Slaughter-House-Five opens with a recommendation to anyone considering an antiwar book that they try an anti-glacier book instead. Same effect, same futility. In spite of the odds, Kurt Vonnegut then proceeds to finish one of the best antiwar books of the 20th century. If Slaughter-House-Five is an exercise in futility, it's a damned fine one. Hayden Carruth's poem On Being Asked to Write a Poem against the War in Vietnam is in the same vein. "Well I have [written many antiwar poems]…" the poet begins, but for all the toil and angst and emotional investment, in the end:
…not one breath was restored to one
shattered throat mans womans or childs not one not
one but death went on and on never looking aside
except now and then with a furtive half-smile to make sure I was noticing.
Again, if this is an exercise in futility, it's a damned fine one.
The Bush Administration's exercises in futility, in contrast, are damned demeaning. The idea, I guess, was to drop a few bombs, kill bad men with beards, eliminate terrorism (if not Evil altogether), and get on with the business of being the Greatest Country in the World. The mission, sporadically "accomplished" in fantasy, remains unaccomplished in fact. Nobody likes us all that much (though our world reputation remains u2018great' in a sense, ranging from Great Satan to Great Debtor to Great Goofball), nobody trusts us all that much, and nobody really respects us all that much. It didn't have to be this way. But thanks in large part to Bush-league military adventures, it is.
The war in Afghanistan, the one commonly regarded as the good one, has looked steadily less good to the point that it isn't mentioned much anymore. The one in Iraq may still read like a success story to a handful of Likudo-fascists, but looks like a stinking meshugaas to the rest of the planet. You'd think that two strikes down, the Bush-leaguers would contemplate guarding the plate awhile — but no, as we wait for the next pitch, the third base coach (who in the world is he, anyway — an Al Qaeda mole? Beelzebub? A tobacco-chewing Machiavelli? Someone with a PhD in baseball???) is still sending swing-for-the-fence signals, Bush-code for war.
Now that calm has been so effectively established in Afghanistan and Iraq, talk of moving the good work to Iran is in the air. Those who doubt that even Bush-league management could be capable of anything so stupid, should consider the words of Rummy's pinch-hitter, Robert Gates, who in early February declared: "We are not planning for a war with Iran." The statement would be immensely reassuring on the lips of some, but such lips tend not to work in the Bush Administration, which has now lied its way through a dazzling six years in office.
A few weeks ago, Oman received a visit from one of the Administration's most distinguished liars. The Vice-president's few hours in the country were marked by monumental traffic snarls and a pervasive smell of sulfur. Genuine statesmen presumably go abroad with at least a hope and a prayer for peace in their hearts. Cheney goes with a hope and a prayer for war in his gall bladder (the heart being unsuited to a bilious agenda), to squeeze concessions of the u2018Please can our fighter planes take off from your glorious land, say yes or expect to be crudely snubbed' sort. Countries Cheney ought to be engaging in open diplomatic discussion, such as Iran and Syria, are meanwhile treated with dismissive contempt. As Seymour Hersh's The Redirection makes clear, Bush policy prefers now to deal with the Middle East's "centers of moderation" — that is, puppet regimes like those of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, corrupt enough to stomach its Plans for the region. In contrast to this "arc of moderation" (the phrase is a particularly noisome Blairite dropping), the Bad Barts of the region (Syria/Iran/Hezbollah) "have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize" (a particularly noisome Condoleezza dropping, on behalf of that venerable old champion of Middle Eastern stability, the American government). Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.
"Dominion of the world from end to end is worth less than a drip of blood upon the earth," wrote the great Persian poet Saadi of Shiraz. The designers of the Great Iraq Liberation Scam had little use for that perspective. They may yet come round to it the hard way, or let the rest of us come round to it the hard way, while they go right on insisting that their failures are in fact successes. Lao Tzu said: "Those who would take over the earth and bend it to their will never, I notice, succeed." Saying it may not have made any more difference than writing an anti-glacier book or an antiwar poem, or observing that a war with Iran would be ignoble, unnecessary, ineffective, and possibly insane. But Lao Tzu said it anyway, and thank God for that. Some exercises in futility are better than others.
March 17, 2007