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 The Tragedy of Iraq 

April 27, 2004 
Only a year after defeating Absolute Evil in Iraq, the Bush politburo has decided that some former members of Saddam Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them. Hussein’s Ba’ath Party may be useful in controlling the population the United States has liberated from Saddam’s tyranny.

Whether you find this confusing or amusing depends, I suppose, on your temperament. It’s not unusual, though, for Absolute Evil to become only a relative evil, or even a positive good, after a war. Japan and Germany were Absolute Evil during World War II, but became our valued friends and allies immediately afterward, when our former friend and ally the Soviet Union became Absolute Evil.

When it transpired that the Soviet Union not only was evil but had had many agents on Franklin Roosevelt’s payroll, many Americans were outraged. They felt that hundreds of thousands of young Americans who had perished in the war against the Axis had, as the phrase goes, died in vain. Millions of veterans and their families also felt that their lives had been disrupted for nothing.

It’s perfectly normal and acceptable to complain that politicians waste our money. That’s what politicians are expected to do. But during wartime, it’s considered unpatriotic, and even treasonous, to suggest that they are also wasting lives. Suddenly the politicians whose venality we take for granted become Our Country, and it’s blasphemous to say that Our Country would send our young to die — and kill — from any but the purest motives.

This makes it easier for politicians to face widows and bereaved mothers. It sounds much better to tell a woman that her son has made a noble sacrifice for his country than to admit that you got him killed across the ocean for no good reason. This is why politicians always honor their most unfortunate victims, especially if they want the war to continue.

Lincoln was the master of this technique: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” et cetera.

[Breaker quote: Conservative hubris]And what was “that cause”? Well, first it was squelching secession, or “saving the Union”; later it morphed into destroying slavery too. Either way, the enemy was Absolute Evil.

Whoever or whatever the enemy du jour may be, there is one constant amid these dizzying alterations of purpose: America is Absolute Good, and its cause, which is always freedom, must prevail. The awful alternative is that freedom, democracy, self-government, and all that, will, as Lincoln put it, “perish from the earth.” It all depends on our “resolve,” our willingness to keep sending more boys to fight, in the faith that their deaths will not be in vain.

Americans, as many observers have noticed, lack a sense of tragedy. The idea that war may be futile, or worse, is alien to them. They find it hard to believe that an earnest effort to liberate mankind — to “change the world,” as President Bush puts it — may actually have the reverse effect, making things worse than they were before. Two world wars, both issuing in horrible tyrannies, have failed to cure American optimism about history.

Shakespeare, it seems, has nothing to teach us about the ironic gap between intent and result. If his tragedies show anything, it is that, in the words of one of his great critics, “men may set off a course of events which they can neither calculate nor control.”

Conservatives see how the principle of “unintended consequences” dooms domestic social programs to failure; but they fail to see how the same principle applies to war. They expect war, alone among government projects, to be efficient in achieving its goals; they are reluctant to admit failure, preferring to believe that more force will produce success.

And so, as the tragedy of the Iraq war deepens, Americans — the ones who count, anyway — see no tragedy, least of all a tragedy of their own making. They see only villainy frustrating their designs. First there was the villainy of Saddam Hussein, now the villainy of loosely defined “terrorists,” and of course the villainy of others — Spaniards, liberals, “Old Europe” — who won’t “stay the course.”

Thousands of years ago, the story tells us, Greek armies set out to retrieve a Grecian queen who had eloped to Troy. That was going to be a cakewalk too.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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