With the world watching anxiously, and often with horror, Americans have flailed and fumbled our way to the end of one of the most critical presidential campaigns in the nation's history. Apparently the strategy was to bury the electorate under such a landslide of irrelevancy, pseudodrama, mischief and misdirection that bewildered voters would slip into mental gridlock and obey some Pavlovian command as simple as a road sign. Macbeth's idiot never told a tale that seemed to signify so little. To keep your head in such a rout of reason, you have to ignore nine-tenths of the media menu and somehow view the whole carnival from a great distance, a great height, an angel's eye view of democracy (75 percent of Americans believe in angels).
Up here circling, you miss a lot, of course. But every so often your eagle/angel eye will settle on the one thing that illuminates, the thing that at street level, amidst the sound and fury, you might easily have missed. Months ago I came upon a story datelined Hanoi, Vietnam. It described the homecoming of Nguyen Cao Ky, once known as "the playboy prime minister" of South Vietnam. Remember Ky the flashy dresser, the handsome one with the mustache? Twenty-nine years after the fall of Saigon, which he fled by commandeering a helicopter and landing it on an American aircraft carrier, Ky--now a California businessman--returned to his native city at the invitation of the Communist authorities.
An avid golfer, Ky had flown to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where he played a couple of rounds with the city's recent mayor, Thanh Vo Viet. In Hanoi, his warm welcome included tee times at a new people's course near the capital and a reunion with two high school friends, college professors who had stayed in the North and remained loyal to Ho Chi Minh. The old friends and onetime enemies reminisced about their reckless student days; they ate ice cream and laughed about a fat lady who used to sell them ices from a cart on the street. They were ... well ... cute.
Ky's sentimental journey was vigorously opposed by some members of the Vietnamese exile community in the United States. The Bush administration, deaf not only to the lessons but to the ironies of history, encouraged Ky to go. So there in the once-occupied country the once-bitter enemies played golf and ate ice cream over the bones of 58,000 Americans and countless more Vietnamese. And which sane person would now argue that those deaths accomplished anything whatsoever, that their sacrifice left America one micro-unit safer or stronger or more admired in the world? Who would venture to cry, "Not in vain!"? And which sane person, contemplating Iraq, doubts that someday Allawi and al-Sadr or their surrogates will play a round of golf or share a tender goat (in the dining room, I mean) over the bones of another multitude of Americans, another generation of soldiers doomed to perish pointlessly because their leaders were stubborn and dishonest?
It is, it dawns on me, as certain as gravity or entropy that this heartbreaking game of golf will take place, that this goat will be roasted--and almost as certain that nothing will be learned from it, nothing changed. Much as the knowledge torments us--those of us who remember--it's no longer possible to deny that Iraq is Vietnam revisited. When Bush, Cheney and the neocon warlords deny that they see the resemblance, remember that their only memories of the conflict in Vietnam come from motion pictures.
Another small country with a gift for self-sacrifice is resisting American occupation with astonishing tenacity, aware that time and history are on its side. "Yes, it's getting worse," Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded on ABC News. "Quagmire" was the word we heard often during the war in Vietnam. It will soon be two years since American forces invaded Iraq, and no part of that country is secure, if secure means safe from "insurgent" attacks. Anti-American guerrillas control several regions outright; in September there were 2,300 attacks on soldiers and civilians in Iraq, 1,000 of them in the city of Baghdad itself, where unpacified elements have fired 3,000 mortar rounds since April. Attacks on our troops currently average 70-80 per day. While George Bush and John Kerry debated the war on national television, car bombs in Baghdad killed 41 civilians, at least 34 of them children, and maimed 139 more.
Troop levels remain inadequate in spite of ruthless recycling of our personnel; our death rate is higher in 2004 than it was in 2003. Nearly 1,100 Americans have died in Iraq, with thousands more disabled and mutilated. An average of 138 Iraqis die every week, many of them methodically assassinated for cooperating with the occupying forces. The most reliable sources set the native death toll at 15-20,000 since the war began--sealing the permanent hatred of millions who were related to the deceased.
Officers, diplomats and intelligence analysts with actual experience in the Middle East--all the experts who were muzzled while Bush was selling his war--have begun to emerge from hiding with grim predictions. A survey of dissidents in the CIA and the Army was published in The Washington Post Sept. 29 under the headline "Growing pessimism on Iraq." The Post's unnamed sources agreed that Operation Iraqi Freedom is "a disaster," with "no obvious way to fix it." They supported the National Intelligence Council's bleak assessment of Iraq's future--at best "a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments," at worst the battleground for an apocalyptic civil war.
"They keep telling us that Iraqi security forces are the exit strategy," said an Army staff officer, "but there's a feeling on the ground that Iraqi security forces are in cahoots with the insurgents and the general public to get the occupiers out."
It's funny, the way you can't trust anyone in an occupied country. Does it sound familiar? The Iraq war is different from Vietnam only in the sense that Vietnam was so much easier to justify and explain. Compared with the wild and cynical assault on the fortress of Saddam Hussein, Vietnam began as a tidy, promising little war. The United States acted in accordance with a bipartisan consensus and an established foreign policy, a tradition of Communist containment. A sovereign nation had asked us for protection. There was a context, a rationale, ample precedent.
We see none of the above in Iraq, now that the sandstorm of outright falsehood has settled. No trace of nuclear weapons, biological weapons or Osama bin Laden has yet been discovered in Iraq, and today our warmakers wish us to believe that we did this all for the Iraqis and their precious freedom--though this freedom is unknown to them and 95 percent of them want us to go home. The war has been a priceless recruiting tool for Islamic terrorists and the "War on Terror" is becoming a toothless sham because of the resources we're wasting in Iraq. For the same reason, critics claim, Homeland Security has been shamefully understaffed and underfunded--by the same White House that manipulates our fear of another 9/11.
What really happened here? What is it possible to believe? Bush partisans recoil when someone mentions petroleum. But historian Dan T. Carter, with a little research, caught Paul Wolfowitz actually saying out loud, in April 2003: "Let's look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil." Try spinning that. And the crowning irony is that oil prices have soared since the march to Baghdad to well over $50 a barrel.
But far more frightening than the oil scenario--the West Texas rationale--is the story Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas tells about a private conversation with George Bush (also recounted by Dan T. Carter in "Confronting the War Machine" from Where We Stand: Voices of Southern Dissent).
"God told me to strike at al-Qaeda," Abbas claims Bush told him, "and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did."
I don't pretend to be the one who can tell you whether George W. Bush is a dim tool of sinister forces, as I always suspected, or a genuine gear-loose megalomaniac with god-worms crawling through his tortured brain. It's not for me to know or say. But the only steam-brake left on the runaway locomotive of George's private jihad is the election that looms before us. I disagree with Bush on virtually every issue; most of his supporters support him for reasons I find incomprehensible or abhorrent. In four short years his administration has poisoned or criminally neglected our economy, our environment, our international reputation and our tradition of human rights and civil liberties. Even science has come under fierce attack by a right-wing coalition of corporate thugs and fundamentalist illiterates. The indigent, the powerless and the disadvantaged have never faced dimmer prospects; in one of the most chilling scenes in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, military recruiters go trolling for poor boys in the malls. Of 45 million who lack health insurance, 1.7 million are veterans.
Yet none of those crises and none of the issues they raise seem worth debating on the eve of this historic election. The Iraq war ought to be enough, and far more than enough. "The war that never made sense," columnist Bob Herbert called it--not a War on Terror but a War on Reason. If ever there was a deal-breaker, a faith-breaker between a president and the people who elected him (or, in this case, allowed him to take office when his election was in question), it's this bloody-minded travesty of a war that Bush concocted out of far-right obsessions and cooked intelligence, lied flagrantly to legitimize and then pursued to such a tragic, pitiful cul-de-sac. Such poor judgment yoked to such abysmal incompetence is unprecedented in all presidential history known to me.
Impressions are unreliable when they're 36 years old. But I don't recall that Lyndon Johnson faced such thorough polarization or such a sense of impending calamity in 1968, when Vietnam demoralized him so much that he declined to run for reelection. LBJ, for all his faults, was one tough Texan worth about 400 of George Bush--so why does it seem unthinkable that Bush would resign? Johnson stood down, Nixon resigned. But they weren't advised by Karl Rove, whose counsel to a modern president is, "Never apologize, never admit error, never betray doubt. Deny everything. Attack."
Is Rove right about the electorate, that there's at least a working majority who can be fooled every time, who can be inflamed by any transparent lie or slander, who will stare at a naked emperor and swear that he's resplendent in ermine and silk? This is the election that will test Rove's dark science. If he wins, the Republicans not only fail to establish democracy in Iraq, they pretty much extinguish it in the United States, as well.
It looks to be about even money, this election. And thereby lies a great mystery. In all my life as a non-affiliated voter and a non-affiliated vendor of political opinion--a chronic dissenter and contrarian by most measures--I've never had to deal with so many people who agree with me. It's disconcerting. My family, nearly everyone I know or meet, everyone whose opinion I've ever respected seems to deplore this war and despise the president who created it. I wrote an anguished sort of essay after the Abu Ghraib prison scandals last spring and it's still circulating in cyberspace, still eliciting response. I've received some 800 letters from all over the world--countless e-mails--I'd publish a huge book of them if there was time. And so far only five, I swear, have disagreed with me.
Thanks to George Bush, I feel like a member of a tribe at last, a vast extended family that I never suspected, never imagined. But the great mystery is, who are The Others--the 45 percent or more who manage to believe in this man and his war?
"There must be something wrong with us if we believe it," says the exasperated billionaire George Soros, who has spent nearly $20 million trying to retire George Bush. "I want to shout from the rooftops: 'Wake up, America. Don't you realize we're being misled?' "
"Misled," with the full force of both its meanings, must be the word of the hour. (I'm partial to the word because my wife--well-read but country-bred--once pronounced it "myzuld" in an undergraduate writing class.) A great nation has been "myzuld," and Soros's frustration is contagious. But what sort of country is so easily misled? When you add up neocon imperialists, assault-gun psychos, shallow-closet segregationists, fat-wallet whores who coddle fascists for the sake of deeper tax cuts, fundamentalists for whom pro-choice is pro-Satan, Darwin is Mephistopheles and the Book of Revelation is the literal word of God--this loose federation of unsavory cults and cliques that make up the modern Republican Party--you know they don't add up to anything close to an electoral majority. And many traditional conservatives--ones like William F. Buckley, John McCain and Pat Buchanan, who on occasion put principle ahead of partisan bloodlust--are now questioning the war and condemning this furious sack of the U.S. Treasury. In his new book Where the Right Went Wrong, Buchanan writes, "The Republican philosophy might be summarized thus: To hell with principle; what matters is power, and that we have it, and that they do not."
"From almost anywhere outside the United States," writes the British scholar Alan Ryan, from Oxford, "it is impossible to understand how Mr. Bush has even a remote chance of reelection." Where, then, are the rest of the true believers, the Bush bedrock at which an underdog John Kerry must perforce chip away? In a new book called What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a depressing portrait of a desolate, impoverished Kansas county that gave George Bush 80 percent of its vote in 2000 and promises to do so again, even as its miseries multiply and its prayers go unanswered.
"People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about," writes Frank, echoing a song I've been singing in North Carolina for 30 years. He describes "a panorama of madness and delusion ... of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of working-class guys delivering up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life and transform their region into a 'rustbelt.'"
Last week, far from Kansas, I experienced my own vision of the long-suffering, logic-defying, self-devouring faithful who have anchored a Republican revolution. Early one Saturday evening, after my aunt's funeral, I drove south from Rochester, N.Y., into the Allegheny foothills. In late September twilight I drove 90 miles, almost to Pennsylvania, before I found a motel or any substantial sign of life. The dozen towns I drove through were ghost towns, with empty streets, empty storefronts and scarcely 20 functioning businesses that I could count--and 15 of those sold pizza. It was like a medieval countryside emptied by the plague. Do ghosts eat pizza?
Every 40 miles or so a Wal-Mart sits like a fortress in the same medieval landscape, the Wal-Mart that murdered these once-charming villages, that created five mega-billionaires on the latest list of the super-rich, that controls all the retail business and most of the jobs that remain in wasted Rust Belt regions like Western New York. And I know from the experience of living there, as well as the flags and ribbons, that most of these people support the war and support this president. Out here, even ghosts vote Republican.
It's here in the empty country that the great Republican gullibility holds sway. People surrender their soldier-children, their votes, their meager taxes without a murmur, then call in to right-wing radio hosts to rage about abortionists and same-sex marriage. Where hope is hard to find, people turn to more accessible emotions, like anger and fear. It takes enemies to give them purpose in the world, and if Osama bin Laden is out of range they're happy to substitute you and me--the too-tolerant, too-skeptical "secular humanists" for whom, ironically, the post-Enlightenment American democracy was expressly designed.
The Republicans are wondrous manipulators of these lost souls, these disenfranchised Middle Americans. But Kansas isn't our enemy. It's our responsibility, as a few serious politicians understand. Sander Levin, Democratic congressman from Michigan, is an intelligent, compassionate, somewhat sorrowful-looking man who looks like the Hollywood stereotype of the wise old liberal legislator. On his wedding anniversary, he drove out to a Kerry fundraiser in upscale Chevy Chase, Md., to rally the troops, who had been reading discouraging polls.
"Don't start hanging your heads, that's what they count on," he told them. "We have a great opportunity. I'm obsessed by the importance of this election. Believe me--there are 175 Republican congressmen just like Tom DeLay, and they plan to dismantle this nation as we know it, as it has evolved to this point. Four more years of these people and we're bankrupt, we have no tax base, we have a military draft, we have hopeless wars. Worst of all, all the machinery for helping people will have withered away. Think of a Supreme Court packed with fundamentalist reactionaries...."
Levin shook his head, his voice trailed away. Then he looked up and smiled, a tired smile: "Please, please don't give up."
This is an election that reasonable Americans can't afford to lose, because someday in Iraq that awful game of golf will be played over our children's bones, and the only question left is, "How many bones?" Much as I hate sound bites and slogans, it seems to me that this time, this Tuesday, the choice is precisely as John Kerry has tried to define it: Hope versus fear. I take it as an omen that the anthem my aunt's family chose for her memorial service--a young man sang it beautifully--was "Be Not Afraid." x