If we aren’t attentive, Bill Buckley’s antiwar pronouncement, issued in an interview with the New York Times, could be relegated to a minor footnote in this week’s news pages, whereas it really speaks volumes about the history of the last 50 years and the fall of American freedom in the push for perpetual war.
What he said, in his famously circuitous way, was this: “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”
The intellectuals pretend that people are chess pieces made of wood and stone rather than flesh and blood.
Thus does he implicitly concede that the antiwar forces were right, and the warmongers were wrong, and thus does he implicitly repudiate everything his magazine and website have ever written about this subject, and thus does he add his name to the roster of people who reject the main project of the Bush administration and the main cause of the world’s woe.
Perhaps if the interviewer had hung around a bit longer, Buckley would have repudiated the sanctions of the 1990s that helped inspire the events of 9/11, and perhaps even the original Gulf War that started this whole mess and hurled US-Islamic relations onto this destructive path. Why not? It’s as easy as waving a hand.
The games played by a public intellectual are a marvel of moral irresponsibility. He casually suggests that a war would be a grand idea. The result is that 10,000 die and life is ruined for the living. Civilization is replaced by shifting stenches of death, disease, and filth. Millions swear retribution.
Ah, but then the intellectual changes his mind! War wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or so he tells a reporter for a newspaper, before clicking off his cell and ordering up a nice lunch.
But he can’t bring back the dead. Neither American mothers and fathers, nor Iraqi children and widows, are comforted by his change of mind. He can’t drain the streets of the sewage that flows freely where children play amidst the wreckage. He can’t bring electricity back to schools and hospitals and homes and businesses, or will away the heat that bakes homes at night when people are trying to sleep to escape the nightmare of the day, but they cannot because of the explosions and screams. He can’t take away the hate that has swelled up the souls of young boys who see what the empire did to their families, communities, faith, and freedoms.
He can’t pay hundreds of billions in debt accumulated to fund the war, or personally compensate Iraqi merchants for their lost profits and livelihoods. He can’t persuade the suicide bombers not to give up their lives to kill their enemies who gave them this war. He can’t bring back the rule of law to Iraq or solve incredibly intractable economic problems. He can’t expunge the culture of war that has shaped a generation of the enlisted or perversely inspired teens around the country to turn to violence as a means of settling disputes.
He can’t heal the wounds, physical and spiritual, of the innocents who were arrested, held in prison, and tortured before being released only under international pressure. He can’t take away the humiliation of a people who have lived for more than a year under martial law before they regained “sovereignty” under a puppet regime that rules from a frightened fortress.
He can’t disarm the states that are working on acquiring nuclear weapons as a way of protecting themselves from the US, since everyone knows that US attacked Iraq not because it had nukes but because it did not. There are no means at his disposal to prevent a future nuclear holocaust triggered because the old standards of diplomacy just seemed so out of fashion in an age of terrorism.
No, he can’t do any of this. But he can walk away from it all, with just a few words. Had he known, he would have opposed it. That he presided over a media empire that made all of this possible, that even turned the opinion of conservatives who should have opposed every bit of this into a chorus of cheers for a regime that has been a calamity for human liberty, for this he cannot be held responsible. He is just a commentator after all. He doesn’t own the wars he advocates, so he bears no liability when they go wrong.
He knows full well that this will be the only article that will draw attention to his personal culpability for the tragedy. He is part of a class of thinkers who treat world affairs like a parlor game: roll the dice, pick the card, take a chance, win some, lose some. War is even better, so far as these people are concerned, because there are no rules. You play when you feel like it and crush opponents through violent force.
War, these people know, isn’t like a real game of chess. You don’t checkmate; instead you sweep your hand across the board, declare yourself the winner, and dare your opponent to disagree. The crucial thing is to pretend that the people are chess pieces made of wood and stone rather than flesh and blood.
All the warmongers have something to answer for, but Buckley in particular. His goal at the start of his career was to change the American right from peace-loving to warmongering. He did that. He succeeded. Now, at 78, he should look carefully at the ideological world he created, one where his own movement parties as the victims of imperial violence weep.
It didn’t have to be this way. Back when the madness first began, with Harry Truman’s initial call for a post-war US empire, Buckley could have stood athwart history and yelled not “kill!” but “stop!”