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A Chance to Retrieve History

Posted on Jan 19, 2007
Roger Morris

Roger Morris, who served on the senior staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, knows a thing or two about the folly of escalation. In this must-read essay, the award-winning historian reminds us that a military’s unwillingness to admit defeat and a president’s desire for victory are no excuse for the lives wasted on a futile vision of conquest.

Green Institute:

One of the books in the backdrop of the White House Library must have been on quantum physics.  As President George W. Bush stood awkwardly at his podium Wednesday night, nervously drawing breaths at each sentence as he began his long-awaited speech [on] Iraq, Washington’s parallel universes seemed to crowd the room.

I used to go to that library often, fleeing the commotion of another stationary policy.  It was 1969.  My universe was the National Security Council staff under then-President Richard Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger.  We were fresh from another election in which America voted to end a war.  Yet in another abhorrence of defeat, the familiar lure of some redeeming if only cosmetic victory, we met in secret to plan another escalation.  “I can’t believe,” Kissinger told us, “that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.”  As we plotted a massive blow—the carpet bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong that happened three years later—the war America voted to end was only half over, with only half the dead whose names would fill the long black wall of Washington’s Vietnam Memorial. 

There were other universes then, too.  I sat across from the angry deflecting bravado of another military unable to admit defeat, impotence and its own ample share in the common disaster, officers who became mentors of our puerile power point generals of Mesopotamia.  After I resigned from the White House over the invasion of Cambodia, I saw another universe of careerism, of craven equivocation in a Democratic opposition ever cowed by Republican chauvinism.  I sat then across from maimed Vietnam veterans come to Capitol Hill to scream and murmur for peace, their bodies shaking in rage yet legs and arms strangely still, frozen in paralysis.  Iraq is not Vietnam.  Not just in the far wider geo-political ruin, but in sheer blind repetition of behavior expecting a different result, a mark of madness in nations as in individuals, it is worse.

The universes around Mr. Bush’s speech still tell the story.  There is his, a feast for future biographers.  At one of the most challenging moments in history, we cheered, and choose again, the most ill-equipped president and advisors of the most tragically uninformed and desperately held presumption.  When those who ruled as his regents, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, were dominating the Ford Administration and seeding much of today’s calamity three decades ago in their own universes of ambition, twenty-nine year-old George W. Bush, the lineage’s least fortunate son, was in Midland, Texas, partying heartily and scrounging for some role on the rusty panhandle fringes of the oil business. 

Then the others: In its plush offices, the American Enterprise Institute, so typical of Washington’s think tank warriors so near power, so far from Baghdad and the consequences of their prolix urgings to invade and surge, and now with many Neo-Cons venomously jumping ship, nearly the last of that relentlessly deficient claque, or any other constituency, to tell Mr. Bush what all failed politicians hope to hear, that he still has a chance to retrieve history.

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By Heather Flanagan, January 20, 2007 at 11:23 am Link to this comment
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Wow, Gary. You bring up a great point but in a way that I doubt it will be heard or received any other way than defensively. I wonder if there is a way that your comment could have been stated in such a way that it might actually work toward a solution to the problem you perceive. Or perhaps that was not your intention.

Also, can you share an example of someone who opines in a style of writing you find to be effective?

How can we take steps to overcome this obstacle?

(By the way, I am a big skimmer. I am a wee bit dyslexic and easily distracted so there is a lot of writing that I find too excrutiating to read. Have you read The User Illusion? I slogged through it but I had to reread nearly every sentence, especially in the first chapter.)

I am grateful that there are people such as the author of this writing and yourself trying to make a difference.


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By Grover Hudson, January 19, 2007 at 2:53 pm Link to this comment
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I must agree that this article is badly written, and also unhelpfully set in the framework of ‘parallel universes’. This knowledgeable author should simply write about the apparent similarity between those afraid to admit defeat in Viet-Nam and now in Iraq, and how this fear controlled the policies of the former group, which he knew.

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By Steve Hammons, January 19, 2007 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment
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The comparisons of the Iraq War to the Vietnam War are chilling. There are many other connections between that era and our own.

These are covered in the article below:

Going in circles: Vietnam, Iraq, calls for impeachment

Steve Hammons
American Chronicle
January 12, 2007

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By Quy Tran, January 19, 2007 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment
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I’ve never trusted those who’d served in any Administration under the name of National Security Council Members from the top notch down to the floor. Their essays and their tunes were exactly alike all monkeys’re trying to hide their tails but animals are still beasts.

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By slewis, January 19, 2007 at 1:58 pm Link to this comment
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Jimmy Buffet is popularly portrayed as offering languid language in his tune “Love Song From a Different Point of View.” As I waddled through Morris’ “Widening War” piece, after two or three “universe” shifts, I finally gave in to the authors somewhat tortuous literary style and settled on a theme that this poet, lyricist and historian was simply sharing an Iraq story line from a decidedly different point of view.

Morris’ piece is disjointed, no doubt, but the methodical stance of his report resonates aloud.
There are many moral highways, psychological groundings and cultural and sectarian pulls in this society of ours - that are all tethered to the American war in Iraq.  And if it takes the likes of someone like Morris to probe, prod and unmask the “blank spots” or dark side demons of the politicians, generals and policy makers all bound for glory in pursuit of “victory” in Iraq, then so be it.  I’ll add Morris’ piece to a quiver of unique but still insightful rejoinders relating to analysis and understanding in the Mideast.  On the whole, I enjoyed his story telling and historical sketch.

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By Patrick Story, January 19, 2007 at 11:28 am Link to this comment
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This article is informative for those not already familiar with the contemptable lack of leadership or even decency in the White House. But it is spoiled by its cynical hopelessness. These embittered reflections of an old man are irrelevant to the urgent task of moving forward the impeachment of Bush. In spite of Morris’s evident lack of faith in the American people, it is an indignant electorate that will get us out of this mess when they realize that impeachment is the only remaining alternative. And when Bush is impeached, Cheney and other co-conspirators will soon find it prudent to resign.

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By Heather Flanagan, January 19, 2007 at 10:00 am Link to this comment
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I think you would be interested in this video about Bernie Meyer who has traveled the world portraying Gandhi:

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By Gary Bothe, January 19, 2007 at 9:14 am Link to this comment
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Good analysis—too bad it was so damned hard to read. If one of my students had submitted this writing to me I would have had many complaints about incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and immature attempts at being “literary.” This is the reason I dropped my subscription to Harpers. Their writers could not resist the temptation to say in 4000 words, with many asides, digressions and convoluted constructions what could have been said plainly in 1000 words and with much greater effect. No wonder the average voter thinks with his glands—he can’t follow the argument advanced in this style of writing.

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