Sunday, October 31, 2010

"An age without surrender ceremonies"

Mary L. Dudziak

Here’s a snippet from the book I’m finishing up this fall.  This passage is about what I think of as President Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” moment, and it raises questions about how to think about the role of wartime in American history during a period when wars don’t seem to end.

On August 18, 2010, the conflict in Iraq ended, live on NBC.  “It’s gone on longer than the civil war, longer than World War II,” said NBC news anchor Brian Williams.  “And tonight, U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq.”  The station and its cable affiliate MSNBC broadcast live footage of Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, embedded with the 4th Stryker Brigade, as soldiers drove across the border from Iraq into Kuwait.  “This has been a historical moment that we have just seen,” noted Engle, although the history-making quality of this episode required some explaining.  50,000 American troops were remaining in Iraq, fully armed, and reports of American casualties in Iraq would continue.

On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, progressives’ favorite new media celebrity, explained in her reporting from the Green Zone:  “War’s end like this....They end with a political settlement.”  NBC and its cable affiliate had been given an exclusive ability to cover these events, yet this moment’s ambiguity seemed to necessitate their insistence that this really was an ending of the war.  The evidence that this day was historic came only from the reporters’ insistence that it was historic.  There were no dramatic images like those accompanying the American pullout from Vietnam, with refugees clambering after a departing helicopter on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy.  There were no photographs of the signing of an armistice agreement.  Just troops in trucks.  Maddow said: “As the combat mission ends, that means the war is ending...The combat mission is over; the war is over.”

Then, on August 31, President Obama announced “the end of combat operations in Iraq” in a televised speech to the American people.  As mid-term elections neared, the president sought to turn attention to domestic matters, including a struggling economy.  He called it a “historic moment,” coming after “nearly a decade of war.”  Obama persisted in a rhetorical effort to ratchet back the “war on terror.”  Rather than casting the many years of conflict as a wartime in which the nation battled a militant form of Islam, he instead invoked a more limited set of ideas.  In Obama’s words, President Bush had simply “announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq.” Compared to Bush’s fiery rhetoric at the opening of the Iraq campaign, Obama’s description seemed technocratic.  His delivery was dispassionate.  He seemed more bureaucrat than war leader.  It was as if, rather than declaring an end to violent state-sponsored killings to serve a compelling national interest, he was announcing the close of a bloodless government program.  

Although the nation’s unity was tested during this era, Obama argued, there was one constant:  “At every turn, America’s men and women in uniform have served with courage and resolve.”  American troops had “completed every mission they were given.”  The nature of that mission seemed obscure, but once deployed, the personalization of American war support by the president and others meant that the nation could rally behind its soldiers without engaging the war’s broader purpose and what it may have accomplished.  The pullout of the last combat brigade was simply “a convoy of brave Americans, making their way home.”  Of the members of the Fourth Stryker Brigade who had “made the ultimate sacrifice,” Obama quoted a staff sergeant who said equivocally: to them, “this day would probably mean a lot.”

Even as Obama announced that “the American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” he also said that troops would remain “with a different mission.” It would also have a new name: Operation Iraqi Freedom was replaced by Operation New Dawn.  Just how different the mission would be was clarified when practical questions surfaced.  If combat was over, would American troops no longer be eligible for hostile fire pay, or for combat service medals?  The Army responded with a message to all troops: The “end to combat operations in Iraq” was effective September 1, “however, combat conditions are still prevalent.  Due to the nature of combat conditions, wartime awards will continue to be issued in theater until a date to be determined.”   Other combat service benefits would still be available.  “It is unusual for the Army to come right out and say the emperor has no clothes,” noted reporter Thomas E. Ricks, “but I think it had to in this case, because soldiers take medals seriously.”  And Associated Press pushed back from the White House message.  “Whatever the subject, we should be correct and consistent in our description of what the situation in Iraq is,” said an internal AP memo.  “To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials. The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months.”

Perhaps the paradoxical nature of this ending that was not an ending explains the absence in Obama’s speech of the president’s usual rhetorical power.  Grasping for metaphors, he emphasized that American troops “are the steel in our ship of state.  And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead.”  And so the mission had devolved to supporting the troops, while the troops themselves gave the mission meaning.  The circularity befitted what the president called “an age without surrender ceremonies;” an age when conflict could end, even as it remained on-going.


If we ever get to a Constitutional Convention, perhaps the "war" experiences of the 20th and 21st (still in progress) centuries may require a closer look at the "Commander-In-Chief" role of the President. But for the reactions to the draft, might Vietnam have continued on, perhaps leading to dominos falling? We don't have a draft today and in these important 2010 midterm elections the current wars (Afganistan and, yes, Iraq!), are apparently NOT of major concern to voters. I'm thinking of the Seinfeld episode, where Jerry told Elaine that the title originally proposed for "War and Peace" was "War, What is It Good For?" When we look back, can we say "Absolutely Nothing" when it come to our current wars? Or were the Three Stooges prescient with their feature "Oil's Well That Ends Well"? Mary's closing sentence says it well:

"The circularity befitted what the president called 'an age without surrender ceremonies;' an age when conflict could end, even as it remained on-going."

Which reminds me of Groucho Marx in "Animal Crackers" about going/staying.

William J. Astore's sobering essay at TomDispatch (10/31/10) "The New American Isolationism - The Cost of Turning Away from War's Horrific Realties" in its penultimate paragraph tells us:

"Today, Americans are again an isolationist people, but with a twist. Even as we expand our military bases overseas and spend trillions on national security and wars, we’ve isolated ourselves from war’s passions, its savagery, its heartrending sacrifices. Such isolation comforts some and seemingly allows others free rein to act as they wish, but it’s a false comfort, a false freedom, purchased at the price of prolonging our wars, increasing their casualties, abridging our freedoms, and eroding our country’s standing in the world."

Let's ask again, "War, What Is It Good For?" The military-industrial complex? And David Broder suggests in his recent WaPo column that Obama should consider going to war with Iran as a means of pulling America out of the Bush/Cheney Great Recession. What we need is "SANITY NOW!" But there is no "Sanity Clause" in the Constitution, despite its empowering Congress to declare war.

I think the surrender ceremonies have morphed into the interfactional compromises conducted to form weak governments, rather than taking the form of the pomp and circumstance of truce and armistice led by civilian and military conventional brass. The extending of financial support to militias begins the process of coordination and negotiation. One of the difficult spheres in the metamorphosis to postbellum civil rule is the issue of the Establishment Clause in its various permutations; for example, consider the structure of family law courts in Kenya, and that nation's recent referenda for constitutional revisions affecting related matters, as well as addressing other elements of the executive branch's part in filling that country's judiciary.

The kind of cash-for-polity deals developed in Iraq under US participation appear to have analogs currently in Afghanistan as the US administration continues its drive toward some quantifiable drawdown of military presence.

Surrender ceremonies occur between nation states. America has simply gone back to the low intensity wars of its past like the Indian wars, Philippines, Central America, Haiti, etc. Low intensity wars do not end so much as they peter out as the enemy disbands.

Low intensity wars do not end so much as they peter out as the enemy disbands.
# posted by Bart DePalma : 3:30 PM

Or we finally realize there is no point in pissing away lives and money for nothing. That appears to finally be the case in Iraq, and will eventually happen in Afghanistan.

From the thin air of the hills of CO, we hear this:

"America has simply gone back to the low intensity wars of its past like the Indian wars, Philippines, Central America, Haiti, etc. Low intensity wars do not end so much as they peter out as the enemy disbands."

Once again, our former Backpacker come up with "simply" to describe a situation that is quite complex. Was Iraq a low intensity war that has petered out as the enemy disbands? (Query: has the enemy really disbanded in Iraq?) I wonder what the dead and injured on both sides in Iraq might think of this analysis? Mary's snippet focuses upon Iraq and President Obama's "Mission Accomplished" moment. And how inexpensive was Iraq as a low intensity war? Perhaps our former Backpacker's goal is to minimize the Iraq War for the benefit of the Bush/Cheney image? And Afghanistan is comparable to Haiti, Central America? "Simply" doesn't fit the situation of Mary's snippet but is reflective of its author.

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America has simply gone back to the low intensity wars of its past like the Indian wars, Philippines, Central America, Haiti, etc. Surrender ceremonies occur between nation states. Low intensity wars do not end so much as they peter out as the enemy disbands. We love travel to China mainland, we love Beijing Tours to the Great Wall, Xian Tour to the Terra Cotta Warriors and China train ticket service helped us alot.

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