It’s all but official: The war in Iraq is lost. Report after leaked report says so. Everybody in Washington knows it except that draft-dodging ferret in the White House. Politicians scurry to avoid the blame. One day soon people will ask aloud: How did we let 3000 GIs die for the weak ego of a pampered liar and his desperate need to prove he’s half the man his father was?
The troops from now on will die for a war that they already know is over. They are dying for politicians. They are dying for nothing. By now they must know it. It happened to us, too, long ago.
The talk among pols now is about finding an “exit strategy.” This means a way of pulling out without risking too many seats in Congress. Screw the troops. We must look to the elections. Do we really want an exit strategy? A friend of mine, with two tours in heavy combat in another war, has devised a splendid exit strategy. It consists of five words: “OK. On the plane. Now.” Bring your toothbrush. Everything else stays. We’re outa here.
It is a workable exit strategy, one with teeth, and comprehensible to all. But we won’t use it. We will continue killing our men, calculatedly, cynically, for the benefit of politicians. The important thing, you see, is the place in history of Bush Puppy. Screw the troops.
Face it. The soldiers are being used. They are being suckered. This isn’t new. It happened to my generation. Long after we knew that the war in Vietnam was lost, Lyndon Johnson kept it going to fertilize his vanity, and then Nixon spoke of the need to “save face”—at two hundred dead GIs a week. But of course Johnson and Nixon weren’t among the dead, or among the GIs.
I saw an interview on television long ago in which the reporter asked an infantryman near Danang, I think, what he thought of Nixon’s plan to save face. “His face, our ass,” was the reply. Just so, then, and just so now. Screw the troops. What the hell, they breed fast in Kansas anyway.
Soldiers are succinct and do not mince words. This makes them dangerous. We must keep them off-camera to the extent possible. A GI telling the truth could set recruiting back by years.
The truth is that the government doesn’t care about its soldiers, and never has. If you think I am being unduly harsh, read the Washington Post. You will find story after story saying that the Democrats don’t want to do anything drastic about the war. They fear seeming “soft on national security.” In other words, they care more about their electoral prospects in 2008 than they do about the lives of GIs. It’s no secret. For them it is a matter of tuning the spin, of covering tracks, of calculating the vector sum of the ardent-patriot vote which may be cooling, deciding which way the liberal wind blows, and staying poised to seem to have supported whoever wins. Screw the troops. Their fathers probably work in factories anyway.
Soldiers do not realize, until too late, the contempt in which they are held by their betters. Here is the psychological foundation of the hobbyist wars of bus-station presidents. If you are, say, a Lance Corporal in some miserable region of Iraq, I have a question for you: Would your commanding general let you date his daughter? I spent my high-school years on a naval base, Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground as it was then called. Dahlgren was heavy with officers, scientists, and engineers. Their daughters, my classmates, were not allowed to associate with sailors. Oh yes, we honor our fighting men. We hold them in endless respect. Yes we do.
For that matter, Lance Corporal, ask how many members of Congress have even served, much less been in combat. Ask how many have children in the armed services. Look around you. Do you see many (any) guys from Harvard? Yale? MIT? Cornell? Exactly. The smart, the well-off, the powerful are not about to risk their irreplaceable sit-parts in combat. Nor are they going to mix with mere high-school graduates, with kids from small towns in Tennessee, with blue-collar riffraff who bowl and drink Bud at places with names like Lenny’s Rib Room. One simply doesn’t. One has standards.
You are being suckered, gang, just as we were.
It is a science. The government hires slick PR firms and ad agencies in New York. These study what things make a young stud want to be A Soldier: a desire to prove himself, to get laid in foreign places, a craving for adventure, a desire to feel part of something big and powerful and respected, what have you. They know exactly what they are doing. They craft phrases, “Be a Man Among Men,” or “A Few Good Men,” or, since girls don’t like those two, “The Few, The Proud.” Join up and be Superman.
Then comes the calculated psychological conditioning. There is for example the sense of power and unity that comes of running to cadence with a platoon of other guys, thump, thump, thump, all shouting to the heady rhythm of boots, “If I die on the Russian front, bury me with a Russian c__t, Lef-rye-lef-rye-lef-rye-lef…” That was Parris Island, August of ’66, and doubtless they say something else now, but the principle is the same.
And so you come out in splendid physical shape and feeling no end manly and they tell you how noble it is to Fight for Your Country. This might be true if anyone were invading the country. But since Washington always invades somebody else, you are actually fighting for Big Oil, or Israel, or the defense industry, or the sexual ambiguities who staff National Review, or the vanity of that moral dwarf on Pennsylvania Avenue. You will figure this out years later.
Once you are in the war, you can’t get out. We couldn’t either. While your commander in chief eats steak in the White House and talks tough, just like a real president, you kill people you have no reason to kill, about whom you know next to nothing—which one day may weigh on your conscience. It does with a lot of guys, but that comes later.
You are being suckered, and so are the social classes that supply the military. Note that the Pentagon cracks down hard on troops who say the wrong things online, that the White House won’t allow coffins to be photographed, that the networks never give soldiers a chance to talk unedited about what is happening. Oh no. It is crucial to keep morale up among the rubes. You are the rubes. So, once, were we.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.