Friday, June 24, 2005

Trading Places
If Baghdad is Valley Forge, who exactly are the Redcoats?

Dismayed by polls showing sixty percent of Americans want to withdraw some or all US troops from Iraq, conservative columnist David Brooks makes the case for staying the course in a recent New York Times op-ed piece . Brooks draws analogy to the situation in the Middle East from a time of struggle and uncertainty in US history:

"There's a reason George Washington didn't take a poll at Valley Forge. There are times in the course of war when the outcome is simply unknowable. Victory is clearly not imminent, yet people haven't really thought through the consequences of defeat. Everybody just wants the miserable present to go away."

He goes on to argue that, while the overall trajectory of the occupation is still unpredictable, progress is being made in stabilizing and democratizing Iraq. He says the "consequences of defeat" would be "vast" and urges skeptics on the left and right to support the occupation in the name of democracy or, incredibly, "American power and prestige."

There's certainly no arguing that, if you're an Iraqi, the present has been pretty miserable for the last 25 years. First there was the war with Iran, during which the US supported and encouraged Saddam through some of his worst atrocities. In addition to being hellaciously bloody, the war also dessimated what had once been a prosperous nation. Then there was the first Gulf War, followed by 12 years of UN sanctions which devastated the Iraqi people while strengthening Saddam's hold on power. Then another war and an occupation which, while getting rid of a maniac tyrant, has turned the nation into a magnet for foreign terrorists.

What's most interesting about this passage, though, is the comparison to Washington at Valley Forge.

Washington arrived at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in December of 1777. The Continental Army was a shambles. Many soldiers had neither shoes nor uniform. Exposure and starvation were concerns throughout the terrible winter, during which 2,500 soldiers - nearly a fifth of Washington's Army - perished. " . . . you might have tracked the army from White Marsh to Valley Forge by the blood of their feet," Washington wrote. He chose to camp on the banks of the Schuykill River, though, because it was an excellent location from which to harass the British, and to keep them from advancing farther into Pennsylvania while staying safely out of reach of a major engagement.

The British, on the other hand, were doing quite well. The dominant military power of the 18th century, the British had whipped the Yanks at Brandywine and Germantown and were in possession of the continental capital, Philadelphia. The Continental Congress had fled to York. The Yank army was eating shoe leather (if that) in the frigid wilderness.

Flash forward a couple of hundred years. In FY 2004, the US military budget was $466 billion (including appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan). The rest of the world? Around $500 billion. To put this in perspective, at the height of the empire, it was British policy that the Royal Navy outnumber the world's next two largest navies combined. Today, the United States military is plainly the best equipped, most technologically advanced, best trained and most lethal armed force on the planet.

In the Iraqi capital of Baghdad today, American commanders, contractors and administrators sit behind the massive blast walls of the Green Zone, nation-building over pizza. Saddam Hussein is in jail awaiting trial. Insurgents live in squalor. The only way they can effectively attack US forces is by sacrificing themselves. Even then, civilians, rather than soldiers, are often the victims of their assaults.

Which metaphor seems more appropriate for American forces in Iraq? Washington and his soldiers freezing and starving at Valley Forge, or the British sipping tea thousands of miles from home in the continental capital of Philadelphia?

The comparison to Valley Forge says a lot about how Americans in general and right-wingers in particular view themselves. It can be argued that the United States is the most dominant power in world history (more akin to the Romans than the Nazis or Communists as some on the left have claimed). Yet at heart, we still see ourselves at Valley Forge, battered, barely surviving. Even as occupier, we think of ourselves as under attack by an overwhelming invader we can only beat through faith in God and strength of will.

It's this sort of thinking that lies behind the decision to respond to the atrocities of 19 Arabs armed with boxcutters by staging a $200 billion invasion and occupations of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Even as our power is at its apex, Americans, particularly on the right, feel more threatened than ever. Our enemies are everywhere. No one is safe.

It's telling that the comparison was made by David Brooks, a generally thoughtful commentator. One hears this tone all the time from, say, religious conservatives, screaming about how oppressed Christians are because their kids' science class doesn't use the book of Genesis as a primary text or something. To hear it come from Brooks, though, gives an indication of how deeply feelings of fear and vulnerability are seated in the American mind.


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