Ira Chernus  


A War of Stomach Versus Spine . . . Or heart?



Wanna know the real reason we’re escalating the war in Iraq?  Dick Cheney’s got the answer.  And he’s not keeping it a secret.

A few days after George W. Bush announced the escalation plan, Cheney ventured out of his undisclosed location for an interview in the cozy confines of Fox News. There he explained that we must escalate to prove that we have the “stomach” to fight. He said it five times in just a half an hour. 

The Veep was trying to be polite. He really meant that it’s all about “guts”-- intestinal fortitude. But whether it’s “stomach” or “guts,” the physiological metaphor carries the same message. Fear loosens the muscles in the walls of our stomach and intestines. That’s why we get those fluttery, queasy feelings. Men of courage keep their stomach and intestinal linings firm enough to go on fighting, no matter what the danger.

In a recent speech, Cheney made the point by quoting one of his former bosses:  “We know, as Ronald Reagan did, that ‘no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.’” But mainly men.  Remember, we’re talking about body parts that perform their function well only when they are stiff and rigid.

Back in 1983, when Reagan told us that U.S. troops had saved America by conquering the perilous “red menace” in Grenada, he bragged that America was once again “standing tall.”  Now why would a 72-year-old president be so concerned about “standing tall”?  Maybe the same reason a 65-year-old vice-president would be so concerned about a stiff stomach wall and intestinal fortitude? You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the obvious connection. 

We shouldn’t get carried away with speculation. We can’t see inside Cheney’s mind.  We can’t even know whether his true motive is greed for Iraqi oil.  

If you want to see greed for oil in its naked form, read Recommendations 62 and 63 of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report, the ones dealing with oil.  They can be summed up in one short sentence:  Iraq should do everything possible to boost the profits of the multinational oil corporations.  If it were just about oil, Cheney and all the Bushies could easily have endorsed the ISG Report.

In fact, they rudely rejected it. One ISG member, Leon Panetta, suggested that they would have rejected whatever the ISG recommended, just to show that the administration is not weak. In other words, to show who really has guts.

Though we don’t know Cheney’s thoughts, we do know that he hopes to sell escalation to the American public by turning the war into a show of America’s guts.  He’s betting that, for at least 51% of the public, the psychological appeal of a hard national stance will be stronger than the common sense reasoning that says end the war. 

The Veep’s got history on his side.  Images and metaphors of national strength did get Ronald Reagan elected, twice. They also got Truman, Eisenhower (twice), Kennedy, Nixon (twice), G.H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush (in 2004) elected.  Whenever national security dominates the agenda, the language of firmness and rigidity seems to win the day. 

But the past doesn’t determine the future. History can take unexpected turns. In fact, it may be taking one right now.  For once, most of the Democrats in Congress (along with the more reasonable Republicans) are standing up to the president. They are finally doing what antiwar activists have been urging them to do for years:  showing some backbone, some spine. When you stiffen your spine, you are . . . well, you are standing tall.  And that, it seems, is what opponents of the war want to see in Washington.

Wait a minute.  It looks like we’ve stumbled onto something all Americans can agree on. We all like our body parts tough and hard.  Supporters of the war want a firm stomach and guts. War opponents want stiff spines.  The only thing we disagree on is which body part we care about most.  So here at home it’s the war of stomach versus spine.  But we all seem to stand firm and united against soft, flaccid, yielding body parts. 

Then maybe Cheney is right, after all!  If the language of manly firmness is so appealing even among antiwar activists, it’s bound to strike a resonant chord in the political center. That’s where he hopes to find the 15% he needs to shift from anti to pro-escalation, in order to give the administration majority support.  

If the antiwar movement continues to clamor for more spine and backbone, while dismissing Cheney’s talk of stomach and guts as meaningless rhetoric, we are playing right into his hands.  The language of war is always about men standing firm and tall. As long as the primacy of the firm body parts goes unchallenged, the prowar sentiment will always win out in the end.  

If we want to bring the troops home, and keep them home, we would be well advised to take Cheney’s talk seriously and speak out in praise of other body parts, the parts whose tensile strength requires softness and flexibility:

eyes that can sweep across the horizon and take in the whole picture, not just what Fox wants us to see; 

ears that can hear the truth as well as the lies;

a brain that is flexible enough to track an ever-shifting reality, change with the times, and constantly sort out truth from lies;

veins and arteries that keep all of us red-blooded Americans going, unless they get hardened;

and a heart that is strong and pliant enough to keep pumping blood into the arteries, a heart that is tender enough to feel the pain and suffering of war, a heart that goes out to the victims of the weapons our tax dollars pay for, a heart that is brave enough to stay soft and tender despite all the callous hardness that surrounds us. 

The real choice is not between stomachs and spines. To be an effective peace movement, we must counterbalance all that kind of right-wing talk (which will be with us for the foreseeable future, and probably beyond) with a language that says we get into war when we harden our hearts and minds.

To imagine a world without war, we must imagine a world that values flexible brains and tender hearts more than tough spines and stomachs, a world where firmness may still have a place, but everyone knows that there is no true bravery without soft flexibility.