US captivated in the theater of war

By Ira Chernus

A week has passed since President George W Bush announced that US troops will stay in Iraq in “a security engagement that extends beyond my presidency”. Last spring, those words would have evoked howls of protest from Democratic leaders. Now, scarcely a peep.

While the world was on August vacation, Republican and Democratic leaders moved toward a compromise. The outlines are clear enough: some US troops will start leaving Iraq soon, but tens of thousands will stay on indefinitely with a permanent mission of providing something called “overwatch”. This open-ended “Korea model” seems to be a done deal. About the only issue left to debate is how fast the “transition” should happen, how quickly the troops that aren’t staying should be “redeployed”.

Peace activists who despair of the spineless Democrats should keep in mind that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have compromised, too. In his most recent speech, just six years and two days after he became the United States’ tough-as-nails “war president”, the Decider announced that he has decided to do what many Democrats and the peace movement have been demanding – begin getting troops out of Iraq.

Yes, the numbers will be so pitifully small that many already claim they are meaningless. Nonetheless, it’s a major shift in Bush’s narrative. And that counts for something all too real, because the debate is hardly about policy any more. It’s mainly about the stories we tell about policy – and about “America”. Perhaps it always was.

Every war is bound to turn into a story. Every war is experienced as dramatic spectacle – the more mythic the better. It’s no coincidence that the military refers to a battle zone as a “theater”.
Political “battles” are high drama, too. On the campaign trail, the most gripping plot usually wins. In that context, a debate about the math of minimalist “drawdown” – how many troops should leave and how soon – is hardly the stuff of legend, the sort of thing to fuel public passions. And yet the two major parties have to conjure up the illusion of a profound, emotionally stirring difference between them. So they turn a debate like the present one about troop numbers and time frames into a contest between larger competing narratives.

Last spring, with Bush’s “troop surge” plan seemingly floundering, it looked as if the Democrats were winning that contest. Then, over the summer, the Bush administration began to catch up – and not just by accident. According to the Washington Post:

Ed Gillespie, the new presidential counselor, organized daily conference calls at 7:45am and again late in the afternoon [among] the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the US Embassy and military in Baghdad to map out ways of selling the surge. From the start of the Bush plan, the White House communications office had been blitzing an e-mail list of as many as 5,000 journalists, lawmakers, lobbyists, conservative bloggers, military groups and others with talking points or rebuttals of criticism. Between January 10 and [early September], the office put out 94 such documents.

Call it a surge of words on the home front. But mounting a publicity blitz, no matter how well funded, is no guarantee of success. You have to put on a show good enough to sell tickets and elicit applause. So why did the pro-war show draw a big enough audience (at least among beleaguered Republicans) that many key Democrats, frustrated by congressional voting math and frightened for the 2008 electoral future, began to wave the flag of compromise – and so few Republican senators were willing to support even the Democrats’ halfway measures?

A war president who can’t win the war
Part of the answer is revealed in the most astounding polling figure of recent weeks. A New York Times poll asked, “[Whom] do you trust the most with successfully resolving the war in Iraq?” In response, only 5% of those polled gave the nod to the Bush administration, just 21% to Congress, but fully 68% – more than two out of three – plunked for “the military”.

Once again, the top-rated show of the season is evidently that all-time favorite, “The Military Saves the Day”, a sequel to the smash hit of the past several seasons, “Support Our Troops”. No wonder the White House brought its hero and “surge” commander, General David Petraeus, onstage for the final scene in this act of a seemingly never-ending drama. No wonder Bush used the general as cover not only for continuing the war, but for making his own shadowy compromises in his September 13 address to the nation (which, by the way, drew a far smaller audience than his last major speech introducing his “surge” plan, or “new way forward”, on January 10).

“General Petraeus recommends that in December, we begin transitioning to the next phase of our strategy,” Bush said. “Our troops will focus on a more limited set of tasks.” It was as if, all of a sudden, the newly four-starred general, and not the president, were now the commander-in-chief.

For White House scriptwriters, there was certainly another reason to give the general the leading role in this scene from the administration’s home-front Iraq drama. He has actually seen something of the reality of war. Everyone knows that Bush (like Cheney and others high in the current administration) studiously – even notoriously – avoided the real theater of battle. With his wartime credibility always somewhat suspect, all Bush can offer is an illusion spun out of dramatic words.

Bush and his writers also made compromises in their storyline. The ringing language of past years about bringing “freedom” to Iraq and the Middle East, though not completely absent, was far more muted this time around. Instead of spreading good tidings about a US mission to liberate the world, the main theme of Bush’s Petraeus speech was a reprise of another close-to-home classic: “The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States.” The post-September 11, 2001, narrative – defending America against those who would destroy us – had again taken center stage.

No facts are available to indicate that the war in Iraq is making Americans safer, as Petraeus himself admitted. So the president’s claim made no sense – not, that is, if you were measuring his argument against facts or logic. But don’t fool yourself, it made fine sense as a good old-fashioned American yarn: the band of brothers righteously defending themselves against evildoers who will annihilate us if we don’t annihilate them first.

There is, however, one crucial piece of that old American yarn that Bush now has no choice but to play down – the piece that says the good guys always win, unconditionally. After years of announcing that victory was at hand, or at least claiming that he had a surefire strategy for victory, he can no longer tell that part of the story because no one will believe it anymore. In his latest speech, the word “victory” – which he once used 15 times in a single speech – was missing in action, replaced by the far less martial, so much less triumphant word “success”.

The “Korea model”, that more than half-century of garrisoning the southern part of that country after a stalemated war, lets us know what “success” is supposed to mean: a government (or a set of regional governments) in Iraq that can provide safety for US troops on their permanent bases and wherever they go throughout the country.

But even that hard-to-imagine outcome would be far too pallid a denouement to look like victory to a US audience. In fact, that’s one big reason Bush’s public support has eroded enough to force him to make compromises. He’s a war president who can no longer promise actually to win the war.

A test of character
A good plot raises the right question, one that keeps people in the theater because they care deeply about the answer. In the battle of narratives, the Bush administration, no matter how crippled, still knows what the right question is.

When it comes to Iraq, in recent months, Democratic scriptwriters have indeed spotlighted a question: Can inept Iraqi politicians succeed in getting their act together when brave Americans give them the time to do so? It’s just not the right question from a storytelling point of view. Few Americans really care about the performance of a faction-torn foreign government on the other side of the world.

The Bush administration’s story might seem to turn on a question with little more mobilizing power: Can American troops succeed in reducing violence in Iraq? But behind that question – and General Petraeus’s elaborate charts on the metrics of violence in that country – Republicans build dramatic tension by raising a very different question, which really does matter to a sizable part of the US audience. Does the United States have the “character” or the “stomach” – Dick Cheney’s favorite word – to keep on fighting evil until something that can plausibly be called “success” is conjured out of the dusty air of Iraq?

Bush raised that question in the opening words of his recent address: “In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.” And he offered the answer many want to hear – even if not, at the moment, from him – in his closing words: “Support our troops in a fight they can win.”

That has, of course, been the basic plot of Bush’s “war on terror”. Since September 11, he and his speechwriters have been telling a story whose hero is not, in fact, a president, or a general, or any individual, but “America” – with all the world, by rights, its stage.

In Bush’s story, as long as America is strutting across that stage, playing the lead with a commanding tone, fighting evil at every turn, Americans can feel like winners and heroes. All of this is supposed to be not an American ego trip, but a classic test of character.

Only by defeating evil enemies, in Bush’s tale, can you prove you have character. It’s the old story of victory culture, and millions of Americans still believe in it.

Millions more wish they could. If they are old enough, many remember a time when they did – before Vietnam. Failure in Vietnam cast into doubt all the old American verities about heroism, character, and national direction. It left many wondering whether the old stories could ever be played out again on the stage of American life – and feeling remarkably good, after September 11, 2001, when victory in war seemed once again to become the finale of the national drama. The growing feeling since that “Iraq” is Arabic for “Vietnam” has, of course, been devastating to any sense of fated US triumph. Yet millions of doubters must still yearn to believe in an American story that ends with good defeating evil on some planetary frontier.

Because the Iraqis have proved so unwilling to play the role of defeated enemy in the theater of battle – and the Iraqi situation has grown so complex – the Bush administration has been left with little choice but to blame all evil on al-Qaeda, in Iraq and elsewhere. As a White House official told a Washington Post reporter, at least Americans “know what that means. The average person doesn’t understand why the Sunnis and Shi’ites don’t like each other. They don’t know where the Kurds live … And al-Qaeda is something they know. They’re the enemy of the United States.”
In such a script, our protectors are “the troops”, the ultimate symbol and proof of America’s character. The most powerful weapon of war supporters has long been the question, raised with appropriate self-righteousness: “Don’t you support our troops?” The politically correct anti-war answer almost has to be: “Yes. That’s why I want to bring them home.” As it happens, though, such a response has had little effect because it misses the point.

“Supporting our troops” is not about helping individual soldiers to live better lives or, for that matter, making their lives safer. It’s about supporting a morality play in which the lead actor, “our troops”, represents all the virtues that so many Americans believe – or wish they could believe – their country possesses, giving them the privilege (and obligation) of directing all that happens on the world stage.

Bush put on yet another performance of that morality play on September 13, ending with the almost obligatory tragic message from grieving parents: “We believe this is a war of good and evil and we must win … even if it cost the life of our own son. Freedom is not free.” That sums up the essence of the drama. Coming from people whose child is dead, it seems like a show-stopper. What else can you say?

The Democrats read from a thin script
In response to Bush’s Petraeus address, the Democrats’ answer man, Senator Jack Reed, did not actually have much to say. He did make it clear that when it comes to war and the military, he’s a lot more in touch with reality than the president. “I was privileged to serve in the United States Army for 12 years,” Reed said modestly. He might have added that he was a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and an officer in the famed 82nd Airborne Division.

But like so many Democrats, including legless former senator Max Cleland and Vietnam veteran John Kerry, he found himself mysteriously unable to turn his real-life experience into an effective post-September 11 narrative. A powerful drama creates a world of its own, one that can easily feel more real than reality. Even after so many years of disaster and so much repetition, against Bush’s rich drama, Reed could still offer only a thin script with feeble characters, little if any plot, and no sense of direction. Mostly he carped at the commander-in-chief of what the Democrats themselves acclaim to be the finest fighting force in the world. So he left his party open to the same criticism thrown at ’60s radicals: “You only know what you’re against. You don’t know what you’re for.”

The Democrats’ story does embody positive values. It calls on Americans to act in an old US tradition of pragmatism, where the only question that matters is: “Is it working?” If it’s not working, you try something else that might actually get the job done. But Reed never even suggested what that something else might be.

In a battle between stories, it’s often not enough to attack the incumbent’s ineptitude. As John F Kennedy, another Democrat with a real-life war record, knew, you also have to tell a satisfying tale about moving on to a new frontier, where you can pass that test of character and become a profile in courage. Heroism makes for a more alluring story than timidity every time.

So, even if the practical side of Americanism screams out, “Leave the theater, now!” there is still a powerful impulse to stay glued to our seats until the bugles sound, the cavalry charges, and our side wins the day.

The Democrats sense that. They sense as well that opposition to the war is spread wide but not necessarily deep; that public opinion might, at least to some extent, still be turned by a well-produced show – as the marginal poll gains of President Bush among Republican audiences in the past two months have indicated. The Democrats fear that if they truly lead the way to the exits, they might turn around one day to find fewer than half the voters following. That’s why so many of them – and all too many Republicans as well – are afraid to act on what they know is right.

The show must go on
The great debate about Iraq is not, and never really was, about what the US should do in Iraq. No matter how many Iraqis have died or become refugees thanks to the Bush intervention, they remain largely ignored bit players in America’s central drama, which is, and always was, about what we will make of America. Now, the outcome of that debate is coming more clearly into view, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The compromise the two parties are hammering out on Iraq policy reflects a deeper compromise the public seems to be groping toward on national identity – between who they are in reality (pragmatic, if sidelined, civilians who know a war is badly lost and want to end it) and who they are in their imaginations (heroic soldiers proving their character in the theater of war).

All theater, all storytelling, rests on the power of illusion and the willing suspension of disbelief. Bush and the Republicans have repeatedly given millions of doubters a chance to suspend their post-Vietnam disbelief in traditional tales of American character; the Democrats have given millions of doubters a chance to suspend their disbelief that the will of the people can make any difference whatsoever. The two parties join together to give the whole nation a chance to believe that a fierce debate still rages about whether or not to end the war. That political show we can expect to go on at least until election day 2008.

And we can expect both parties, and the media that keep the show going, to abide by an unspoken agreement that one kind of question will never be asked, because the tension it raises might be unbearable: Is it moral for US troops to occupy another country for years, bomb its cities and villages, and kill untold numbers of people halfway across the planet? If the script ever makes room for that question, we’ll be able to watch – and participate in – a far more profound debate about the war.

Ira Chernus, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted at

(Copyright 2007 Ira Chernus.)