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War Games

IF YOU'RE TRYING TO STOP THE WAR ON IRAQ--IF YOU'RE EVEN THINKING ABOUT IRAQ-- THEN YOU MUST BE ONE OF THE FEW, THE POWERLESS, THE MARGINAL

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The other night, I went out drinking. Not particularly unusual in itself, except this time I didn't go out with my marginal, smart-mouthed, and weirdly impassioned colleagues from this newspaper. Rather, I hoisted a few drinks with a likable, attractive group of educated, affluent young professionals from the tech industry.

Well lubricated, our tongues wagged for four hours. We talked about a lot of stuff: their work, my work, the definition of art, their last dinner party, and our--er, their favorite drugs. There was even a little talk of local politics.

One thing that didn't come up was Iraq. There was no talk of sanctions, zero talk of inspectors, not a peep about the upcoming war. (Don't kid yourself; it's a done deal. My guess: end of January.) The impending war on Iraq is not, apparently, lighting up the radar screens of the lit-up faces of our town's movers and shakers.

Now, I suppose I could shed a tear or two over this. After all, I spend a lot of time thinking about Iraq. In moments of weakness (or extreme inebriation), I even care enough to rant about how Dubya's a fool and how we'll surely suffer blowback from this dumbass escapade. How the war is only justifiable if afterward we're willing to do the long, difficult, expensive work of nation-building, and how the Bushies are about as likely to nation-build as they were to run Al Gore for Trent Lott's vacated seat. I think about Iraq so much, in fact, that I sought out an actual Iraqi this weekend, wanting to hear his take on the war.

This particular Iraqi has been in the United States since 1994, shortly after he joined the southern Shiite rebellion against Saddam--the uprising the first President Bush promised to back--and was forced to flee when Bush Sr. hung them out to dry (rent Three Kings, you'll get the idea). No fan of the Iraqi dictator (Saddam's government shot his dad for refusing to fight Iran in the '80s), he was just as cynical about American motives as I am. Saddam or no Saddam, ordinary Iraqis, he figures, are never going to enjoy the comfort and security he enjoys over here, in spite of all the oil wealth.

"Oil is Iraq's curse," he tells me. "Oil and Saddam."

So, yes, I think going to war with Iraq is a lame, morally unjustifiable idea, but so fucking what? Who gives a shit what I think? George W. Bush certainly doesn't. Unlike my young techie friends, I'm a culturally marginal figure, and if you're reading this, then in all likelihood so the fuck are you. But those affluent, social-climbing twentysomethings I got loaded with the other night? And the vast suburban demographic they will soon be a part of? They don't think Iraq's a big deal. For modern Americans--beginning with Grenada and certainly by the first Gulf War--warfare is an elaborate video game, without real cost or consequences (for Americans, I mean). As far as I can tell, there's a pretty good chance Grand Theft Iraq II: Baghdad City won't be any different.

Take your average suburban middle-class kid, and the average suburban middle-class kid's mom and dad--you know, the sort of family American politicians obsess about. They have way more important things to worry about than what Rummy and Cheney are getting up to on the other side of the globe. For Junior, it's nagging Dad to buy him a car, and getting his girlfriend to give him a hummer in the back seat of Mom's Explorer this weekend. And for Mom and Dad, it's property taxes, and cholesterol, and paying for Fido's dialysis, and 401(k) plans, and whatever the hell else people like that worry about. If, like me, you give a shit about Iraq, or Afghanistan, well, you obviously don't really matter to American pols; you don't figure into their electoral calculus.

What about all the protests? you ask. What about the 2,000 people marching downtown, or the letter-writing campaigns, or even the "potlucks for peace" being planned? Fuck you, I say. Portland is not mainstream America, it's la-la land. I mean, sure, I agree with the marchers and potluckers, I guess, but I also agree with folks on the East Coast (where I'm from) who believe that most folks in Portland are out-and-out goofballs. And, more importantly, so do Mom and Dad and Junior--even Moms and Dads and Juniors in Portland. If you want to feel good and sanctimonious and smug in your moral superiority, or if you've got an overpowering need not to feel alone in your alienated loserhood, go protest tomorrow about how evil American policy is. Just don't tell yourself you're advancing the cause; there's nothing mainstream American culture hates more than a moralizing lefty, especially post-9/11.

And why is that? It might have something to do with Mercury contributor Dan Savage's famous rant--i.e., that the left has no real solutions to preserve American (or, more specifically, suburban) security from Islamo-fascism (no short-term solutions, at any rate). The potluckers want to change America and how America exercises power--which will change the way America is perceived, and change attitudes toward America. And how long will this process take? Twenty years? More? In the meantime, terrorism isn't going away. The left wants to err on the side of dead Americans, while the right wants to err on the side of dead Muslims and Arabs. Is it any wonder Mom and Dad and Junior are more comfortable with George W. making video-game war on a hapless and already whipped enemy than, say, potluckers and their sitting-duck peace?

War is not a video game, of course. But that's not something that can be proven--not to comfortably numb middle-class America--until something really bad happens, like the price of gas going above $2 per gallon or Botox supplies being disrupted or the next big shipment of TiVos getting hung up in transit. If this Iraq thing goes according to the Bushies' script--a couple months of lobbing bombs, a couple weeks of ground war mopping up--the video-game perception of war will be reinforced. But if it doesn't--if Saddam's troops actually fight rather than sticking his head atop a white-flagged pole, and more than a handful of young American soldiers come back in body bags--then there just might be a few changes in the United States' approach to the world.

The Achilles' heel of this administration is that overall support for the Iraq adventure is soft. I'm sure if I'd asked those folks I had drinks with, they'd have expressed doubts about the whole enterprise. Nonetheless, right now the government has a tacit deal with the suburban and urban middle class: As long as Bush makes noises about working with allies, doesn't fuck up the economy too badly, and doesn't put Junior in harm's way (relying instead on an all-volunteer army composed of the sons and daughters of the working poor), then he can do what he wants in Iraq. That's reality, whether you like it or not. But if the Bushies ever break that deal, watch out. Suburban America is all about comfort and security, and if a war on Iraq messes with that in any way, then Bush & co. are in real trouble.

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