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(DV) Street: The "Cowardice" Card







The "Cowardice" Card
Militarism's Last and Self-Fulfilling Refuge

by Paul Street
November 26, 2005

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What sort of unpardonable crimes might the U.S. government commit in the world? Killing tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians in the execution of an illegal and brazenly imperialist invasion of a formerly sovereign nation? 

Launching a criminal war of aggression, sold to the world and the American citizenry on transparently false grounds? Turning Iraq into a chaotic madhouse of violence and a breeding ground for terrorism -- all in the curious name of a “war on terrorism”? Illegally torturing countless non-combatants in the name of "freedom" and "democracy" within and beyond occupied Iraq? 

Indoctrinating its soldiers and imperial prison guards with the false notion that they were in Iraq to "avenge 9/11" and defeat the terror networks that conducted the jetliner attacks of 9/11?  Alienating world opinion, enraging a region's populace, and sparking a massive cycle of terror and factional violence in the execution of an unjust war? 

No, the really unforgivable thing would be to lack the "courage" required to continue carrying out these and other reprehensible transgressions. If Uncle Sam were to lose his nerve and call off his vicious assault on Iraq and on standard norms and established rules of international conduct, he would be dishonoring the more than 2,000 American soldiers he has already sent to an early grave in the commission of those terrible crimes. He would reveal himself as a powerless paper tiger, ready to get desert sand kicked in its face by any rogue terrorist in the oil-rich Middle East. It would be an open season on America, "civilization," and "freedom" around the world. 

Such is the basic argument of America's increasingly embattled but in-power hard right, which accuses the rising number of antiwar Americans of deficient military manliness. "Cowards cut and run," a veteran solider told Republican Congresswomen Jean Schmidt (Ohio), but "Marines never do." Schmidt offered this marvelous pearl of proto-fascist wisdom in response to calls from U.S. citizens and some Democratic politicians for a rapid withdrawal from Mesopotamia. 

It is interesting though to see Schmidt and other right militarists reduced to such viciously circular and self-fulfilling arguments in defense of their president's bloody Iraq policy. The Cheney-Bush administration's originally stated war rationalizations have been revealed as alternately false, disingenuous, and idiotic.  The White House's Iraq crusade has been exposed as criminal and even -- more to the point (sadly but predictably enough) for most Democrats calling for withdrawal -- as dysfunctional for American Empire. As the executive branch's initial proclaimed ends fade into the mists of Orwellian illusion and high-state deception, the right's last ideological refuge is to sell military valor as an end in and of itself. 

To be sure, part of the administration's response to rising homeland repudiation of its failed war is to merge the attack on Iraq more aggressively than ever with the post-9/11 "war on terror."  Reflecting in part his own curious success in turning Iraq into a terror-ravaged charnel house, Bush now routinely claims that Iraq is ground zero in an epic struggle between "democracy" and "the murderous ideology" of "Islamic radicalism," which he now likens to "the ideology of Communism." Both of these "evil" ideologies, Bush explained to a military audience on Veteran's Day, express a "totalitarian" "contempt for human life" and "freedom" that will not stop of its own accord until "weapons of mass destruction" have destroyed "the blessings of liberty" in "free nations."  The last term is meant to most especially describe the openly corporate-plutocratic U.S., the "best democracy that money can [and did] buy": the world’s leading incarceration nation, where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth along with a certain large share of the policymakers. 

But the American public's patience with such paranoid, panic-peddling presidential hyperbole (straight out of the dog-wagging Reagan playbook) has faded.  A mounting share of the imperial "homeland's" citizenry understands and resents the fact that their government's battering of Iraq -- NOT some mythical Islamo-Trotskyist hatred of America's supposedly unmatched internal "freedom" -- is the main driving force behind Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. 

The White House and American right's ability to sell their childish "good versus evil" line on Iraq is undercut by previous deceptions on Iraqi WMD and Saddam Hussein's supposed links to al Qaeda and 9/11. Many of us remain conscious of the fact that similar false (the Soviet Union retreated from the goal of world revolution well before America proclaimed its Cold War on the "international communist conspiracy") apocalyptic and global claims were used by U.S. policymakers to justify the criminal slaughter of more than 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American GIs during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Beneath the Cheney-Bush cabal's messianic bluster, the right's fear-mongering doesn't wash with a terror-fatigued American citizenry that is restless about massive internal "homeland" problems -- deep and widespread poverty, steep class and related racial inequality, declining benefits coverage, rampant indebtedness and insecurity, absent and increasingly expensive health care, failing and under-funded schools, etc*(the list goes on and on) -- that are exacerbated by the nation's massive, deficit-fueling military budget. 

Hence the warmongers' growing reliance on atavistic, testosterone-fueled justification. Forget the originally proclaimed high purposes.  By last-refuge logic, it's all about looking tough: military badness as such. It's about militarism as an end in and of itself. With America's status as the center and guardian of what Dick Cheney calls "the civilized world" assumed as self-evident, it's all about courage, credibility, and macho intimidation. Uncle Sam's goodness requires him to act like the biggest, baddest Mafia Don on the block. For him to call off America's war criminality in Iraq would be to look weak and to dishonor America's ever-rising number of dead soldiers of empire. 

We must honor our dead with more dead, sacrificed by "good" chickenhawk "leaders" like Cheney and Bush to show "evil men" that an inherently virtuous America doesn't "cut and run." 

It's a pathetically stupid, viciously circular, and morally bankrupt argument, as is understood by many among the majority of Americans who want their government to, well, cut and run out of Iraq within at least 12 months. 

The sheer criminal madness of it all is increasingly grasped and rejected by working-class Americans, who are spurning military recruiters in record numbers. It's only those near the bottom of America's steep socioeconomic pyramid, many non-affluent Americans understand, who are supposed to lose their lives and limbs so that effete, wealthy war pigs like "Bring-Em On" Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld can look like manly men of empire.

Paul Street is a Visiting Professor of American History at Northern Illinois University. His latest book is Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004). He can be reached at:

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