American Cannibalism

We are doing to ourselves what the enemy could not.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Have we any memory of a man in a suit and tie, nearly three years ago wading through the din and panic amid the morning rubble, assuring millions of stunned Americans that the national headquarters of their armed forces was still intact and capable of defending us after the mass murder of 3,000? And have we no shame in recognizing that should some congressional critics and Washington harpies get their way, Americans will accomplish what bin Laden’s suicide bombers could not on September 11: remove America’s finest Secretary of Defense in a half century?

The idea that anyone would suggest that Donald Rumsfeld — and now Richard Meyers! — should step down, in the midst of a global war, for the excesses and criminality of a handful of miscreant guards and their lax immediate superiors in the cauldron of Iraq is absurd and depressing all at once.

What would we think now if George Marshall had been forced out on news that 3,000 miles away George S. Patton’s men had shot some Italian prisoners, or Gen. Hodges’s soldiers summarily executed German commandoes out of uniform, or drivers of the Red Ball express had raped French women? Should Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell have been relieved from his command for the February 12-13, 1991, nocturnal bombing of the Al Firdos compound in Baghdad, in which hundreds of women and children of Baathist loyalists were tragically incinerated and pictures of their corpses broadcast around the world, prompting the United States to cease all further pre-planned and approved attacks on the elite in Saddam’s bunkers throughout Baghdad? Of course not.


Rumsfeld and Meyers have presided over two amazingly successful wars. In an aggregate of 11 weeks, and at the tragic cost of 700 combat dead, the American military defeated the two worst regimes in the Middle East and stayed on to implant democratic change where no such idea has ever existed. Had anyone envisioned, say in 1999, that the United States could do such a thing — that Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar would both be out of power, and that governing councils would be there in their place — he would have been dismissed as unhinged. What they are attempting to do is not to keep some psychopath “in his box” or lob over cruise missiles. The latter are palliative but ultimately solely punitive measures that kill a few hundred or thousand anonymous Middle Easterners and keep the nasty business off the evening news, thus in the long term inciting rather than solving the problem.

No, the transformation of Afghanistan and Iraq has always been the most audacious, the most dangerous, and, yes, the most idealistic American effort since the end of World War II — one that alone had the chance of ending the quarter-century-long terrorist assault against the United States. And these necessary measures were not “cooked up in Texas,” but rather inexplicable apart from the murder of 3,000 Americans.

We scream now about the lack of planning for the occupation, forgetting entirely that Iraq is not quite like any other post-bellum situation in history. We also forget that it was liberated almost fifteen months after Afghanistan, which is logically further along in its path to reconstruction.

Winners usually loot the infrastructure of the losing side. They are rarely confronted with the sudden specter of the defeated carting away their own national treasure at the first sign of magnanimity, while global television both damns the Americans for allowing it to happen and warns them not to “shoot civilians” to prevent it. Most of Europe was happy enough with a “secular” Saddam Hussein, an embargoed and desperate thug who could only pay for his imported junk by mortgaging his oil fields to French and Russian consortia. Even the U.N. “humanists” made money off of him at the expense of his hungry citizenry.

Yet the much-deferred-to “Iraqi people” were not quite enemies or friends. They were victims of Saddam’s mass murder, of course, but also once upon a time in Kuwait they were happy to loot, rape, and kill themselves. Someone besides Saddam Hussein, after all, killed a million of their own. They wanted liberation from on high, but not necessarily by the U.S., the infidel supporter of Israel and a devastatingly lethal enemy that had wrought havoc on their conscript armies in 1991 and 1999. Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas in Baghdad, al Qaedists in Kurdistan, and over a decade of contacts between Saddam Hussein’s and bin Laden’s intelligence operatives were not to count as evidence of Saddam’s “support for terrorism.” By the same token, we are not to say anything of some 5-6 million Kurds who have a democratic republic and are quite happy with their salvation through American intervention and support.

Have we forgotten that millions in the neighborhood — from the Palestinians to the Gulf sheikdoms — were delighted about news of September 11? Or that the region’s twenty-something autocracies were terrified of us in Iraq, fearing that, should we succeed, they risked losing their own illegitimate regimes? Winning “hearts and minds” did not entail preserving preexisting good will, much less losing what was not there, but rather wading into a swamp of tribal hatred, gender apartheid, endemic anti-Semitism, and Soviet-era brutality whose only decades-long constant was blaming the United States for self-induced miseries.

Yes, there are thousands of prisoners in the jails of Iraq — but not hundreds of thousands in recent graves. And that is precisely because the warcraft of Rumsfeld and Meyers was rightly targeted, measured, and humane — and even in war did not seek massive annihilation of the enemy (although, in the brutal arithmetic of war, that ensures a better chance of successful occupation later on).

We do not know how many of the abused, tortured, and humiliated prisoners in the war’s aftermath either belonged to the cohort of 100,000 felons let loose by Saddam on the eve of the war or were part of the Hussein death machine or themselves were recent killers who had assassinated and blown apart Americans. We only know that thousands were arrested, not executed, and the vast majority treated decently by the vast majority of Americans.

The amazing thing remains not that we have seen a depressing year of chaos, but that the forces of change are still in our favor after all of our setbacks and often mistaken assumptions. In Iraq, regardless of what The New Yorker or theNew York Times attests, the stuff of life — electricity, water, food — is far more accessible than before. We see nightly bombings and chaos, but even CNN cannot hide in its background shots stores open, people speaking freely on the street, and the economy taking off.

Most Iraqis will grasp that the Baathist prisoners, a few of whom used to torture and kill them, nevertheless will have their treatment scrutinized as never before under confinement — and that Americans found culpable in not ensuring decency will be court-martialed or relieved as they should be and in a way not done in the Middle East. And that message, now lost, will prove all the more powerful six months from now. We might not have much confidence in the Iraqi government to come, but there will be an Iraqi government in less than two months. That fact alone will be of enormous importance, as the shrill threats of al Qaeda attest; they are not so sure of success in waging a war against kindred Arabs crafting the region’s first democracy.

So in this election-year carping, we worry only about what we are doing, never the enemy, whose problems are legion and growing. Indeed, there are two constants in this war: Every time the United States engages the enemy it wins, and every time Iraqis are given a chance at a secure, peaceful local election they act responsibly and eschew candidates of violence and hate. Unless those facts change, America will win the peace. If we will fight more aggressively in the shadows while the new government basks in the light of success, the miracle of Iraq will come to pass — and it simply would not have without the likes of a Donald Rumsfeld.


Have we forgotten the world before September 11? It was not all certain that going to Afghanistan was preordained, much less the rapid fall of the Taliban — reread the use of “quagmire” and its kindred language of doom after the first few weeks of war by experts on the New York Times opinion pages. Those on the left said victory was impossible; those on the right said we were losing due to far too few troops. We ridicule Guantanamo before the cameras; but so far the facts are that al Qaeda detainees there wished to bring us more September 11s and so far there have been no more — and all with careful treatment of very inhumane killers.

Yet Rumsfeld’s Special Forces and air power really did win the war, and Afghanistan is now more secure with far fewer troops than is Iraq. A new policy toward North Korea; a mature sobriety about the post-Cold War European hypocrisy of wanting continued protection without even the simulacra of responsible partnership; a new honesty with South Korea — all this is due largely to Donald Rumsfeld. Add the Libyan turn-around, Dr. Khan’s confessions, troops out of Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian worry about new scrutiny — all dividends from his acceptance of the world as it is rather than what we used to dream it to be. The Democratic leadership asking for his scalp should spell out exactly how the U.N. representative in Iraq is not de facto U.N. participation, how the paltry NATO contingent in Afghanistan is proof that Europe will help if asked to join a truly multilateral coalition, and what exactly they would have done differently in the war that the vast majority of them voted for and funded.

The irony of the prison scandal is that the military blew its whistle on its own. When the senators woke up (having ignored a public press conference announcing the transgressions months ago), an exhaustive Pentagon dossier had already been prepared for their perusal. It is a report, an investigation, a prosecutorial brief if you will, but not yet a definitive conclusion based on trial testimony and transcripts of the convictions of the guilty.

We will soon learn — but as yet are not sure — whether these reprehensible photographs captured ongoing brutality in medias res and were thus mere artifacts of the systematic and greater horror at hand, or were in fact the chief reason to be of the grotesque acts — posed, late-night, and secretive friezes of staged humiliation by a few to serve as photographic warnings to bluff and coerce information from other prisoners. Either way, it was terribly, terribly wrong, but such important details and other disturbing questions — Which military officers knew? Why were so many women involved? What was the exact role of non-military interrogators? — are simply as yet unknown. Sometimes pictures are not worth a 1,000 words.

Very liberal people in Washington are calling for heads to roll in lieu of court proceedings and cross-examinations. Much of the angst that sent senators to the capitol steps microphones derives from their own surprise and the sensationalism of the pictures — images that put these media-savvy legislators first to shame, then to the recognition that this is an election year in which bottled piety is at a premium. They know that there is little to be gained from reminding Americans that there are now thousands of brave soldiers fighting horrific enemies in a professional and highly successful manner. The last one to damn the fewest receives the least air time. In this context, the behavior of Senator Kennedy the last few months is the real metaphor of our times.


One final jarring scene from the televised spectacles was the image of the lone, beleaguered Joe Lieberman calling for patience and sobriety, and worried about our troops in the field and the pulse of the war. This decent and honest man reminds us of what the present party of Ted Kennedy and Terry McAuliff used to be. The confidence of a Truman, JFK, and Scoop Jackson — caricatured now for dropping the bomb, a fiery “pay-any-price” speech, and heating up the Cold War — is now nowhere to be found.

This is a vital point, because either this year or sometime in the next decade a Democratic administration may well take the reins of power and in matters of national security it will be far to the left of the Liebermans of the world. And the disturbing events that we saw in the 1990s — constant appeasement of Middle East terrorists and their national sponsors, the emergence of a nuclear Pakistan and North Korea, sudden withdrawal from messy places like Mogadishu, a jetting special envoy Jimmy Carter — will return, though made worse through the prism of the present fury over Iraq.

If it were not so tragic it would be ironic to see what the present prescient critics are going to say — much less do — when they confront the hideous reality that Iran and perhaps Syria will have acquired nuclear weapons and with them the ability, without a neighboring nuclear India staring them down, to blackmail most of the Middle East and the oil-hungry world at large.

We will soon learn what Middle Eastern nuclear honor, atomic loss of face, or radioactive jihad really means. Most who now damn unilateralism and preemption won’t find their beloved but shaken U.N., EU, or NATO at their side. More likely there will come a day when in exasperation they will call up someone like Don Rumsfeld for advice — albeit in silence and off the record.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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