May 22, 2004

Robert McNamara Is Ruining My Relationship

So the boyfriend rented The Fog of War last night. He had the decency to watch it alone while I was working; thus was I spared excessive exposure to that carp-lipped gasbag.

But at one point I walked through the room just as the camera had zoomed in for a closeup of the former defense secretary.

"Uccch," I remarked.

"What's the matter?" the boyfriend jeered, "this movie wasn't Instapundit-approved?"

Now that was low, people. He knows I don't like Instapundit. I read him maybe twice a month at the most, and then only when I've been directed there by bloggers I like better.

"It's not that," I said. "Don't bring politics into this. It's that face. It's threatening to consume the entire screen."

"Well, see, he just made a startling point and the director wanted to emphasize it," he explained. "He just said that if we had lost World War II, we would be considered the war criminals. Kind of gives you something to think about, huh?"

I looked at my boyfriend for several seconds.

"Duh," I managed finally.

"Well, but it's so rare to hear someone admit that. I mean we made some really indiscriminate and unwarranted attacks even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We wiped out entire villages, thousands of innocent civilians--"

"Dear," I interrupted, "that is the sort of pseudo-profundity I expect to hear from a stoned undergraduate. 'Dude, check it: The whole notion of war crimes is like, subjective, you know? I mean . . . I mean, what if we hadn't won World War II? We'd be the war criminals then, man. Like Dresden, right, that was some indiscriminate bullshit.'"

It was his turn to pause.

"Okay," he replied eventually. "That doesn't make what we did right."

"No, but how about maybe Japan shouldn't have brought the shit in the first place."

Pause again. "True."

But you know something, I don't think that really convinced him. I think there are a lot of people who believe it's always down to us to be beyond reproach, no matter what. I think there are a lot of people who believe war is bad, period, without having formulated an adequate solution to the problem of what to do when war barges in uninvited.

It's the equivalent of trying to tell the school bully that you forgive him, that you understand him, that you're ready to reach out to him in the spirit of brotherhood--while he's slamming your head into a mud puddle and demanding you cry uncle.

It's exhausting me. It's wearing me out--the "No, but . . . ." Because that's the nature of the answers I get when I ask questions about what our response to September 11 should have been instead. "Do you think we should have sought instead to try Osama bin Laden in the International Criminal Court?" "No, but . . . ." "Do you think it would have made more sense for us to invade Saudi Arabia, the country that houses the most holy sites in Islam?" "No, but . . . ." "Do you have any suggestions for what we could have done instead?" "No, but . . . ."

What I'm seeing is, there is no "instead." No one has any practical solutions--just criticisms of the solutions we're pursuing now.

I don't mind hearing the criticisms. But damnit, I have just enough engineer in me to expect that along with the criticisms, you better suggest an alternative. Otherwise those criticisms aren't worth the air you breathed to voice them.

Michele is right: This country's split deep, and it's rapidly gettng personal:

The last two weeks have cemented whatever line there was between the left and the right. Abu Ghraib has become the definitive dividing point and the break is irreparable. I had my first political fight with my best friend this morning. We've been friends for fourteen years and have had differing politics since day one, but we've debated, talked, and discussed and never fought. Today, we fought. We raised our voices. We had an angry edge to our words.
Maybe it started with the 2000 election and September 11 only widened the chasm. Maybe it started even before that. But right now, I'd sum up the split this way: It's between the people who think this is Vietnam all over again, and the people who think this is World War II all over again. No wonder we can't get any common ground under our feet--we can't even figure out which war this is.

Trying to decide which war it is merely divides us and wastes our time--and that sucks, because we know who the enemy is. Those who still weren't quite sure in the wake of September 11 had it spelled out for them:

This is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads, a conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible. Yet, they are mistaken. They will be exposed, and they will discover what others in the past have learned: Those who make war against the United States have chosen their own destruction. Victory against terrorism will not take place in a single battle, but in a series of decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them.
But no, let's complain that it was only one sarin gas container (that Dick Cheney planted there anyway). Let's complain that containment was "working," where by "working" we mean "killing Kurds and Iraqis by the thousands." Let's complain that Bush didn't take al Qaeda seriously enough before September 11, even though the hard truth of the matter is that no one took al Qaeda seriously enough before September 11. Let's complain, let's complain, let's complain. Because everyone knows that complaining gets things done.

The worst thing is that's all I'm doing here--complaining. Complaining about the complainers.

Posted by Ilyka at May 22, 2004 10:45 PM in i don't know you tell me

Sometimes complaining is all we can do. Reasoning and adult debate didn't seem to catch on.

I have this odd obsession with McNamara.I've read all of the books by and about him.

Posted by: michele at May 23, 2004 12:45 AM

The thing is, if you personally were getting beaten up, and you attempted to reason with the bully instead of hitting him back, you would actually be taking the higher road, the better course and so on. But that isn't the position we are in when it comes to our country being attacked by a foreign enemy and responding by going to war ourselves. When people like your boyfriend say that we "did a lot of bad things" in World War II and that therefore makes us just as bad as the Nazis and the Japanese (which is what he is saying when he says "if we had lost we'd have been the criminals") he is taking the position of someone who sees a bully beating up someone else, and instead of doing whatever he can to rescue the victim, up to possibly having to physically attack the bully, he stands on the sidelines lecturing the victim to show the bully only love and kindness and ask themselves what they have done to bring on the bully's attack.

Point one: it is not love and kindness to let people who are violent and dysfunctional have their way in the world. It may be practical to do so, or at least expedient, but it usually causes more problems down the road. It may be that from now on we will be giving dictators with a yen to imitate some long-dead half-legendary world conqueror less leeway for various political scraps and bones; I certainly hope so anyway.

Point two: it is not right for a human being to forgive someone a trespass they have committed against another human being. AFAIK, I lost no one known personally to me in the World Trade Center/Pentagon attack, nor was I injured myself, living as I do some seventeen hundred miles away in Florida. For me to announce that I have forgiven the terrorists for what they did would not only be showboating, it would be arrogance of the most heinous sort.

Point three: sitting and criticizing the actions of previous generations because they didn't act as you yourself would act from your contemporary viewpoint is called twenty-twenty hindsight, and it is pretty useless unless, as you said, it results in a solution that will work. I seriously doubt that an olive branch and offer of a hug-a-thon would have made Tojo back off; I do think that such things are just as useless as a solution to the depredations of fanatics like Al Qaeda and co.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at May 23, 2004 02:14 AM

My friend from high school works for Errol Morris, so I got to see the movie on videotape last Christmas. What self-congratulatory rubbish. The graphic exercise in matching city populations tipped me over. Bataan? Nanking? Pearl Harbor? Meaningless, or simply unknown because for Baby Boomers, history begins with Vietnam? I had not been as angry as I was that night in years. It was all I could do to stay polite and only say what was needed.

Posted by: Michael Ubaldi at May 23, 2004 05:42 AM

As the aforementioned boyfriend, I would like to say that in most of Ilyka's entries concerning conversations between us, Ilyka changes them to make a point. I usually do not care, but here it makes me look like a dumbass. While this is a close approximation of our conversation, I didn't pause and say "True" like "Gee, Batman, you're right, the Japanese did do a lot of bad things." I know a hell of a lot more about WWII than Ilyka does, and I am well aware the Japanese government did a lot of bad things.

Andrea, in this psuedo-conversation, did I ever say we were morally equivalent to the Nazis or the Japanese? Nope, I sure as hell didn't. Go read Chomsky for your straw men.

Ubaldi, your comment made absolutely no fucking sense. Yes, the Japanese were evil and had to be defeated. The actual issue is how to go about it. Civilized nations try to minimize civilian casualties. So the question was whether it is moral to fire bomb cities and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Unless it is your argument that because the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor they forfeited their rights as human beings and could be killed in whatever method we chose.

Posted by: mark at May 23, 2004 06:17 AM

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the James Carville and Marlee Matlin of blogdom.

Dude. I don't hear you bitching when I color up the dialogue to make you sound better . . . .

Posted by: ilyka at May 23, 2004 09:17 AM

Minimizing the character of militarist Japan — their trail of horror that began in 1931 — changes the nature of the enemy America faced and removes the context in which measures were taken to defeat the Rising Sun. It's easy in hindsight to see how Japan faced inevitable defeat; at the time it was a terrifying, ruthless, genocidal, fanatic enemy and victory was by no means certain. A justified fear, then, led to the American use of as many means as necessary.

Where your moral equivalence falls flat, Mark, is in the objectives of each side. We know how the Japanese conducted their occupations: resources were plundered and people were fodder. Victory was to achieve supremacy and, if necessary, extermination of unwanted subjects. America, on the other hand, spent seven years infusing billions of dollars and the work of thousands of multinational workers to rebuild, liberalize, educate and industrialize Japan. Unfortunately, guns went "bang" and bombs went "boom" on both sides, so there were only so many ways of eviscerating Japan's war effort. You seem to want an alternate timeline where the Manhattan Project developed JDAMs instead of Little Boy. (On that point, consider how American weapons have been developed in the decades since to minimize collateral damage.)

The "war criminals" quotation was nonsense. The Japanese would have executed any uncooperative American authorities, from the DOT to preschool PTA.

Posted by: Michael Ubaldi at May 23, 2004 02:28 PM

All's fair in love and war?

In theory, no.

In practice, well, let's just say it's practiced.

I like Gregory Peck's line in The Guns of Navarone (Paraphrasing): You have to be every bit as nasty as the enemy and you hope you that you don't look yourself in the mirror one day and find out that you're even nastier.

I think that's true and I think it's every bit as true today as it was in WWII.

Posted by: Rob at May 23, 2004 06:05 PM

Inconsequential trivia: Did I just inadvertently marry Carville to that deaf actress, instead of his actual wife? I have to go look that up now because I have a bad feelng I got the name wrong.

Posted by: ilyka at May 23, 2004 07:27 PM

I did. I did marry him to the deaf actress. I think that makes me officially too stupid to participate in the comments of my own blog.

Posted by: ilyka at May 23, 2004 07:41 PM

Well, all things considered, your pairing is better. At least she wouldn't have to listen to his bleating Cajun nonsense all the time, and for his part, she's a lot better looking than the fugly Mary Matalin.

Posted by: Phil at May 24, 2004 12:52 AM

I see I'm coming back late to this, only to see me accused of not being psychic and therefore able to discern whether or not there was a difference between a private conversation between a couple and the public presentation of that discussion by one member of that pairing. I can only plead "Guilty, on all counts" and throw myself on the mercy of the court -- which here now seems so preoccupied with matters of self-righteousness that I fear a fine or even a jail sentence is in my future. Oh well, I must soldier on!

And I will say, Mark, that if 1) you didn't mean that "we were morally equivalent to the Nazis or the Japanese" what else was I to conclude from statements (quoted, or paraphrased, I may add -- and also repeat that I took for granted that they were true, not "doctored") such as: "I mean we made some really indiscriminate and unwarranted attacks even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We wiped out entire villages, thousands of innocent civilians--"? And I will never, ever read anything Chomsky has written -- I am under doctor's orders to watch my blood pressure. Pinky swear.

I will end with a tale of my own, one which is only anecdotal and therefore you may take with however many grains of salt you care to; my father told it to me. He was stationed in Korea with the Army Corp of Engineers during the "police action." Among other adventures, he got to go to Japan fof R&R. He claims he had a, er, conversation with a Japanese girl who might have aspired to the profession of geisha if she were not considered by that people to be rather hideous -- she had freckles. In any case, this is what my father claimed she told him: during the war, the Japanese, at least in her own small village, were fanatically loyal to the Emperor. Towards the end of the war, when fears of an American invasion were near, everyone in her village was commanded to stand at the shore with sharpened bamboo sticks by way of spears, these being the only weapons available to her poverty-ridden little village. To a man, woman, and child. She says everyone was willing to do it, even though they were sure it meant certain death for all of them. They were willing to do it because it meant they would be dying for the Emperor. The only thing that broke the back of this belief, and enabled Japan to for better or worse join the modern world was seeing the Emperor bow to his American conquerors some time later.

This sort of to-the-death-and-beyond fanatical loyalty is unknown to modern Westerners, but it is by no means obsolete across the entire globe. Dismissing it glibly, and engaging in pretty historical revisionism, doesn't change the way things were and are. It's just another exercise for dilletantes.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at May 31, 2004 01:53 AM

I should have previewed. I meant to make a point with "1) if you didn't mean..." and changed in midstream. I think I was going to say that if you didn't mean to accuse your forebearers of war crimes then you shouldn't have said what you said, if indeed you did say it. Clear enough?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at May 31, 2004 01:55 AM

One of the ways that civilized nations (US, Israel, and England, exculusively) minimize civilian casualties is to demonstrate to the savages that we are better at slaughtering non-combatants than they are, so it is not to their advantage to play that way. That is why everything that we did along the lines of Dresden was retaliatory. When someone thinks that the Geneva conventions will handicap us because we will be bound by it while their superior sense of priorities will liberate them from it's constraints, they must be proven wrong, immediately and unequivocally. By allowing Fallujah to continue to exist, we are showing how "civilized" we are in a way that GUARANTEES more civilian casualties than neccessary.

That said, he probably knows more about WWII than you. Women invariably know less about WWII than you expect. This just goes to show once again: SOCIETY OWES ME A WOMAN.

Posted by: Dave Munger at June 26, 2004 09:56 PM

I found the most interesting part of McNamara's comments in that part of the film was how he subtly suggested that he, along with his superiors such as LeMay, would be considered war criminals, thus raising his status from junior officer to war planner.

I still think the most accurate of McNamara is the one offered by his elementary school teachers as recorded by Halberstam. They all considered him to be very, very bright. Not brilliant, but very bright.

Posted by: Brian at October 31, 2005 11:29 AM