[I]f the reporting out of Iraq is accurate, Mahmudiyah is a tale of sadism and degradation and of the desire of one man and possibly others to display mastery over the weak for reasons having nothing to do with why America is in Iraq.Wait. Why is America in Iraq, again?
This is a sentence in "Not Just Another Abuse Scandal," by Colbert I. King, a critic of the Administration and the war. If the column didn't exist, we'd have to invent it. It so perfectly encapsulates the essenial contradictions of liberal antiwar thought that I'm tempted to call it an archetype of the form. It abstracts the whole corpus of confused protest on the part of the unradical left.
Don't "lump" the rape and murder in Mahmudiyah together with other war atrocities, King asks. It was not, after all, "a case of soldiers exceeding their orders or authority in the interrogation of prisoners -- or an example of war-weary, stressed-out troops mistakenly assuming a villager was a member of the insurgency. Neither was it a situation in which U.S. service members, grief-stricken over the loss of a comrade, decided to take out their anguish on people who looked like the enemy." It was, instead a pre-meditated, individual, criminal act made worse because it sullied his vastly symbolic uniform, which carries in its very threads the martial rightness of the United States of America and Old Glory, her flag.
In other words, though King couldn't put it so because he clearly has no idea what he's saying, a violent crime executed by a deranged individual is of greater moral import than a long series of war atrocities which are not only endemic to imperial war, but are necessitated by it.
King does yeoman's work to vitiate "the alleged attacks by U.S. troops on unarmed Iraqi civilians in Fallujah, Haditha, Qaim or Salahuddin province." In his telling, they were merely examples of "war-weary, stressed-out troops" making wrong assumptions, or "grief-stricken" troops doing what is only natural, apparently, to grief-stricken men with guns. It's a good effort to make the natural state of things sound like mitigating circumstances. All troops in war are stressed-out and war-weary. All troops are grief-stricken at the loss of comrades. These aren't excuses for the perpetration of atrocities.
But even correcting for Colbert's attempted-exculpatory langauge, his framework is naive. It indulges the favorite liberal über-caveat: against the war, but support the troops. Support the troops how? By wishing they don't get killed?
What it really means is: speak loudly against the policy, but place no agency in the perpetrators of that policy. Although engaged in an action claimed by liberals to be deeply wrong and possibly illegal, the soldiers, merely acting in their daily capacities, are good, as is their work. But their work is to make possible the project that liberals abhor. In no different a manner, ultimately, than the President's habit of cloaking himself in an orgy of uniforms, liberals seek to innoculate themselvs against charges of insufficient nationalism when it comes time to "deal with terrorism" or what have you. If the war is indeed a crime, then the daily lives of those "good" soldiers are lived in service of criminality. That doesn't mean that each and every one should be prosecuted as a war criminal come the end of the war. That goes without saying. The soldiers of nations prosecuting aggressive wars can't be held liable for the policy of state. It does mean that you must, at least, own up to the inescapable conclusion that for the duration of a wrong war the soldiers too are acting in the wrong.
But then some conservative might call liberals "against the troops" or such other schoolyard taunt, and Atrios and the sewing circle of FireDogLake will expend a zillion pixels explaining that it is Republicans who hate the military because they use it to wage war.
Finally, there is the confusion of aberration with essential. Clearly, I'm deeply opposed to the war in Iraq. It's a terrible thing, a violation of almost every principle I hold dear. But look, this is an imperial war. We are a vast world-power reaching across the globe to topple a government, occupy a foreign nation, remake it into an "ally" (read "client" or "province"). We face an indigenous insurgency. We are too few to rule there except through brutality, brutality as absurdity, in daily doses.
"Yes, nothing criminal," Ronny summed up, "but there's the native, and there's one of the reasons why we don't admit him to our clubs [. . .] But I must get on with my work. Krishna!" Krishna was the peon who should have brought the files from his office. He had not turned up, and a terrific row ensued. Ronny stormed, shouted, howled, and only the experienced observer could tell that he was not angry, did not much want the files, and only made a row because it was the custom. Servants, quite understanding, ran slowly in circles, carrying hurricane lamps. Krishna the earth, Krishna the stars replied, until the Englishman was appeased by their echoes, fined the absent peon eight annas, and sat down to his arrears in the next room.
From A Passage to India by E.M. Forster