JAN. 30 is here at last, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, again. By my estimate, Iraq’s election day is the fifth time that American troops have been almost on their way home from an about-to-be pacified Iraq. The four other incipient V-I days were the liberation of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), President Bush’s declaration that “major combat operations have ended” (May 1, 2003), the arrest of Saddam Hussein (Dec. 14, 2003) and the handover of sovereignty to our puppet of choice, Ayad Allawi (June 28, 2004). And this isn’t even counting the two “decisive” battles for our nouveau Tet, Falluja. Iraq is Vietnam on speed – the false endings of that tragic decade re-enacted and compressed in jump cuts, a quagmire retooled for the MTV attention span.
But in at least one way we are not back in Vietnam. Iraq hawks, like Vietnam hawks before them, often take the line that to criticize America’s mission in Iraq is to attack the troops. That paradigm just doesn’t hold. Americans, including those opposed to the war, love the troops (Lynndie England always excepted). Not even the most unhinged Bush hater is calling our all-volunteer army “baby killers.” This time, paradoxically enough, it is often those who claim to love the troops the most – and who have the political power to help alleviate their sacrifice – who turn out to be the troops’ false friends.
There was, for instance, according to the Los Angeles Times, “nary a mention” of the Iraq war or “the prices paid by American soldiers and their families” at the lavish Inauguration bash thrown for the grandees of the Christian right by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition at Washington’s Ritz-Carlton. This crowd cares about the troops much the way the Fifth Avenue swells in the 1936 Hollywood classic “My Man Godfrey” cared about the “forgotten men” of the Depression – as fashion ornaments and rhetorical conveniences. In that screwball comedy, a socialite on a scavenger hunt collects a genuine squatter from the shantytown along the East River. “All you have to do is go to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel with me,” she tells her recruit, “and I’ll show you to a few people and then I’ll send you right back.”
In this same vein, television’s ceremonial coverage of the Inauguration, much of which resembled the martial pageantry broadcast by state-owned networks in banana republics, made a dutiful show out of the White House’s claim that the four-day bacchanal was a salute to the troops. The only commentator to rudely call attention to the disconnect between that fictional pretense and the reality was Judy Bachrach, a writer for Vanity Fair, who dared say on Fox News that the inaugural’s military ball and prayer service would not keep troops “safe and warm” in their “flimsy” Humvees in Iraq. She was promptly given the hook. (The riveting three-minute clip, labeled “Fair and Balanced Inauguration,” can be found at ifilm.com, where it has seized the “most popular” slot once owned by Jon Stewart’s slapdown of Tucker Carlson.)