Saturday, April 06, 2013

Michael Kelly and Iraq: Guided by the beauty of our weapons

London anti-war march by Simon Rutherford
Over the past month, we have seen various ten year assessments of the decision by then President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. Most recently, writers at the Atlantic have posted retrospectives of the first journalist to die in that war: Michael, and journalist who had, among other things, edited the Atlantic Magazine. Mr. Kelly, an avid supporter of the war, had gone to cover it as an "embedded" journalist with the American army.

I originally intended to say nothing about Mr. Kelly, except that his decision to go into harm's way to document an effort he believed in showed an integrity that many of the war's advocates lacked. But a recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, highlighting Michael Kelly's writings in support of the war, included a good example of the problems in the thinking that led to the Iraq war. Those same problems had a lot to do with the ultimate American failure in Iraq.

 Tom Scocca quotes Kelly's defence of the  moral case for war in Iraq:
Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes the thoughts of Michael Kelly as an embedded reporter waiting for the invasion:
It is remarkable enough that the United States is setting out to undertake the invasion of a nation, the destruction of a regime and the liberation of a people. But to do this with only one real military ally, with much of the world against it, with a war plan that is still, by necessity, in flux days before the advent, with an invasion force that contains only one fully deployed heavy armored division -- and to have, under these circumstances, the division's commander sleeping pretty good at night: Well, that is extraordinary.

A victory on these terms will change the power dynamics of the world. And there will be a victory on these terms.
As someone who does not believe, implicitly, in the absolute goodness of American military power, I see a boot in those paragraphs. As events played out over the following half decade, we saw that boot crash down on many faces: at Abu Ghraib, in uncounted house raids, in the incompetence and corruption that left Iraq an impoverished ruin, the money for reconstruction disappeared, opportunities squandered and lives wasted. It started with the belief, the ecstatic belief, that American military power could make the world anew, starting with Iraq.

Reading Orwell, it does not do to take the "boot" quote out of context. Orwell gives his interrogator the lines he does because he needs to expose the lies behind the worship of power. The real thing, the virus in the wild, almost always wears a mask. If we expect a interrogator like the one in 1984, we shall mistake the real face of power and cruelty, which even in its sadism feigns benevolence. A person with the character and insight to see the boot on their own foot almost always tries to take it off.

American power, American weaponry seduced many Americans outraged and terrified by the vulnerability 9/11 had shown them. Dazzled by their weapons and new forms of military organization, they never saw the boot on the face of Iraqis, never saw that the military and political power they supported wore that boot.

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