Jul/Aug 2004 Salon

Bad Apples, Heroes, Villains

by Paul Sampson

I. Apples of Discord

As I write, early in the Summer of 2004, the disgusting photos from Abu Ghraib Prison are still the dominant images of the ongoing war in Iraq. Not even the yet more obscene photos of the beheading of a hapless American have managed to pull the world's attention away from these sadistic snapshots. Somehow, we expect the enemy to commit atrocities. We expect better of ourselves, and we usually get it.

Leaving aside the truly moronic responses of the likes of Rush Limbaugh (the soldiers were "just blowing off steam!") and Senator James M. Inhofe (R-OK, who was "more outraged by the outrage" over the photos than by what they depicted), most commentators and certainly most officials of the Government denounced the behavior of the guards. I have no doubt at all that they were sincerely revolted by the stories and repelled by the pictures and righteously angry at the perpetrators. And very nearly all of them used the same metaphor to describe what they hoped was the problem: "A few bad apples" had injured the reputations of the thousands of decent soldiers who are serving in Iraq.

A few bad apples. You know what? I don't think so. Just to put it in personal terms: My doctors have all agreed that I have cancer, and that I must endure chemotherapy to deal with it. I have begun the unpleasant treatments and will be getting them for many weeks.

Now, wait a second! I'm a good person! I don't have cancer, it's just a few bad cells! Just one little tumor, no bigger than the end of your finger, in just one lung! Yet they pump my WHOLE BODY full of harsh chemicals just to deal with these few rogue cells, which in no way represent the rest of my body...

Well, you see where I'm going with this comparison. The trouble is, cancer endangers the whole body. And the kind of rot that surfaced at Abu Ghraib is a cancer. It will require a systemic cure.

Just in the past few days, The Wall Street Journal has been running a shocking series of stories that show how deep this disease goes. (This has prompted a stinging editorial on the same theme in the Financial Times. These left-wing rags, ganging up on the USA, as usual!) It seems that lawyers in the Pentagon and in the Administration itself have been circulating opinions that claim that the President, as Commander in Chief, is not bound to honor the United States law that prohibits any US agency from inflicting torture on anybody, ever, for any reason. And this kind of legal excuse-making has been going on at least since March 2003. It is the kind of reasoning that runs from top to bottom of the Administration. Apparently, not all the bad apples are Reserve-unit part-time soldiers with two or three stripes on their sleeves. There are bad apples with offices in the Pentagon, the White House, and at CIA Headquarters, too. How do you like them apples?

The Journal and other news agencies will be keeping us up to date on all of this, probably for months to come. Think what you want. I know what I think, about cancer, about war, about THIS war, and about our current rulers. And very especially, about people who ought to know much better who swallow what we are told about these things by the perpetrators.

Oh, by the way: The proverb is "One bad apple spoils the barrel." Not "One bad apple reflects unfairly on the barrel." Spoils it.


II. Heroes

Heroism is a problem. You cannot sanctify a bad cause by pouring blood on it, but a soldier's death in battle is still a sacrament. John 15:13 says, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," and John is right. And every day's news brings us the names of more heroes who laid down their lives for us, in the service of our country.

Soldiering in the army of a democracy involves a paradox. You have to be both soldier and citizen. When I took the oath as a new private in the U.S. Army in 1961, I was not a very bloodthirsty warrior, and I had serious doubts about the wisdom of war as an instrument of policy, especially since war in those days was expected to be an apocalyptic nuclear holocaust that would leave the living envying the dead. But I took the oath, believing that a citizen ought to be willing to defend his fellow citizens. As a citizen, I, like everyone else, was obliged to question the Government's justification of any wars it entered, but as a soldier, I was obliged to do what I could to win any wars I found myself in. Fine points of difference with Government policy would have to be worked out politically; differences with enemies would be settled on the battlefield.

That, of course, was before Vietnam. By the time that was over, I was no longer as willing to believe any Governmental stories about the need for war. I can certainly think of situations that would qualify as a "Just War," but for many years this has been more often in the realm of thought-experiment than political reality. Did someone actually think that the island of Grenada was worth a drop of anyone's blood? Really? Whose?

I do not like this current war for many reasons. I supported the Afghan expedition because it pursued an actual enemy who had actually injured us, fighting him where he actually was (and still is), and I regret that our leaders didn't keep their attention there. I really believe that the cowards and poltroons of the Cheney-Perle-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld-et-al faction shifted the war to Iraq for bad, indefensible reasons, and I hope their wickedness brings them and their stooge GWB crashing down. (I have little hope that it will. Wars are easy to sell. One reason is our love of its heroes and our reluctance to believe they died for a bad cause.)

And this is a bad cause. The war in Iraq is being fought to advance a corrupt Imperial dream. We ask and get heroic courage from our soldiers, as we always have. "Support Our Troops," say a million bumper stickers. Yes, support them. Quit pouring their heroic blood down a sewer.

I am an outpatient at a Veterans Hospital. My wife works there too. We see—I on my infrequent visits, she in her daily work—the end product of our wars.

Support these troops by all means. Pay close attention while this Administration, led by a gang of cowards, cuts dollar after dollar, doctor after doctor, nurse after nurse, from Veterans’ benefits, closing hospital after clinic all over the country—and all the while front-loading the VA Hospital system with the blind, the limbless, the brain-scrambled of this filthy war.

This is supposed to be a high-toned literary magazine, so I will quote a couple of poems that apply in this context. They are from A. E. Housman, a poet I loved as a young man, largely ignored in my middle years, and love again for his unflinching attention to death. He is not morbid and only sometimes sentimental, and even then he is not mawkish. His restraint is admirable, especially in our age of unchecked gush.

He wrote sometimes about soldiers. He did so just over a hundred years ago, in the age of the jolly little wars whereby his nation "painted the map Red," extending the British Empire by the sword. I don't think Housman much cared about the Empire, but he loved the soldiers. Hold the snickering; yes, he was gay. But his love of soldiers as seen in the poems was not just sublimated lust. It was the genuine tragic vision, the steady gaze at the beautiful, doomed youths who went to war.


[From "More Poems", XXXVI]

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.


[From "A Shropshire Lad"]

FROM Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because 'tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we'll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn's dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

'God save the Queen' we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.


III. Villains

Take a little time, if not now then soon, and look up The Project for the New American Century. So as to be fair, I will start by quoting their own description of themselves:

"The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle; and that too few political leaders today are making the case for global leadership."

Okay, enough with the fairness already: These people are absolutely naked imperialists, and they are running this country into the deepest moral swamp it has ever blundered around in. Their version of "global leadership" is, simply and openly, the presumed right of the United States to dictate any policy to any nation at any time. This right, according to PNAC, is to be exercised at gunpoint when necessary, and they presume it will indeed be necessary. Preemptive war? We already have one cooking, and more are in the works.

These are the famous neocons, and they are the unelected rulers of this country. Our country. Or so we still like to believe.

These are not people who burden themselves with questions of moral nicety. They consider themselves realists, ready to turn Mother's picture to the wall and authorize a little torture in the service of a good cause. They are the ones who have set the moral tone that trickles down to the cells at Abu Ghraib. Looking for bad apples? Here are some really wormy ones: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and Bremer. As in that other moral tale involving an apple, they are tempters. Their willing listener: George W. Bush. He's gonna get us all kicked out of this garden if he keeps swallowing poisoned fruit.


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