PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Glued to Our Seats in the Theater of War:
Tall Tales from the Annals of the Bush Administration
Remember when the debate about
Peace activists who despair of the
spineless Democrats should keep in mind that Bush and Cheney have compromised,
too. In his most recent speech, just six years and two days after he became the
tough-as-nails “war president,” the Decider announced that he has decided to do
what many Democrats and the peace movement have been demanding: begin getting
troops out of
Yes, the numbers will be so pitifully
small that many already claim they are meaningless. Nonetheless, it’s a major
shift in Bush’s narrative. And that counts for something all too real, because
the debate is hardly about policy any more. It’s mainly about the stories we
tell about policy -- and about “
Every war is bound to turn into a story. Every war is experienced as dramatic spectacle -- the more mythic the better. It’s no coincidence that the military refers to a battle zone as a “theater.”
Political “battles” are high drama, too. On the campaign trail, the most gripping plot usually wins. In that context, a debate about the math of minimalist “drawdown” -- how many troops should leave and how soon -- is hardly the stuff of legend in itself, the sort of thing to fuel public passions. And yet the two major parties have to conjure up the illusion of a profound, emotionally stirring difference between them. So they turn a debate like the present one about troop numbers and time frames into a contest between larger competing narratives.
Last spring, with the President’s surge
plan seemingly floundering in
“Ed Gillespie, the new presidential counselor, organized daily conference calls at 7:45 a.m. and again late in the afternoon between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the U.S. Embassy and military in Baghdad to map out ways of selling the surge. From the start of the Bush plan, the White House communications office had been blitzing an e-mail list of as many as 5,000 journalists, lawmakers, lobbyists, conservative bloggers, military groups and others with talking points or rebuttals of criticism. Between Jan. 10 and last week, the office put out 94 such documents.”
Call it a surge of words on the home front. But mounting a publicity blitz, no matter how well funded, is no guarantee of success. You have to put on a show good enough to sell tickets and elicit applause. So, why did the pro-war show draw a big enough audience (at least among beleaguered Republicans) that many key Democrats, frustrated by Congressional math and frightened for the 2008 electoral future, began to wave the flag of compromise?
A War President Who Can’t Win the War
Part of the answer is revealed in the
most astounding polling figure of recent weeks. A New York times
poll asked, “Who do you trust the most with successfully resolving the war in
Once again, the top-rated show of the season is evidently that all-time favorite, “The Military Saves the Day,” a sequel to the smash hit of the past several seasons, “Support Our Troops.” No wonder the White House brought its hero and surge commander, General David Petraeus, on stage for the final scene in this act of a drama seemingly without end. No wonder Bush used the general as cover, not only for continuing the war but for making his own shadowy compromises in his September 13 address to the nation (which, by the way, drew a far smaller audience than his last major speech, on Jan. 10): “General Petraeus recommends that in December, we begin transitioning to the next phase of our strategy … our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks”-- as if, all of a sudden, the newly four-starred general, and not the president, were now commander-in-chief.
For White House scriptwriters, there was certainly another reason to give the general the leading role in this scene of the American Iraq drama on the home front. He has actually seen something of the reality of war. Everyone knows that the President (like the Vice President and others high up in this administration) studiously -- even notoriously -- avoided the real theater of battle. With his wartime credibility always somewhat suspect, all Bush can offer is an illusion spun out of dramatic words.
Bush and his writers also made
compromises in their story line. The ringing language of past years about bringing
No facts are available to indicate that the
There is, however, one crucial piece of that old American yarn that Bush now has no choice but to downplay, after years of announcing that victory was at hand or at least claiming that he had a surefire strategy for victory: the piece that says the good guys always win, unconditionally. He can’t tell that part of the story because no one will believe it any more. In his latest speech the word “victory” -- which he once used 15 times in a single speech -- was missing in action, replaced by the far weaker, far less martial, so much less triumphant word “success.” The “Korea model,” that more than half-century garrisoning the South after a stalemated war, lets us know what “success” would mean, at best, for the President: A government (or a set of regional governments) in Iraq that can provide safety for American troops on their permanent bases and wherever they go throughout the country.
But that somewhat unlikely outcome is far too pallid a dénouement to look like victory to an American audience. In fact, that’s one big reason Bush’s public support has eroded enough to force him to make compromises: He’s a war president who can no longer promise to actually win the war.
A Test of Character
A good plot raises the right question, one that keeps the people in the theater because they care deeply about the answer. In the battle of narratives, this administration, no matter how crippled, still knows what the right question is.
When it comes to
The administration's story might seem to
turn on a question with little more mobilizing power: Can American troops
succeed in reducing violence in
Bush raised that question in the opening words of his recent address: “In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.” And he offered the answer many want to hear -- even if not, at the moment, from him -- in his closing words: “Support our troops in a fight they can win.”
That has, of course, been the basic plot
of Bush’s Global War on Terrorism. Since September 11, 2001, he and his
speechwriters have been telling a story whose hero is not, in fact, a president
or a general, or any individual, but “
In Bush’s story, as long as
To pass the test,
Millions more wish they could. If they
are old enough, many remember a time when they did -- before
Because the Iraqis have proven so recalcitrantly unwilling to play the defeated enemy in the
theater of battle -- and the Iraqi situation has grown so complex -- the Bush
administration has been left with little choice but to blame all evil on
al-Qaeda, in Iraq and elsewhere. As a
White House official told a Washington Post reporter, at least Americans “know
what that means. The average person doesn't understand why the Sunnis and Shia don't like each other. They don't know where the Kurds
live… And al-Qaeda is something they know. They're the enemy of the
In such a script, our protectors, who
embody the character of
“Supporting our troops” is not about helping individual soldiers to live better lives or even making their lives safer. It’s about supporting a morality play in which the lead actor, “our troops,” represents all the virtues that so many believe -- or wish they could believe -- “America” possesses, giving us the privilege and obligation of directing all that happens on the world stage.
Bush staged yet another performance of that morality play on September 13, ending with the almost obligatory tragic message from grieving parents: “We believe this is a war of good and evil and we must win ... even if it cost the life of our own son. Freedom is not free.” That sums up the essence of the drama. Coming from people whose child is dead, it’s seems like a show stopper. What else can you say?
The Democrats Read from a Thin Script
In response to the President’s Petraeus address, the Democrats’ answer man, Senator Jack
Reed, did not actually have much to say. He did make it clear that, when it
comes to war and the military, he’s a lot more in touch with reality than the President. “I was privileged to serve in the United
States Army for 12 years,” Reed said modestly. He might have added that he was
But like so many Democrats, including
legless former Senator Max Cleland and
The Democrats’ story does embody positive values. It calls us to act on the old American tradition of pragmatism, where the only question that matters is: “Is it working?” If it’s not working, you try something else that can get the job done. But Reed failed even to suggest what that something else might be.
In a battle between stories, it’s often not enough to attack the incumbent’s ineptitude. As John F. Kennedy, another Democrat with a real-life war record, knew, you also have to tell a satisfying tale about moving forward onto a new frontier, where you can pass that test of character and become a profile in courage. Heroism makes for a more alluring story than timidity every time.
So, even if the practical side of Americanism screams out, “Leave the theater, now!”, there is still a powerful impulse to stay glued to our seats until the bugles sound, the cavalry charges, and our side wins the day.
The Democrats sense that. They sense that opposition to the war is spread wide but not necessarily deep; that public opinion might, at least to some extent, still be turned by a well-produced show -- as the marginal poll gains of the President among Republican audiences in the last two months have indicated. They fear that, if they truly lead the way to the exits, they might turn around one day to find less than half the voters following. That’s why so many of them -- and all too many Republicans as well -- are afraid to act on what they know is right.
The Show Must Go On
The great debate about
All theater, all storytelling, rests on the power of illusion and the willing suspension of disbelief. Bush and the Republicans give millions of doubters a chance to suspend their post-Vietnam disbelief in traditional tales of American character; the Democrats give millions of doubters a chance to suspend their disbelief that the will of the people can make any difference. The two parties join together to give the whole nation a chance to believe that a fierce debate still rages about whether or not to end the war. That political show we can expect it to go on at least until Election Day, 2008.
And we can expect both parties, and the media who keep the show going, to abide by an unspoken agreement that one kind of question will never be asked, because the tension it raises might be unbearable: Is it moral for our troops to occupy another country for years, bomb its cities and villages, and kill untold numbers of people halfway across the planet? If the script ever makes room for that question, we’ll be able to watch -- and participate in -- a far more profound debate about the war.
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