Review Essay: Surge Protectors? Two Books on the Iraq War

John Ehrenberg, J. Patrice McSherry, Jose Ramon Sanchez and Caroleen Marji Sayej, eds. The Iraq Papers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.

When future generations analyze the Iraq War I hope they concentrate on the tactics of “shock and awe” and the domestic reaction to them. During the buildup to invasion the Bush administration strove to convince the world that preemptive war was necessary and to reassure Americans that the war would be a short affair with limited costs, a testament to the irresistible might of America’s military. Although even a sympathetic reader would likely concede ultimate failure in achieving the former goal, the public, conditioned by popular accounts of America’s impact in past wars and role as the world’s only superpower, was primed to stand in awe of America’s military dominance. From the first moment of the invasion on March 19, 2003 the media streamed relentless images of blitzkrieg. Embedded journalists, part of a practice criticized for giving the military control of the narrative, covered the advance towards Baghdad from inside units engaged in an overwhelming onslaught. As the statue of a dictator that even opponents of the war acknowledged to be a tyrant fell on April 9, it was hard not to feel some awe at the culmination of the war’s initial stage. For many, this awe was so intense that obvious flaws in Bush’s case for war transmuted into the appearance of something like plausibility. Victory seemed so overwhelming that warning signs, such as looting that foreshadowed escalating violence in Iraq, were dismissed. “Stuff happens,’ shrugged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The profound and terribly costly failures of the occupation could only be experienced afterward as a profound shock.

The band Jane’s Addiction contended in 1988, that modernity has reached a point where “nothing’s shocking.” If nothing’s shocking, the world can neither outrage us nor catch us unprepared. If injustice and brutality are grounded facets of modern life, we cannot contest them. The cynical subject is thereby relieved of the burdens of intellectual engagement and conscientious response. Such cynicism allows many Americans to consume the war passively, as one might watch a horror film. One is reminded of Sidney Lumet’s film Network, where the media is transformed into a corporate behemoth that engulfs everything, including resistance, which is futile. In a climactic scene, the crazed Howard Beale encourages viewers, frustrated and enraged both despite and because of the stultifying amusements force-fed them by the culture industry, to open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Despite their clamoring, however, Beale’s audience remains inert and continue to take “this” and all other manners of iniquity too. The Iraq War sparked, for the most part, a similar acquiescent bellowing; a majority continues to accept that which they decry.

An overexposed photograph is bright and blurry; the image is unclear. Although Americans experienced the Iraq War live on television, this experience did not, for the most part, generate a better informed discussion of the conflict. The public response vacillates between fatigued indifference and (ignored) demands for broad change, which usually lack a measured consideration of the situation on the ground in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. The false impression of intimacy, of a shared and direct experience of war, may be a large factor in the collapse of the space needed for critical reflection. The citizen is first reduced to the passive status of viewer and then caught up in emotional responses that render candid discourse and thoughtful action difficult.

Freud asserted that one major purpose of psychoanalysis was to function as an “education to reality.” Freud’s meaning is simple: psychoanalysis assists growth by allowing the individual to confront and contest the myriad illusions, personal and sociocultural in origin, that structure human life. Freud correctly saw that living freely and responsibly involves the work of slicing through Gordian knots of delusion and illusion that distort the real. To respond in fresh ways to the Iraq War, one has to make a similar effort. Two recent books, The Iraq Papers and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 are impressive examples of work that accomplishes this daunting task.

Turning to Reality

The Iraq Papers, an edited volume composed of primary texts related to the war, is a striking achievement. The editors’ artful arrangement of texts encompasses the case made for the war and highlights how neoconservative ideology led to a reorganization of foreign and domestic policy around the imperatives of unipolar power, unilateral action and preemption. The central question posed by the editors is: how did preemption, in a nation historically committed to multilateral engagement and the defense of rights, become an acceptable policy? To answer this query, The Iraq Papers presents Iraq as a case study and encourages the reader to consider preemptive war as an evolving and dangerous trend. The collected documents are perhaps most valuable in that they reveal how deeply preemption has sunk into bases of American politics and foreign policy.  They open up preemption as a topic for criticism and resistance. By presenting evidence, including statements, documents and memos, the editors of The Iraq Papers provide readers with the “education to reality” Freud urged.  Given conclusive evidence of the illegality of the administration’s actions, the duplicity of its statements, its disregard for international institutions and for domestic public opinion, the reader then is enabled to make informed judgments about the wisdom of, and warrant for, preemption.

The Iraq Papers assesses the war’s consequences for the international arena and the domestic sphere by interpreting its conduct along intersecting axes: multilateral versus unilateral foreign policy and democracy versus empire. The power vacuum resulting from the end the Cold War, when America became the dominant international player, made Bush’s unilateral policy possible. Unipolar power, however, is going to be a temporary advantage in an evolving world. This (im)balance of power is seen by some realists as an occasion for American leadership. Neoconservatives, however, view it as a vital opportunity to secure permanent American hegemony and a “new American century” (2-4).  The administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were both sensitive to the precariousness of this shift, which is why they declined to move unilaterally. The First Gulf War, as the editors note, reflects both the American commitment to multilateralism and an attendant capacity for restraint. Both administrations – out of a long-term concern about the regional balance of power – refused to remove Hussein from power (hoping, of course, it would happen internally). Several documents, including an op-ed by George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft and statements (ironically) by Dick Cheney in the early 1990s, reveal that leaving Saddam in power was a choice based on the anticipated disastrous consequences regime change would produce, many of which came to pass after the 2003 invasion.

The documents show that opposition to Bush’s policies stemmed from a commitment to internationalism and human rights. The Iraq Papers returns the reader to the progressive traditions in American politics and thereby provides her with a genuine articulated alternative. The Iraq Papers also highlight the link of neoconservative ideology to American imperialism. Neoconservatives generally view it as America’s responsibility to shape the international situation through military hegemony, founded on the belief that the American political and economic systems represent the best form of associational life, and therefore mark the end of history. As the editors note, these trends were rendered more dangerous by the neoconservatives’ contempt for international institutions and law, which the administration cast as weak and outdated. As the infamous  “Downing Street Memo” (document 2.6) shows, the decision to reject containment and to invade Iraq was made before the administration brought its case to the public, and represents a total rejection of the internationalist tradition. The administration simply asserted there was a universal desire for American-style institutions, which were believed to work anywhere and to be inevitable. The Iraq Papers pulls no punches in showcasing its disastrous consequences.

The Iraq Papers highlights the irreducible antagonism between democracy and empire. Aggressive intervention abroad runs directly against the political climate and culture necessary for democracy at home. The Iraq Papers provides plenty of evidence that unilateral foreign policy was paralleled by the development of a unilateral executive branch (512). The swift passage of draconian laws like the Patriot Act shows that the emphasis on security utilized to promote and defend the invasion overwhelmed civil liberties and democratic processes. Bush’s White House, furthermore, utilized military concerns to operate in unprecedented secrecy and to make and shape law through bully politics and a profusion of lawless ‘signing statements.’ The precedent of using violence to impose democracy is a challenge to the very idea of democracy. Recent developments show the depths of the impact of Bush’s efforts to reshape the executive branch and the balance of power through the use of dangers, both real and imagined, related to terrorism. The 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, for example, broadly restricts animal rights activism, including the actions of violent groups like the Animal Liberation Front. Drawing on an exaggerated need for security, however, sets the dangerous precedent of utilizing the War on Terror to intimidate nonviolent protestors. The Patriot Act and AETA are not isolated examples. The use of preemption to restrict spaces for resistance and criticism at home was evident in the administration’s demands for deference after 9/11. As Condoleezza Rice posited during the 2000 presidential campaign, a key domestic task of the administration would be to define new national interests in line with the hegemonic power it sought in the international arena: interests that support heightened executive power cannot exist in harmony with democratic, peaceful and cosmopolitan trends (document 1.16). The Iraq Papers makes this shift, and its foundations clear, and thus allows the reader to consider the long-term sociopolitical consequences at home. From this study of the tactics and arguments utilized under Bush, we can recognize the ways in which preemption continues to impact the presidency under the administration of Barack Obama.

The most damning aspect of the critique of the Bush administration made in The Iraq Papers comes from the words of administration officials themselves, which amply show misconduct under international and domestic law. The editors’ inclusion of relevant passages of law allows the reader to judge for himself, and thus restores critical space for reflection and decision. In Chapter 8, “Human Rights and International Law: U.S. Methods and Operations in Preemptive War,” for example, sections of the Constitution, Geneva Conventions, UN Conventions Against Torture and the U.S. Criminal Code are juxtaposed against now infamous memos by Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and Jay Bybee which proposed devious means of circumventing law and treaty obligations. The dishonesty of these memos and the policies they support is apparent. The inclusion of documents critical of the ideology that guided the conduct of the war was another wise choice by the editors. The editors’ thoughtful, restrained commentary also provides necessary information and works like a series of guideposts that help reader to discern the full implications of the selected documents. The solvency of these arguments, finally, cause the reader to wonder why more people, especially given the historically low approval ratings George W. Bush earned, did not act and speak against the war; these critiques thus allow the reader to reflexively critique himself as agent and rethink his response to the war. The Iraq Papers is, therefore, an essential resource for anyone hoping to make sense of the conflict in Iraq.

Confronting the Real

Reading Thomas Ricks’s The Gamble against The Iraq Papers is a rewarding experience, as The Gamble locates the reader directly within the situation through which the arguments examined in The Iraq Papers must be judged. It is striking, therefore, that Ricks chooses to open his book with the Haditha Massacre, the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in November 2005. The massacre frames the project Ricks undertakes in assessing both the institutional pressures and policies that pushed American troops into sheer murder and the indifferent military brass who utilized aggressive tactics to treat Iraqis as hostile agents, and an out of touch administration above them, which combination Ricks contends led to the near loss of the war in 2005 (8). Things were set to fall apart from the beginning. The Gamble makes it clear that it took a reversion to traditional counterinsurgency tactics and diplomacy, the very tools rejected as out of date, to even begin to pull Iraq out of the morass the administration’s policies engendered. The Gamble reveals that the impetus for the move to counterinsurgency strategy which, in however an inconsistent way in practice, emphasizes protecting and securing the partnership of the people, did not come from administration. It emerged from a group of military intellectuals after the Haditha Massacre made the catastrophic failure of the administration’s strategies indisputable. Ricks’s account proves that it took a full year and the electoral defeat of the Republican party in 2006 – during which time Iraq slid into rigid sectarianism, fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing and civil war – for the administration to be forced to see the need for a strategy built around winning the partnership of at least some Iraqis, and thus exposes the full moral calamity of the occupation (9).

The passage of time has effaced the severity of the civil war in Iraq from American political consciousness (if ever aware of it), but this outbreak of violence and the possibility that Iraq could slide into similar conflicts in the future continues to impact American strategies. Ricks presents the civil war in graphic detail, and by making it clear that although Iraqis perpetrated the killings, American decisions crafted the situation in which they became possible. The 2005 elections, which the administration, after initially resisting them, celebrated, only worked to harden sectarian lines (32). Tactics like withdrawing troops to bases where they could neither protect nor connect with the people and transitioning to unreliable Iraqi forces complicit in the violence were the self-defeating focus (14). The Gamble, in short, captures a criminally irresponsible administration, whose unrealistic goal of reshaping Iraq in America’s neoliberal image led to the total collapse of Iraqi civic life.

The Gamble casts an important light not only on the transition to counter-insurgency strategy, but on the insurgency itself. The distrust of the United States felt by Iraqis pre-surge is a haunting aspect of Ricks’s text and the war itself; The Gamble clarifies that this was not a hatred grounded in prejudicial differences, but rather one sparked by the shattering of Iraqi life during the war. Ricks’s argues that many insurgents simply wanted to protect their communities, families and homes – a task necessitated by American military actions. The insurgency, furthermore, flourished because of counterproductive macho tactics – like harsh treatment in military prisons, which became veritable recruiting centers – sanctioned by the administration (194). Petraeus’s new strategy, as Ricks claims, contains a sweeping criticism of the administration, and his reminder to the troops – “live our values” – causes one to question exactly what was being lived before his promotion (25, 29). The Gamble, in general, begs the question: if strategic sense had prevailed in the administration from the beginning, is it not likely that we would inhabit a safer world today? Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency tactics – supposedly grounded in reciprocity and respect – are, on the face of it anyway, a repudiation of the worst abuses and assumptions made by the Bush administration.             The overall effectiveness and long-term impact of the surge remains uncertain at the end of The Gamble. Although Ricks contends that the surge was a tactical victory, he poses its strategic success as dubious at best. The surge was bound to the restricted goals of increased security and stability and the realistic assessment that even these stripped down aims would require a prolonged – and why not permanent ? – presence in Iraq. At the end of The Gamble, indeed, it is not clear that a winning hand was played, or even what is at stake in the venture. Iraq remains, as Ricks shows, in a political impasse. Ricks claims Obama shares Petraeus’s thin hopes for Iraqi security and contends that General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor in command of the mission in Iraq, will likely pressure Obama to keep troops in Iraq. What is certain about The Gamble is the wager it implicitly challenges readers to make through its stark portrayal of the tenuous situation in Iraq; with knowledge of the situation on the ground and the importance of political decisions currently being made, The Gamble shows the need to invest effort in activism seeking to shape a responsible policy on Iraq and in sociopolitical activity that rebuilds the internationalism and connections amongst peoples imperiled by preemptive war. The chance to restore democratic processes and values, to reject the unilateralism of the recent past, is one worth taking.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

In April 2009 a controversy erupted over a proposed video game, Six Days in Fallujah, which aimed to recreate the brutal campaign in that city. Many critics felt that Six Days in Fallujah was a tasteless effort to profit from war and an insult to the soldiers who served in Iraq. The organization Gold Star Families Speak Out, which represents the families of fallen soldiers complained that “war is not a game and neither was the Battle of Fallujah.”[1] The surprising part of this story is not that Atomic Games, the game’s producer, would create such a game, but rather the outrage the game provoked. Similar games, including the popular Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, have simulated real wars. Even games focusing on Vietnam, an unpopular conflict with many surviving veterans and families of the fallen, caused little uproar. The Iraq War, moreover, influenced, indirectly and through consultation with veterans, the popular Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. A game based on the war in Afghanistan, Medal of Honor 2010 incited no response save the excitement of gamers. If one looks at almost any medium of amusement, it is obvious that the Iraq War has impacted the way Americans entertain themselves.

So what explains the response to Six Days in Fallujah? The game strikes too close to the media narrative of the war, which often relied on game-like footage from aircraft and gun cameras. As a work of survival-horror, with insurgents cast in a role that might be elsewhere filled by zombies, it comes too near the Manichean experience of Iraqis as evil incarnate. The game is juxtaposed uncomfortably with an administration that treated the conduct of war like a strategic game in which anything goes, where consequences need not hinder the declaration of “victory.” Above all, the game served as a screen upon which outrage at the really distasteful thing – the war itself – could be projected and thereby vented. Indignation aroused by Six Days in Fallujah is a truly hopeful sign. If the public can face the reality of these ‘wars of choice”, we can move beyond the haphazard expression of outrage.

Works like The Iraq Papers and The Gamble pull down the screen and force the reader to analyze the war directly, and in that sense, both are curatives that remove us from the emotionalism that for years suffocated critical thought. This could not be more important today: our first live war has faded from the headlines, but it has yet to fade from our sociopolitical experience. Although the war gets little attention, it still haunts the public. Soldiers and their families struggle with worst symptoms of this trauma, including PTSD, drug use, violence and a high incidence of suicide. The mass trauma of war, however, is harder to discern. Iraq marks the collapse of American delusions of military dominance and exposes the illusions of American candor, goodness and morality. Today, we need to consider the positive aspects of these shocks. Whether we mean the shock felt by a child who has stuck his finger in a light socket or the shock of citizens watching an illegal invasion slide into chaos, shock offers an occasion for learning. Shock invites the subject to reflect on the circumstances that led to present straits and thereby allows for the development of limits on action and more intelligent choices. Works like The Iraq Papers and The Gamble provide a strong foundation for this effort, and thus merit the attention of citizens and activists working towards a world in which the unjust actions of the recent past will be less and less possible.



Amy L. Buzby is a Ph.D candidate in political theory at Rutgers University and the editor of Communicative Action: The Logos Interviews (Lexington Books).


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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