Bob Herbert’s War

Posted by Cutler on November 28, 2006
Iraq, Isolationism

“We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.” — U2

Bob Herbert’s recent essay, “While Iraq Burns,” deserves comment on this blog for two reasons.

First, because he reiterates a favorite New York Times theme: the War in Iraq requires that Americans renounce unbridled desire and embrace mature responsiblity. I have discussed this theme in previous posts, here and here.

Second, because he invokes the voice of a student at Wesleyan University, the historically “progressive” elite liberal arts college where I am a professor. [A student who called my attention to the Herbert article also noticed that the University, which usually celebrates media attention linked to Wesleyan on its homepage, has thus far opted to skip this prominent depiction of Wesleyan campus sentiment.]

Here is a taste of Herbert’s prophetic jeremiad:

Americans are shopping while Iraq burns…

There is something terribly wrong with this juxtaposition of gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades and the slaughter by the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children and babies. The war was started by the U.S., but most Americans feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it.

Representative Charles Rangel recently proposed that the draft be reinstated, suggesting that politicians would be more reluctant to take the country to war if they understood that their constituents might be called up to fight. What struck me was not the uniform opposition to the congressman’s proposal — it has long been clear that there is zero sentiment in favor of a draft in the U.S. — but the fact that it never provoked even the briefest discussion of the responsibilities and obligations of ordinary Americans in a time of war…

With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. In an interview last week, Alex Racheotes, a 19-year-old history major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said: “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq. But beyond that, I get the feeling that most people at school don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test”…

This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name…

In a demoralizing reprise of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the U.N. reported that in Iraq: “The situation of women has continued to deteriorate. Increasing numbers of women were recorded to be either victims of religious extremists or ‘honor killings.’ Some non-Muslim women are forced to wear a headscarf and to be accompanied by spouses or male relatives.”

Iraq burns. We shop. The Americans dying in Iraq are barely mentioned in the press anymore…

[T]he burden of fighting has fallen on a small cadre of volunteers who are being sent into the war zone again and again. Nearly 3,000 have been killed, and many thousands more have been maimed…

The war has now lasted as long as the American involvement in World War II. But there is no sense of collective sacrifice in this war, no shared burden of responsibility. The soldiers in Iraq are fighting, suffering and dying in a war in which there are no clear objectives and no end in sight, and which a majority of Americans do not support…

They are dying anonymously and pointlessly, while the rest of us are free to buckle ourselves into the family vehicle and head off to the malls and shop.

One could argue that Herbert’s primary concern is the differential sacrifice being made by the “small cadre of volunteers.” Indeed, one might also note that many of these “volunteers” aren’t exactly swimming in disposable income and could use a massive pay hike so that they could join in the shopping fun.

But Herbert doesn’t seem interested in universal shopping as the antidote to inequality. Instead, the real “liberal” aim is universal sacrifice.

This is odd since Herbert sometimes seems to think that US soldiers in Iraq are dying “pointlessly.”

But is Herbert simply demanding that Wesleyan students “care” enough to demand the immediate withdrawal of US troops?

Why, then, invoke the classic “liberal” basis for intervention: the helpless women of Afghanistan Iraq who are increasingly victimized by… the US war machine? No. By “religious extremists” who force “non-Muslim women” to “wear a headscarf and to be accompanied by spouses or male relatives.”

Here is the liberal interventionist call that was always missing in a campaign to oust the secular Baathist government of Iraq! Now Iraq is our kind of mission. We’ll take it from here, Mr. President.

From now on it will be “collective sacrifice” and a “shared burden of responsibility.” Bring back the draft. Let’s fight this war like we fought World War II. Herbert hits all the common themes that Democrats use to prepare the cultural ground for fighting this war better than Bush.

On that basis, I prefer the culture described (accurately, I would argue) by the Wesleyan student quoted by Herbert.

This is a culture of “indifference” that serves as the basis for a new isolationism.

What is the relationship between indifference and an anti-war movement?

As the student says, “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq.” Or die in Iraq.

Herbert tries to suggest that “the Americans dying in Iraq are barely mentioned in the press anymore…” This is the only thing Herbert wrote where I hope (and believe) he is wrong.

The “threshold of tolerance” for US deaths in Iraq is low by historical standards and anti-war activists can only hope it gets lower still. A New York Times inspired “culture of sacrifice,” by contrast, will only raise that threshold.

Impatience is a virtue for the anti-war movement. The advocates of greater US involvement in Iraq are the ones who would have to plead that “so far” US deaths and injuries in Iraq are low by historical standards.
The problem, for Herbert, seems to be that students are thinking only of themselves and do not go “beyond that.”

But what is beyond indifference? No government can fight and win a war on the basis of indifference. It is war that demands something “beyond” indifference: a willingness to fight, die, and accept paternalistic responsibility for the global “Other.”

Herbert focuses his paternalistic spotlight on particular “Others”: “innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children and babies.”

Notice that Herbert doesn’t talk about Iraqis who are blasting the US out of Iraq. No wonder. It would hardly make sense to ask Wesleyan students to “adopt” these rather well armed insurgents as their paternalistic “responsibility.”

Between Herbert’s call for “collective sacrifice” and universal shopping, I’ll take shopping any day of the week.

Arlo Guthrie deserves the last word on the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving:

[T]here’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into
the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get
anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if
one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and
they won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony,
they may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.
And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in
singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an
organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said
fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it’s a movement.

And that’s what it is , the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement, and
all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come’s around on the

If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud…

You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant
Walk right in it’s around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant

4 Comments to Bob Herbert’s War

  • Why pick on the college student? It’s not coincidental that “the campus” becomes the litmus test for engagement with war politics. I guess people are still looking back to the 60s, when students romantically ditched class to take over buildings and such. Weird, because if I were to be waging some kind of campaign for “collective sacrifice,” I wouldn’t be using an example of a student worried about grades. I’d paint the picture of the binge-drinking, drug sniffing, sex-having student…not the studious type. Why Wesleyan not Ohio State? Herbert may even be using the example to suggest that a student at Wesleyan, History major no less, should be aware of and invested in doing something about the war. At least the party-er has a justifiable reason for not caring, the History major, who knows, but is indifferent, has no excuses. Wesleyan makes me proud once in a while…

  • I think, you totally misunderstud the argument of Rangel and Herbert.:

    “Representative Charles Rangel recently proposed that the draft be reinstated, suggesting that politicians would be more reluctant to take the country to war if they understood that their constituents might be called up to fight.”

    As much as i unserstand Rangel, he simply says that a draft-army has roots in society and reflects the mood of society whereas a profiarmy is freefloating. This is the old argument of the left against profiarmies.

    Two examples of draftarmies: germany 1918, us army after 68.

    or, most prominebt, russia, februar/november 1917

  • Erm, I was thinking about this today after class. Along the same thread as Sam Han’s comment above, why Wesleyan of all places? I mean, at least in terms of shopping, considering our finals always falls during the prime holiday shopping week, who has time to worry about going to the mall? Why didn’t he just interview people, you know, at the mall?

    So I wonder what he was hoping to get out of interviewing college students about Iraq. Ironically, many of the students I graduated high school with who were considering enlisting (in 2003-2004, just after the war began) didn’t care about Iraq, either. Serving in Iraq wasn’t to get in on the shopping fun, but to pay for college. I mean, we can talk about sacrifice, but if it isn’t sacrifice in the form of reallocating huge chunks of the defense budget towards increasing the stagnant Pell Grant, then I think we’re missing the point. As you said above, it’s not like these “volunteers” are swimming in huge vats of disposable income and are taking a joy ride through Baghdad for a couple tours.

    I think it’s rough when we no longer see soldiers as making a sacrifice–because that is *not* how army recruitment works anymore. You don’t see any signs with Uncle Sam wanting you. You see promises of college grants and job skills. And maybe the marketing has backfired. When you frame enlistment as a way to earn money for college and not as a way to serve your country, other people accept that framework, as well.

    Ha, so with that said, is he in favor of the universal draft like Rangel? Does he think that’s going to make us all pull our noses out of textbooks and run out of Olin to protest? Seems like a costly way to skirt the issue that college is seen universally as a necessity for survival anymore and the government does jack to provide for it save military enlistment.

  • The most surprising thing was the fact that he picked a Wesleyan student. He hardly could have found a school with more political activity and connections to the Times. Anytime the Education section needs a story some reporter just calls up their kid and asks about the latest issue on campus…

    As Cutler notes, Herbert definitely moves from saying the war is pointless to offerring up a new rationale for the continued occupation of Iraq. I can hardly wait until January when the Democrats take power–they’ll show this administration how to run an occupation.

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