May 22, 2013
The Withdrawal Follies
Posted on Jul 26, 2007
Think of this as the future in slo-mo—or, as the Wall Street Journal’s Dreazen and Jaffe put it, “a complete withdrawal from Iraq could take as long as two years if conducted in an orderly fashion.” Not only that, but the military—and so the American media—suddenly discovered the vast amount of stuff that had been flown, or convoyed, into Iraq (mostly in better times) and now somehow had to be returned to sender. As TIME’s Duffy put it, included would be “a good portion of the entire U.S. inventory of tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, trucks and humvees…. They are spread across 15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centers and 10 ammo dumps,” not to speak of “dining halls, office buildings, vending machines, furniture, mobile latrines, computers, paper clips and acres of living quarters.”
Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley caught the enormity of withdrawal this way: “In addition to 160,000 troops…, the U.S. presence in Iraq has ballooned over four years to include more than 180,000 civilians employed under U.S. government contracts—at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 other foreigners and 118,000 Iraqis—and has spread to small ‘cities’ on fortified bases across Iraq.” In fact, such lists turn out never to end—as a series of anxious news reports have indicated—right down to the enormous numbers of port-a-potties that must be disposed of. In such accounts of the overwhelming nature of any withdrawal from a country the Bush administration thought it could make its own, cautionary historical examples are cited by the Humvee-load. (After the First Gulf War, withdrawal from Kuwait took a year under the friendliest of conditions; Afghanistan was hell for the Russians; Vietnam, despite the final scramble, took forever and a day to plan and carry out.) And don’t forget about the need to get rid of the “toxic waste” the Americans have accumulated—that alone is now estimated to take 20 months—or, according to reports, the shortage of aircraft for transport, the cratered, bomb-laden roads on which to convoy everything out, and the possibility that our allies, knowing we’re leaving, may turn on us in a Mad-Max-style future Iraq. Finally, don’t forget something that, until just about yesterday, no one outside of a few arcane military types even knew about—the agricultural inspectors who must certify that everything entering the U.S. is free of “microscopic disease.” And so it goes. Withdrawal, it turns out, is forever.
Of course, much of this is undoubtedly foolishness, though with a serious purpose. It’s meant to turn an unpredictable future into what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once termed a “known known” that can be wielded against those who want to change course in the disastrous present. You want withdrawal? You have an ironclad guarantee that, no matter how bad things might be, it will be so much worse.
Withdrawal, in other words, is fear itself. Sanity is a future that’s essentially the same as the present (with somewhat fewer U.S. troops) and, though no one mentions it, a significantly ramped up ability to bring air power to bear. (On this, the AP’s Hanley has just done two superb, if chilling, reports from the field, the only ones of significance on air power in Iraq since the invasion of 2003. He has revealed that the “surge” of U.S. air strength there may prove far more devastating and long-lasting than the one on the ground.)
In the Vietnam years, the ongoing bloodbath of Vietnam was regularly supplanted in the United States by a predicted “bloodbath” the Vietnamese enemy was certain to commit in South Vietnam the moment the United States withdrew (just as a near-genocidal civil war is now meant to supplant the blood-drenched Iraqi present for which we are so responsible). This future bloodbath of the imagination appeared in innumerable official speeches and accounts as an explanation for why the United States could not leave Vietnam, just as the sectarian bloodbath-to-come in Iraq explains why we must not take steps to withdraw our troops (advisors, mercenaries, crony corporations, and port-a-potties) from that country.
In public discourse in the Vietnam era, this not-yet-atrocity sometimes became the only real bloodbath around and an obsessive focus for some of the war’s opponents within mainstream politics. Antiwar activist Todd Gitlin recalled “the contempt with which [activist Tom] Hayden had told me of a meeting he and Staughton Lynd had with Bobby Kennedy, early in 1967. Kennedy, he said then, had been fixated on the dangers of a ‘bloodbath’ in South Vietnam if the Communists succeeded in taking over.”
But it wasn’t only in the mainstream. Antiwar activists, too, often had to grapple with the expected, predicted horror that always threatened to dwarf the present one—the horror for which, it was implied, they would someday be responsible.
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