Reach for One, Fall Into the Other

We’re going way off-topic today. Ten years ago tonight, the Iraq War began. I was blogging by then, writing to an audience of none on March 17, 2003:

. . . As Garry Trudeau memorably put it in Doonesbury last week, to a certain extent we are down the rabbit hole with the Mad Hatter now. Conservatives say we must spend money to save it, kill Social Security to fix it, destroy the Constitution in order to save it, and wage eternal war to preserve peace. The leadership says it over and over again, like meditators chanting a mantra. The masses trailing in their wake nod and smile and parrot it back until their eyes burn with a light like mad religious ecstasy. There’s nothing else to call it but religious belief. Tenets taken on faith. A belief in things unseen even without hard evidence to support those things. It’s a hope for heaven. The existence of a heaven presupposes the existence of a hell. Those who reach carelessly for one can quite easily fall into the other. In 48 or 72 hours, we will begin to see where the soul of America is headed.

On March 18th, I left for Smithfield, Virginia, on a business trip. I missed most of the first day while fogbound at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where I read Hunter S. Thompson and eyed the TV monitors. There wasn’t much on my schedule for March 19, 2003, so I was able to watch the news and muse about it in the handwritten journal I carried in pre-laptop days. Some of those musings turned out to be right and others did not. Some of both are on the flip.

Smithfield is where moonlight and magnolias go to die. It’s a very old, picturesque, quaint town, founded in 1752 and settled well before that (Jamestown is not far from here). The main street is mostly antique stores. Sherrie took me to lunch at the Smithfield Inn, a gorgeous place that’s 250 years old. The famous Smithfield Hams are processed here, between the hotel and the school. (That faint, Dubuque-style packing plant odor is in the air.)

In the world at large, we are bracing ourselves for the whirlwind. The newscasts this morning are full of stories about increased security at home in fear of terrorist reprisals to the attack on Iraq, which will probably begin tomorrow. Why shouldn’t we expect them? If this is war, like the Repugs have been saying for 18 months, war means that both sides suffer. If Americans think we can rule the world with impunity, attacking anyone anytime for any reason, then we have to accept that the same will be our fate. We will also be attacked. While state and local governments are right to prepare, no one should be under the misapprehension that every attack will be stopped. It is not possible to achieve 100% security, Ridge and Ashcroft notwithstanding. So somewhere, something is going to happen. And with every Iraqi we kill, dozens of terrorists wanting to kill us will be born.

This is the thing the Bush gang doesn’t get. I have said it from day one. You cannot make people respect and love you by force. Only by other means can this be done—addressing the root causes of their dissatisfaction, for example. But this is seen as “caving in to terrorists,” so it won’t be done. Instead, we will fight perpetual war without result. Our children will never know peace. We were handed a moment of choice and we blew it. The war that begins this week may look swift and decisive if it seems to end quickly. But that will be an illusion. It will never end until we learn to be braver than we are.

That evening:

No war yet, but it can’t be more than a few hours away. We have come a long way from the country we were three or four years ago, let alone four hundred. When I crossed the 4-mile-long James River Bridge tonight, I thought of those travelers of 1607 sailing up to what they called Jamestown. The ride across the bridge is quite striking—tall power-line towers on one side, open water to the ocean on the other, with the Newport News shipyards on the oceanside coast. A strong wind was whipping whitecaps tonight—the river looked very wild, and maybe not much different than it looked 400 years ago—or how it will look 400 years from now, after we’re long gone. Makes me wonder what we’ll be leaving for those who come then.

That night, the war actually began with something less than a bang. The next afternoon, March 20, I wrote:

Strange day. The brief strikes last night have yet to be followed by the promised massive assault. Instead, small strikes here and there have continued on Baghdad. The Iraqis have lobbed a few Scuds into Kuwait, causing more panic than damage. The TV networks are in full crisis mode—NCAA tournament games switched from CBS to ESPN—but on the other channels, normal programming goes on. It’s a bit surreal.

A decade later, it still is. America’s still down the rabbit hole with the Mad Hatter, and we’re never coming back up.

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