The Message is the Medium

Donald Rumsfeld was in Salt Lake City the other day to tell the American Legion - and the rest of us -- that if we aren't willing to tow the administration's line in Iraq, then we are appeasing the "Islamic fascists" the way the French and British appeased Hitler - and we all know what the result of that was, don't we?

Or do we? Let's say the European powers had stood up to Hitler in Czechoslovakia - what would have happened? In my view, one of two things. The war would have started a year earlier, in 1938, or the war would have started when it did start, in 1939, with the blitzkrieg against Poland. Not to excuse Neville Chamberlain's panglossian view of the Nazis, but I find it hard to believe that a show of resolve on the part of England and France at that time would have kept the German army inside its own borders.

The point is, Germany was bent on war, and the allied countries were not. They did what non-militaristic countries do - they tried to avoid war until the last possible moment. This also explains why the U.S. did not enter the war until Pearl Harbor. It was only on December 7 that it became apparent we had no other choice, that the majority of Americans would accept no other choice. Up until then, pro-war sentiment in the U.S. had simply not reached critical mass. War, again for non-militaristic nations, is truly a policy of last resort. A policy that makes sense only when no other options remain.

To apply this pre-WWII historical model to the present-day Middle East or anywhere else in today's world is problematic to say the least. In fact, it makes absolutely no sense at all. There is no Third Reich of "Islamic extremists." In other words, they are not a singular geopolitical body that we can declare war against. That's why we've been fighting a "War on Terror" instead of a war on something more specific. It's a disingenuous attempt to create a climate of fear that allows for the "policy of last resort" to be applied across many borders and in many unrelated situations. To consider the war in Iraq (as the Bush administration does) a subset of the War on Terror is ludicrous; if World War II had been billed more as a war on fascism instead of the war against Germany and Japan, we'd probably still be fighting it today. Or at least trying to come up with justifications for why we didn't fight fascism after WWII, but instead spent the Cold War shoring up every fascist right-wing government we could find.

For Rumsfeld to declare that we are failing to pay attention to history is another bunker-buster of unintended irony. The real correlative here is the war on communism and its attendant "Domino Theory," as manifested in our Southeast Asian adventures of the '50s, '60s and '70s. If there is any comparison to be made with our current Iraq and Middle East policy, it's with Vietnam. In World War II, we were fighting panzers first, an ideology second; our specific, clear-cut goal was to liberate conquered countries from occupation by aggressor nations. This was the same situation in the first Gulf War - the liberation of occupied Kuwait. But Vietnam and Iraq present a different scenario. In the former conflict, there was, in our eyes, an enemy nation - North Vietnam- but unfortunately for us, the majority of South Vietnamese did not see it that way. Nobody in 1944 France regarded Americans as invaders, but many in 1968 South Vietnam did - they saw us as abetting an unpopular regime. Now, in 2006 Iraq, are we seen as liberators? Hardly. We are occupiers with our own agenda, a decided self-interest that ultimately leads to an unnamed black gooey liquid. We have, as we did in Southeast Asia, interposed ourselves in an internal struggle that puts us in the position of trying to win over hearts and minds at gunpoint. Never a good place to be.

Back long ago in the pre-9-11 days, the Iraq war wouldn't have been a war at all. It would have been a covert CIA operation to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Wait a minute - I take that back. It would have been a covert CIA operation to assassinate Saddam's enemies, since surely they would have been the ones more allied with communist forces. If there are any doubts about that, please refer to that delectable footage of Saddam and Rumsfeld smiling for the cameras back in 1983.

But that was before pre-emptive war became a U.S. government policy. Instead of depending on the CIA, we have now turned to our military. Instead of truly working to avoid war, our, yes, militaristic government pushed us to war it in a torrent of questionable evidence, shoddy intelligence and - most importantly - words, a veritable barrage of them that continues to this day. This is what I mean by the message is the medium. The war in Iraq is so controversial, so ill-planned, so inexcusable in so many ways, that administration officials devote speech upon speech to positioning the war in a context that the American people will support, even as our soldiers continue to die with no end in sight and our "host country" - Iraq - continues to teeter not on the brink of chaos, but in its maw.

The message is that this war was inevitable, necessary, winnable and more than worthy of the support of the freedom-loving American people. The medium is the war itself - killed and grievously wounded American soldiers, sectarian massacres, more and more anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, a Middle East less stable than ever - no wonder the administration is so determined to win the war over here even as it fails to "win" it over there.

Morally and intellectually confused? Not paying attention to history? Rumsfeld and the others may not want to admit it, but they're talking to themselves.