Saturday, November 19, 2005

Rendering unto Caesar

This, unfortunately, is how debate is conducted in a democracy:

Republicans and Democrats shouted, howled and slung insults on the House floor on Friday as a debate over whether to withdraw American troops from Iraq descended into a fury over President Bush's handling of the war and a leading Democrat's call to bring the troops home.

The battle boiled over when Representative Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican who is the most junior member of the House, told of a phone call she had just received from a Marine colonel back home.

"He asked me to send Congress a message: stay the course," Ms. Schmidt said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

Democrats booed in protest and shouted Ms. Schmidt down in her attack on Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam combat veteran and one of the House's most respected members on military matters. They caused the House to come to an abrupt standstill, and moments later, Representative Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, charged across the chamber's center aisle to the Republican side screaming that Ms. Schmidt's attack had been unwarranted.

"You guys are pathetic!" yelled Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. "Pathetic."

The measure to withdraw the troops failed in a 403-to-3 vote late Friday night.

The rancorous debate drew an extraordinary scolding from Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee.

"Today's debate in the House of Representatives shows the need for bipartisanship on the war in Iraq, instead of more political posturing," Mr. Warner said in a statement.
Unfortunately, because it is messy, and I don't mean "messy" in the sense of disorderly and not quietly composed. I mean "messy" in the sense that people go on dying in Iraq, both Americans and Iraqis, and the number of American wounded continues to rise from 10,000; and those are just the physically wounded.

Debate should be conducted this way:
Given all that has happened in Iraq to date, the best strategy for the United States is disengagement. The endless sequence of major acts of violence proves that U.S. military forces are unable to fulfill their security roles. A withdrawal, however, would not leave the insurgents victorious: Even if the official Iraqi army and police remain as ineffectual as they now are, the Shi'a and Kurdish militias are far larger and better armed than the insurgents, and would crush them soon enough.

While the U.S. armed forces are formidable against enemies assembled in mass formation, they are least effective at fighting insurgents. Insurgents strive to be especially elusive, and as targets diminish, so does the value of American firepower. this was demonstrated in Vietnam in many different ways over many years and is unncessarily being proven all over again in Iraq, damaging the reputation of the United States, wasting vast amounts of money, inflicting added suffering on Iraqis at large, and taking the lives of young Americans, whose sacrifice, one fears, will soon be deemed futile.

The predicament of counterinsurgency is that it is a political activity with an admixture of violence, rather than warfare to any real extent. While there are occasional armed clashes in Iraq that do have a tactical dimension and a classical military shape, so much of the insurgency takes covert forms, ranging from the infiltration of the government, army, and police to bombings, sabotage, and assassinations, that the frequent tactical victories won by American forces have no perceptible impact on the volume of the violence or its political consequences.
Edward Luttwak, "The Logic of Disengagement," Harper's Magazine 311.1865 (2005)13-17.

But it won't be; not in this country, anyway. It will be conducted by screaming, yelling, and the most outraqeous and disgusting posturing imaginable, as politicians fling epithets like "pathetic" and "reprehensible" and other politicians and pundits cluck their Mother Hen tongues and "tut-tut" about the "declining" standards of our discourse.

I don't care about the "level" of the discourse nor even the words used; what I care about is that people are dying, and being ripped apart, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and that the "debate" will always devolve into screaming matches and stupid accusations because the bird was right, and we cannot bear very much reality.

Mr. Luttwak's words are the simple reality. The real "lesson" of Vietnam is the iconic image of the last helicopter lifting off from Saigon, trying desperately to shake off those last desperate souls sure that their doom was coming. From that image, as a country, were the deaths of 50,000 Americans (never do we count the millions of Vietnamese) "deemed futile." And we've been embarassed by that ever since.

But Iraq is, again, Vietnam on steroids. In July 1970, 23% wanted immediate withdrawal from Iraq; 25% wanted to withdraw within 12 months. In November 2005, 19% want to withdraw immediately, 33% within twelve months. This is not new: 6 in 10 thought some or all troops should be withdrawn, in June. And again, the response from the White House was that withdrawal would "send the wrong message." And politicians were saying "I voted for the resolution" and "we've done about as much as we can do."

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

But that is no longer the issue: the issue now is, how do we respond? American opposition to Vietnam was strong in 1970, but it was 1973 before a peace treaty was negotiated, and 1975 before that iconic helicopter lifted off from the American Embassy. And President Bush is determined not to leave Iraq, nor are Democrats calling for withdrawal tomorrow.

Disengagement is clearly the only option; there isn't another one, unless we plan to annex Iraq as the 51st state. "Staying the course" is not madness or insanity, it is simply ignorant and stupid. As Luttwak points out in three eloquent paragraphs, we are the destabilizing force; we are the reason the insurgents continue to kill (82 dead yesterday alone). Withdrawal is the only option.

But as we are not going to have that debate, what other option is open to us? Christians like to say we are called to be in the world, but not of the world; however, that phrase is always poorly defined and even more poorly understood. Are monastics "not of the world" and not even "in the world"? Are priests and pastors? Lay people? And what is, what must be, our response to the events of the world, to the politics of war and violence and empire? Do we engage the debate vigorously? Or stand aloof, apart from the fray?

Luttwak's analysis is absolutely right, and yet who will listen to it. He made it in January of this year, and who listened then? Are the odds any better they will listen now? Jesus famously refused to enter into such debates. When the Pharisees once tried to draw him into one, he answered: "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's."

When I consider the terms of the current discussion, and what is at stake, and what responsibility I have in it, I consider again what is Caesar's; and what is God's.

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