Waiting For Lt. Calley

Now this is important. After four years of being told that we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut out of patriotism, that we’re supposed to claim happily that black is white and up is down because we need to “support the troops,” and watching a sycophantic press corps that’s only too glad to do so, some very real and substantial cracks are forming in the veneer. The closer we get to election time, the less Bush is going to be able to hold up the pretext of a noble and virtuous struggle that will ultimately lead to secular democracy spreading through the Middle East like kudzu:

“I feel we’re going to be here for years and years and years,” said Lance Cpl. Edward Elston, 22, of Hackettstown, N.J. “I don’t think anything is going to get better; I think it’s going to get a lot worse. It’s going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We’re going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. . . . We’re always going to be here. We’re never going to leave.”

[…]

Several members of the platoon said they were struck by the difference between the way the war was being portrayed in the United States and the reality of their daily lives.

“Every day you read the articles in the States where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s getting better and better,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Snyder, 22, of Gettysburg, Pa. “But when you’re here, you know it’s worse every day.”

Pfc. Kyle Maio, 19, of Bucks County, Pa., said he thought government officials were reticent to speak candidly because of the upcoming U.S. elections. “Stuff’s going on here but they won’t flat-out say it,” he said. “They can’t get into it.”

But although the Post’s article does run counter to the Bush Administration’s official mythology about Iraq, it’s also disturbing in its own way. The soldiers are expressing a lot of frustrations and pessimism that the American public needs to be realistic about, instead of the simplistic visions of our mission as a clear, moral one that will bring the Iraqi people the liberation, peace, and cheap CD’s that they so obviously yearn for. But over and over, the frustration that the soldiers voice is not that with the core idea of the Iraq invasion itself, but with the few restraints that the USA has maintained on its forces:

Kelly, the lance corporal from Alaska, said he understood the need to protect civilians but that the restraints were jeopardizing American lives. “It seems as if they place more value on obeying the letter of the law and sacrificing our lives than following the spirit of the law and getting the job done,” he said of his commanders.

Bell said the Marines’ frustration was understandable but that it was extremely difficult to make a determination of hostile intent following a roadside bombing that might have been detonated by anything from a remote-controlled toy car to a cell phone. “That’s a pretty difficult decision to make for a 19-year-old kid,” he said.

Lance Cpl. Jeremy Kyrk, 21, of Chicago, said the insurgents took advantage of the limitations imposed on U.S. troops. “They don’t give us any leeway, they don’t give us any quarter,” he said. “They catch people and cut their heads off. They know our limits, but they have no limits. We can’t compete with that.”

We’ve heard this before. In the eighties, it was the basis for Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies: we could have won the Vietnam War if only the politicians had stopped holding the soldiers back. In other words, what was wrong with the way we fought the Vietnam War was not that it was an unjust war, or that there was no support for the Americans or the regimes they supported, but that we tried to maintain those things that make us a democracy, ruled by laws instead of authority.

Reading between the lines, I think that although the troops may be dissatisfied and frustrated with the war, there is a lot of sympathy for the methods of Abu Ghraib, and a desire to fight the Iraq war in the spirit of My Lai.

My Lai was one of the things that gave such power to John Kerry’s testimony before Congress in the 70’s. It helped make the things he described seem possible and true. But I fear that the John Kerry who had the courage to speak then is long gone, and that even if elected, and even if we can count on his best intentions, the situation in Iraq is far too much for him to handle.

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