Here’s how the government will sell us the Iran war

The first time I heard anyone in the Bush administration mention Iraq, in 2002, I knew they were going to invade it. Lately, certain members of the Trump administration have been talking the same way about Iran, and just recently some fortuitous incidents have handed them a convenient casus belli.

So this essay is for the benefit of readers for whom what’s going to happen over the next months might seem bizarre, horrific, or inexplicable if you aren’t old enough to have lived through it before, or read enough to know that it’s a syndrome with an etiology as predictable as that of any other disease. In fact, it’s one of the commonest civilizational afflictions, the equivalent of the cold, one that’s been documented since history began.

Here’s how this goes. The government wants to attack another country. They have a real reason and an official reason. The real reason is something pragmatic, mercenary: resources (oil), strategic position, political advantage. Sometimes it’s just to help win an election at home. The official reason will be something to appeal to popular sentiment, ostensibly noble but ultimately primal: honor, revenge, race hatred, fear.

It’s not really necessary that people believe this official reason; only that it be plausible enough that they can pretend to accept it. Because beneath both the pragmatic and sentimental reasons is a deeper, more primitive one:

People like war. We are aggressive animals who exult in killing, and once every generation or so this instinct expresses itself in a vast spasm of tribal violence, a mass murder. We still practice human sacrifice, just with modern rationales. Though I’m sure the Aztecs thought their reasons were self-evidently reasonable as well.

Truth, selectively edited and cynically deployed, makes the most effective lie. We’ll hear stories about the enemy’s atrocities against their own people, their oppression and torture, their sponsorship of terrorism. (Some of these stories may well be true. Truth, selectively edited and cynically deployed, makes the most effective lie.) We’ll hear about their intentions to attack us, or our allies, their secret weapons and preparations for war, very nearly ready now.

There will be a sense of terrible urgency that every day’s hesitation is dangerous, further debate tantamount to treason. In the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, the Cheney/Bush administration made much of the threat of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.” There weren’t any, as it turned out.

The same phrase is being used again now, with impressive contempt for the capacity of the American memory, in reference to Iran. Americans have a particular dread of nuclear weapons that goes beyond the rational, which I suspect is projected guilt at being the only nation to have used them.

One Bush functionary, trying to frighten Americans into supporting her administration’s oil grab in Iraq, recited the talking point: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” The current administration will surely invoke the same threat, of Iran using nuclear weapons against us, or against Israel, our fellow nation of white people.

Obviously the usual gung-ho fuck heads will support the war the same reliable percentage of the populace who’ll back any war the government wants to start, or anything else it wants to do to people who aren’t American (or white, or male, or straight).

But you might be unpleasantly surprised at how many ostensibly well-educated people will also support it: editorialists and commentators at prestigious news outlets, not just the state propaganda network, will sound sober and considered in making arguments, honed in debate clubs, Ivy League seminars, and think tanks, for killing lots of strangers for no reason.

Some of them will be eloquent and convincing. (The only difference between the St. Crispin’s Day speech and a chimpanzee scream is the rhetoric.) It turns out smart people can be just as stupid as stupid people, if they’re scared enough. They’re don’t want to be accused, as they were in middle school, of being wimps, and they secretly get just as excited at the prospect of seeing people die as any MAGA-hatted NASCAR fan. And it won’t, after all, be their kids who have to go.

He describes how, in time of war the same 25 centuries ago as now idiot recklessness becomes courage, asking questions cowardly, talking sense effete and faggy. Or take it from Hermann Göring, at one time the designated successor to Hitler. Once the gig was up, the game over, he was quite candid about how you get ordinary people to go to war for you:

“All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” (He dismissed the suggestion that it works any differently in democracies.) So you already know what to expect if you publicly oppose the war: you’ll be accused of naivete, of cowardice, of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, of supporting oppression, totalitarianism, terrorism. Proponents of war will posture as hardheaded, clear-eyed pragmatists, calculating practitioners of realpolitik, as they offer up sacrificial children to the god of death.

Eventually, there’s a triggering incident, some sort of attack on America or our allies. This can be real or invented; doesn’t matter. In Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident provided Lyndon Johnson congressional authorization to escalate the conflict: this consisted of two incidents in which Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an American destroyer, except, then later, it emerged that one of them never actually happened, and the other consisted of a single bullet hole in the hull and zero casualties.

By the time these facts emerged, we’d sacrificed over 50,000 American lives, and millions of Vietnamese ones. National security advisor, John Bolton, claims that our next target, Iran, is responsible for attacks on our sovereign oil tankers and pipelines in the Persian Gulf. (Bolton, incidentally, supported the Vietnam War, but unfortunately wasn’t able to attend.)

Just yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for another attack on our hallowed tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Different gulf, same story. Neither of them happened to have any conclusive evidence on them right at that exact moment, but they both seemed quite confident. Their claims may or may not be true, but it doesn’t matter; they know we won’t be able to disprove them until it’s too late.

The government’s spokesmen will assure us it’ll be a quick victory; that our casualties will be limited; that it won’t cost as much as its sniveling liberal critics claim. They said all these things about the war in Iraq, which resulted in sectarian violence, civil war, cascading collapse throughout the region, gave rise to ISIS, killed over 4,000 American soldiers and as many as half a million Iraqis, and cost one trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) dollars.

Years later, it’ll become evident that, in retrospect, the opponents of war were right about everything, and its proponents and supporters were either liars or rubes but it’ll be moot by then, because the war will be lost, the money squandered, and the dead forgotten, except on Veterans Day.

The planners and proponents of the war may admit, grudgingly, that some mistakes were made, might call it a “blunder” (certainly not a “crime” or “atrocity”), but made in good fait and anyway, hindsight is 20/20; there’s no point in rehashing the past, pointing fingers, or “playing the blame game.” And in a decade or two, you can do it all over again; you just have to wait long enough for a new generation that doesn’t remember the last time to come of military age.

Humanity, as a class, is a slow learner, partly because every new generation is starting over from total ignorance. When I was a kid, the Vietnam War had recently been lost, and I know this will sound incredible now an anti-war comedy was the highest-rated show on television. This brief bout of national sanity was temporary: Only a few years later, America had successfully recovered from its “Vietnam syndrome.”

The new narrative was that the press had lost the Vietnam War (a version of the Germans’ “stabbed in the back” theory to explain their loss in World War I), not that the Vietnamese had won it. We regained our confidence through the heroic defense of the Falklands and the glorious conquest of Grenada, victories of which the bards still sing. It’s already starting to look as if we might be recovering from our post-Iraq slump in morale, nearly ready to visit freedom upon someone else.

Humanity, as a class, is a slow learner, partly because every new generation is starting over from total ignorance. Writing and history can, in theory, improve our learning curve. And there are some indications that we might be haltingly learning some lessons, though that education has been expensive. Although America still thinks of itself as invincible, its military ventures haven’t actually gone all that well for the last 75 years or so. And it seems as if at least some people have noticed.

It’s heartening that, as the Cheney administration was making its pro forma case for invading Iraq, tens of millions of people took to the streets all over the world to protest. Less heartening is that they went ahead and invaded it anyway the government doesn’t need our permission but at least all those people recognized it as a scam from the start.

It took until 1967 for a majority of Americans to realize the war in Vietnam was a mistake, three years after the Gulf of Tonkin; it only took until 2005, a mere two years after the invasion, for a majority of Americans to decide Iraq was one, too. (Not quite in time for the 2004 election.)

A recent poll shows that very few Americans would support a preemptive invasion of Iran though four out of five would support a military response if Iran attacks us first. As the Gulf of Tonkin shows, such an attack is easily arranged. It’s obvious that some people in our administration want very much to go to war against Iran, for motives ranging from the venal (more oil) to the superstitious (expediting their eschatological myth).

Among them, interestingly, is not Donald Trump. Trump is stupid and weak and mean, a congenital liar, a racist, a serial sexual predator, and an ineradicable embarrassment to the history of this country; but it also has to be said that his administration’s body count is still relatively low. George W. Bush, who seems like such an endearing doofus now, with his second career as a Sunday painter and crush on Michelle Obama, signed off on the totally optional deaths of nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers and uncounted (because it’s unpatriotic to count the deaths of our enemies) hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

Trump dodged the draft in Vietnam, as did Bush, and Cheney, and Bolton: But, unlike the rest of those dedicated self-preservationists, Trump at least has the cowardice of his convictions he seems to have little stomach for a new war. Of course, he may change his mind if his poll numbers are worrisome or impeachment seems likely. And he does like setting records.

Michael Herr once said, in an interview, that “war is like weather, it’s like natural disasters; it’s virtually unstoppable.” Herr, author of Dispatches, which has been credibly called “the best book… on men and war in our time,” would know more about it than I do. But who’s to say what’s ineradicable in human nature, and what’s malleable? Who would’ve thought, a few centuries ago, that slavery, which had endured since the beginning of history, would ever effectively be ended as a legal institution?

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, author of On Aggression, agrees that aggression is a primary instinct, like libido, not something that can be conditioned or socialized out of us. (As someone who was raised in a pacifist religion, I can confirm this.) Nonetheless Lorenz, who was writing in a time when the odds of a nuclear holocaust seemed like even money, was hopeful that humanity could successfully sublimate its aggressive instincts into less dangerous forms, from organized sports to humor, and survive.

There used to be a slogan, circa Vietnam, cribbed from Carl Sandburg: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” I sometimes hope we might be inching our way toward a historic turning point where leaders crank up the reliable old machine the propaganda campaign, the bogus casus belli, the demonization of a foreign enemy and discrediting of war opponents, the contrived triggering event and a majority of the populace just doesn’t buy it.

Politicians in this country used to be able to reliably win elections by race-baiting, gay-bashing, or invoking the specter of “class warfare” or socialism; the old battle cries are losing their power. Some generation has to be the first, when the government calls on us to put partisan politics aside, rally around the flag, Support Our Troops, to remain seated and say: Nah.

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