Honk To Stop the War" signs—for there were only six of us, our average age was 60, and we looked frail hunched against the cutting wind. Still, our signs stimulated seventy-five honks in an hour. They more than offset the fingers we got, and the teenage girls who brayed "Go home, hippies!" made us laugh. We were scared –I was—by the rough-looking man who stopped, rolled down his passenger-side window, and, answering the question—"Four Years of War, What For?"—asked on our big sign, shouted, "For your freedom, you fucking assholes!"

We joked grimly that we’d be back next year and the year after that and beyond if any of the declared Republican presidential candidates wins in 2008 or if Hillary Clinton, who says she will keep troops in Iraq through her term, wins for the Democrats. Of course, by then the Army will have run out of soldiers. Already it’s accepting high school dropouts and young men who served time. One-third of servicewomen report being sexually-assaulted by male soldiers; imagine the statistics when, as seems inevitable if the war lasts, the Army gets down to the sociopaths and the border-line psychotics. It’s already let in something like five-hundred white supremacists, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More can be expected. Racist web sites are urging haters to join up to learn how to handle heavy weapons for the coming race war.

 The shooting gallery in Iraq is rendering the military toxic (one hopes) to the suggestible kids in America’s rural towns and urban barrios who make up the "all-volunteer" army. As examples of official callousness (the mice and mold at Walter Reed) and traumatic maiming (the public "acting-out" by untreated psychiatric casualties, the sight of young men with hooks for hands, high-tech legs, and bad skin grafts) mount, recruiting will be further impeded. Men who would be dead in earlier wars are surviving this one—the ratio of wounded to dead is 16 to 1. How they’ll manage after they leave the operating room — or when the nightmares begin—is the real question, since this is the first time so many men so grievously harmed by war have come home . What jobs for the PTSD sufferers? How many employers will take a chance on them? One Pennsylvania man unlikely to find work was profiled in the New York Times a year or two into the war. Blinded and brain-damaged by flying metal, he has bouts of intense anger. His swearing dismayed his parents. They care for him now, but What will happen when we’re gone?, his mother wondered. Unless he gets married, chances are he’ll be warehoused in a substandard nursing home like thousands of others who "answered the call" of a country in which the gap between what’s owed to the government in taxes vs. what’s actually paid totaled $347 billion in 2001, and in which businesses legally evade taxation by "offshoring" their headquarters to tax havens like the Cayman Islands (where one five-story building is the mailing address for 10,000 corporations). Businesses and rich people illegally offshore $100 billion in taxable income a year. It is painful to learn that a private company (led by a former Halliburton executive!) ran parts of the infamous outpatient department at Walter Reed. Under Bush, public functions become private sector opportunities for those ponying up campaign contributions.

Money brings us to the “internal politics” of war — its "atrocious" class politics, to quote Simone Weil. You can write the history of a war as "a history of flesh," in Paul Fussell’s words; or ask Lenin’s question: Who benefits?  Who benefits by the Pennsylvania vet’s lacerated flesh? Top of my list sits Iran. Under Saddam, Iraq was its mortal enemy; thanks to the USA, it’s now ruled (if that’s the word) by an Iran-friendly Shiite regime. Then there’s Halliburton billing the pliant Pentagon for towels bearing the monogram of one of its subsidiaries and serving bad water to the thirsty troops; there’s the oil companies set to sign Production Sharing Agreements with the Iraqi government (guaranteeing them 25 years of profits as high as 75% in exchange for modernizing Iraq’s oil fields); there’s  the convicted bank embezzler and neo-con darling Ahmed Chalabi, now installed in the Iraqi government, and one of these days likely to make a major contribution to the American Enterprise Institute; and there’s George W. Bush.  He probably owes his reelection to the invasion of Iraq. As Donald Rumsfeld complained, Afghanistan did not have enough targets to bomb and so could not make the public forget the chain of blunders surrounding September 11. Bush needed Iraq to change the subject from the now-open scandal of his incompetence.

Presented by

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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