The central character in the little morality play spun out by the Bush administration in making the case for “staying the course” in Iraq is Gen. David Petraeus, commander of our forces in Iraq and the savior of the neocons’ war. His much-vaunted report was to elucidate the conditions for “victory” once and for all, and silence the “defeatists” and other cowards who dared question our sainted Commander in Chief. Of course, a draft-dodging lush who couldn’t even bring himself to show up for duty with the National Guard is hardly a model of military virtue, and his own strategic acumen is somewhat doubtful, at best. After all, he and his political advisors have brought the Republican Party down to such a low ebb of support that it threatens to become a strictly regional phenomenon, limited to the reddest counties of the reddest states. In short, our President is hardly a figure with the sort of military gravitas to inspire confidence, and so a substitute had to be found. Certainly, General Petraeus fit the bill: Here, after all, is a seasoned veteran, his chest festooned with medals, his visage stern and calm—a veritable paragon of martial glamour. Who are we to question him? We must take his word for it when he says that victory is nigh.
The controversy surrounding his appearance, and especially the Senate vote condemning the MoveOn.org ad in the New York Times, was yet another occasion on which to wonder at the prescience of Garet Garrett, that prophet of a dark vision of empire who foresaw our present predicament, as if in a dream, more than half a century ago, and not only in general but in all its particulars. In a pamphlet that went largely unnoticed until our own day, the doughty old lion of the Old Right laid down the “signs of empire”: the ascendancy of the executive, the subordination of domestic affairs to foreign policy, the creation of a system of satellites in the name of “collective security,” “an emotional complex of vaunting and fear”—and, most relevant here, the “ascendancy of the military mind, to such a point at last that the civilian mind is intimidated.”
It’s almost as if Garrett’s ghost hovered in the Senate chambers, laughing darkly, and bitterly remonstrating with the assembled solons as they deferred to Petraeus, abdicated their own views and their responsibility to the nation, and condemned those who dared question his report. Of course, the MoveOn.org ad was disrespectful; yet a general is not a priest—unless you worship Mars, the war god, as many of our neoconservative policymakers do, and as the neoconized GOP surely does. In that case, to criticize Petraeus is a kind of blasphemy.
Behind his message of qualified hope—hold and fight, the battle can be won if only we’re patient and don’t lose heart—was another implied message: the promise of yet another war. This was intertwined with his explanation of why we had yet to win, and who or what is holding us back from our goal: Iran. On the home front, the Republicans hold the “defeatist” Democrats and their allies responsible for their failure in Iraq, while, in the field, the blame is laid at the Iranians’ doorstep. We, it seems, are blameless. Tehran, we are told, is killing American soldiers in Iraq—although not a single of these murderous perpetrators has been captured. The Iranians are arming the militias—the very ones that we empowered when we overthrew Saddam Hussein and pulverized the Ba’athist regime—although the proof of this is very tenuous. And then there’s the question of all those U.S.-bought-and-paid-for weapons General Petraeus lost track of once they were shipped to Iraq—where they mysteriously wound up on the black market and found their way into the hands of various insurgent groups, militias, and criminal gangs.
But, of course, no one brought any of that up, at least not on the floor of the U.S. Senate: Instead, the wise men and women sat there, in wonder, as their savior took all the responsibility that should have been theirs and theirs alone. All is well, he assured them—or as well as can be expected in these dark days, and, at any rate, you can always say you didn’t know, that you took my word for it and the President’s word, and that you aren’t to blame. You can wash your hands, like Pontius Pilate, and be done with the whole affair. And so they did—voting a few weeks later for yet more funding for a war hardly any of them believed in anymore, if they ever had.
The U.S. Senate is quite content to bow before the ascendancy of the military mind-set and is glad to be intimidated; otherwise they would have to take a stand, and a firm one, and that is something they are not used to doing unless it means defending their own power and prerogatives. If someone should suggest that they give up their pensions, or their free haircuts, or any of the other perks they enjoy at our expense—well, then, surely no other considerations, either of decorum or political feasibility, would stand in the way of their wrath and its fulsome expression. Yet, in this case, when the fate of the nation—and a rather large portion of the world—lies in their hands, they are more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender. And when someone does rise to challenge Petraeus, they unite, for once, and turn on the blasphemer. It is a sign not only of empire but of decadence, of our final descent into militarism and sycophancy of a particularly unattractive sort.
The irony here is that Petraeus’s own boss, Adm. William Fallon, chief of Central Command, openly disdained Petraeus as “an ass-kissing little chicken-sh-t” at their first meeting in Baghdad last March, according to Jim Lobe of Interpress News Service. “I hate people like that,” the admiral added, after Petraeus started off the meeting on a note that Fallon interpreted as ingratiating.
So it has come to this: In the age of empire, only men in uniform dare to speak their mind, while the rest of us stand silently by, as we head into the abyss of perpetual war. Petraeus, we are told, has political ambitions: He once told an Iraqi official that he hoped to run for president some day. Let us hope that, by that time, civilians will have regained their voices—or else we’ll have to draft Admiral Fallon to run against him.