The Grind Goes On

I watched the President's speech tonight. This is pretty unusual for me; I'm not much on watching scripted speakers stare at the teleprompter slightly over and behind me, that is, behind and above the camera photographing, in this case, the President. The result is curiously dead, no sense of being engaged as an interlocutor by the speaker, rather the sense of watching an actor from the sidelines as he reads a part. But something told me to watch.

The chief thing noticeable was the absolute absence of any spontaneity, any interpolations, any off-the-cuff ad-libs, the usual signs of a speaker at ease with his text. This was tight scripted, and one suspects the handlers had said no departures from text or there'll be no pre-bed snack tonight.

I watched with almost no emotion. I am newly calm about this monstrous episode we are embarked on. I have had, from my reading in Santayana chiefly (I remarked on this in my last column for LRC), an insight that has removed me from the lists of the overwrought. I see that everything is going as it evidently must. Ancient philosophical errors are playing out, as the people who made them could never have guessed they would. Present actors are virtually powerless to do anything but move in the grooves laid out for them long ago. An enormity of egotism, of prideful false philosophy, is grinding its way to a bitter end.

Did I think, did you think, that it would be possible for a head of state, for our head of state, to come forward and say something like this?

"My dear friends, I come before you tonight with a sad burden. I must tell you that our plans in Iraq have gone seriously awry, and although I am being urged by some to stay the course, to insist on final victory, I have estimated the cost to be too high. I am told by these same advisors that we must put $82 billion more into this reconstruction effort, and it is $82 billion we do not have. It will have to be borrowed, which means paid by taxpayers not yet born.

"But that is a small thing, really, and not why I am making the decision that I am going to set before you tonight. What I simply cannot countenance, and I do not wish you to have to accept, is a situation where our fine fighting men are being picked off by who knows what combinations of Hussein adherents, Al Qaeda people, or ordinary Iraqis upset with us as invaders. There is no prospect of improvement in this situation, in fact a real prospect of an escalation. I am, therefore, giving the order to our generals and admirals for full retreat as quickly and safely as possible, with a virtually infinite regard for the saving of life. I am turning the entire Iraq situation over to Iraqis to resolve as they are able. We are clearly unwelcome. Our intention was to free them. They are free. God go with them."

Or any variations of that message you'd like to craft up. Not possible. People in situations like the one George Bush is in are trapped. They are prisoners of fate in a truly horrible way. No doubt ambition and privilege brought him step by step to the "bad eminence" he now occupies. He can't have seen coming, however, how bad it was going to get. And it is going to get worse. For a while he was enjoying it, and let himself posture and be brash. That mood came to a peak when he challenged the Iraqis, "Bring 'em on." It has been downhill since.

I look at GW plowing through that miserable speech, and I pity him. I, unknown and poor – to quote the poet, "a lone ant on a broken ant hill" – am, relatively speaking, free as a bird. This Thursday, which happens to be my wedding anniversary as well as the second anniversary of the Trade Towers disaster, I will drive, God willing, to a small mountain town not terribly far away and have dinner and drive home. Hope to have money enough for the dinner and the gas.

I thought for a while that it was my job to stop this insanity somehow, and I lamented my utter powerlessness. That was sheer egotism on my part. I have no such job, and it's utter vainglory to think so. My job is stay sane in a mad world. Offer no support not extracted from me at gunpoint to the war-making power. Observe the sunsets and pray for peace.

September 8, 2003