Earlier in the week we learned that at least 20 Iraqis were killed in and around Baghdad, victims of “insurgents and death squads” within a “vicious sectarian turf war.” Yesterday, an Iraqi army convoy lost 5 people to a roadside bomb.
Meanwhile, in advance of the signing of an accord between Iraq and the U.S. military which assigned control of the Iraqi armed forces from U.S. command to Iraqi command — a move necessitated by drifting domestic political support for the U.S. presence in Iraq — President Bush and his team nevertheless put a tough face on the Iraq war, declaring that Al Qaeda terrorists now consider Iraq “the central front” of a war that they hope will end in a “caliphate” governed by the dictates of “violent Islamic radicalism” across the entire Middle East, likening Osama bin Laden to Hitler and the war in Iraq to World War II. The subtext of the latter point is ‘you people ought to be ashamed of yourselves for not having the guts to stand up to this global threat the way your grandparents and great-grandparents stood up to Hitler.’ Secretary Rumsfeld has been all subtext of late.
Although it is easy to be cynical about the political dimension of such messages, on bad days I am inclined to believe that we are fighting World War III. It’s just a shame that we’ve been fighting it with a Vietnam economy. Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” approach to Vietnam showed us that the principal pitfall of not asking the American public to make a personal financial sacrifice to a conflict is that people will not invest themselves in its outcome. In that regard, the thing that plays hollow in the Bush administration’s criticism of our patriotism is that the Bush administration has done it’s damnedest to avoid a total commitment of our national resources to fighting the war on terrorism. It’s “guns and butter” on a grand scale — more like “guns and your choice of twelve boutique flavored-butters, including asparagus-asiago butter, cajun shrimp butter, mesquite-ranchero butter, Peruvian mountain goat butter . . .”
What have we been asked to sacrifice? During World War II, we instituted something very close to a “pay as you go” system for paying for the mobilizing industry and building the war machine — everyone, including the wealthy, paid more in taxes, and everyone bought war bonds. We rationed gasoline, meat, butter and coffee in the service of the war effort. We supported manufacturing on U.S. soil. We had a draft, and by the end of 1942, the U.S. Army alone had 5.4 million soldiers. Everyone knew someone in the fight. Patriotism naturally grew out of the shared experience of sacrifice, as well as the collective role our ancestors all played in the nation’s campaign for preparedness.
This is a far cry from current circumstances, in which the Chinese are essentially funding all of our war efforts and the rest of our governmental operations through their purchases of American bonds; we have approximately 2 to 3 million troops in all of our armed forces, huffing and puffing through redeployment after redeployment; we build our military equipment in third-world countries because its cheaper for our corporate citizens to do business that way; we encourage our overextended consumers to buy on credit and use gasoline like there’s no tomorrow; we fail to fund, for example, the $21 billion in equipment necessary to make our 34 Army National Guard brigades minimally combat ready; and yet, at the same time, we’re trying to make certain wealth-oriented tax cuts “permanent.”
Without a pinch of sacrifice, the vast majority of American lives in their day-to-day components differ little from the way they were before 9/11. We sleep comfortably, dress up, drive our cars to work, splurge on expensive toys, plan vacations . . . nothing much has changed. Is there any wonder that we lack resolve when someone says there’s a war to fight?
Both sides of the aisle share some blame here. If the Democrats were smart — and they haven’t been for about a decade — the essence of their foreign policy argument would be that for us to fight a real war on terror, we need a comprehensive strategy that includes a domestic economic plan oriented toward preparedness. They would level with us and actually require real sacrifices from all of us — on a national, equalitarian scale of the kind we witnessed during World War II. Until either party steps up to the plate and does that, I’m afraid, our escapade in Iraq will likely continue to be a political quagmire as well as a tactical one. And if you’re going to question whether I have the guts to support the fight, I’m hoping you’ll first have the guts to ask something important of me. That would be a fair bargain.