Thursday, November 02, 2006

An inadvertent truth

What John Kerry was supposed to say: "Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

What he said: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq."

Poor John Kerry. He committed the biggest sin a politician can commit: he spoke the truth. And what's worse, he did it accidentally.

The shitstorm of condemnation from the American right, the punditocracy and the West Wing itself are doing a very good job of blustering and posturing and condemning Kerry's remarks as destructive and demoralizing and calling on all proper Americans to support the troops and their sacrifice. If only the Bush Administration would support the troops with more than rhetoric, it might have a leg to stand on here.

In some ways I imagine I should be grateful to Bush & co. for their spectacular vindication of my career choice: to listen to them, you'd think that not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but that words in and of themselves possess more power than bombs and bullets. Anyone criticizing the war, challenging its premise, calling for withdrawal, etc etc is putting the troops in danger; anyone calling for Rumsfeld's resignation erodes the fighting spirit of the men on the ground; anyone exercising first-amendment rights in anything less than a full-throated endorsement of the war effort gives heart to the terrorists and hamstrings the individual soldier (I'm waiting for Rumsfeld to produce the precise calculus: telling a joke about Bush = a kidnapping; demanding a schedule for withdrawal = an ambushed convoy in Tikrit; espousing liberal values = a spate of car bombings; and so on ...).

You know, I'm an English professor, and I had no idea that mere words had such immediate and concrete consequences. I'm so naive. Here I was imagining that things like proper body and vehicle armour, troop levels that concur with the recommendations of all the experts, and a coherent war plan that took local history and contexts into consideration might do more to protect the soldiers on the ground, and that not cutting their pay and veteran benifits would be good morale boosters. But then, I'm a milquetoast liberal university elite (with the collection of wine bottles to prove it), and don't know from military tactics.

So I shudder to think of where John Kerry's "botched joke," falls on the harm-to-the-troops scale of unguarded speech ... I suppose we'll be hearing soon of Baghdad blowing up and Osama bin Ladin being named as the new U.N. Secretary General. So it goes.

Especially, as I've said, because he's uttered a truth, one that flies in the dearly-held image of the U.S. military as being exclusively populated by committed, competent, elite units. This of course couldn't be further from the truth: with as massive an armed forces as the U.S. has, it can take all comers -- and what standards of intelligence, psychological stability and physical ability have traditionally been in place have been steadily eroded since the Iraq war began in 2003.

The most pervasive representation of the American soldier used to be the dogface G.I., the grunt who spent as much time peeling potatoes as firing a gun. Somewhere along the line that innocuous private was eclipsed by the uber-soldier, be he a Navy Seal or a Delta Force Commando, and the vast majority of our cinematic wars in the last twenty years have been fought by elite warriors bearing advanced weapons in small squads, taking on massive numbers of an undifferentiated enemy. The troubling truth of enlistment isn't so much that 99% of those signing up won't ever go near a Seal training facility or pilot an F-15, but that enlistment is a last resort for so many recruits escaping grinding poverty with no other prospects for employment besides an Army uniform.

And in the need for greater numbers to shore up the current war effort, recruiters, to quote the article I link to above, "are now being authorized to pursue high-school dropouts and (not to mince words) stupid people." Standards for education and intelligence are now at their lowest level since the Vietnam war. Which is kind of terrifying when you consider that that kid you know in high school who flunked Grade Nine three times and had a predeliction for setting his neighbours' pets on fire is being given an M-16 and a belt of grenades.

So Kerry tells an inadvertent truth: without education, without prospects, young Americans could well find themselves fighting a war whose principal architect has himself little regard for the benefits of an education. The blind leading the blank.


Anonymous said...

With all due respect, to your and your qualifications, I am not a high school dropout rather I am a meteorologist who has his degree, is presently serving proudly, and has almost 15 years in the service. I completed a tour of duty in Iraq in 2005, and it was not because I failed to due my homework or because I failed to make an effort to be smart - it was because I voluntarily raised my right hand and swore to defend the constitution of the United States.

You state that Senator Kerry spoke an inconvenient truth, and you claim that those in the military are stupid people. You are inaccurate on both counts. I am proud of my service and of the fact that I defend the right of Americans to speak their minds without the thought police or some similar organization arresting them. With that having been said, I am not pleased with what was said or with the context in which it was said.

I will not sink to the level of some who insult those who do not agree with them, or question their intelligence. I request the same of others…but do not really expect it.

Oh, and could someone please tell me the joke he claims he was attempting to make? In addition, could you tell me how I am crazy for interpreting what the Senator said as insult? In case you do not know what I am talking about, on 1 November 2006, Senator Kerry said, “If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they’re crazy,”

Let the insults towards me begin – it has happened before and I am getting used to it. Which is why I post as anonymous, threats towards me and my family suck!

Chris in NF said...

I'm not going to insult you, just suggest that you're misreading what I've said. I don't mean to say that the entire military is staffed with stupid people, nor that one must be stupid to join.My brother was in the army (the Canadian army), and he's one of the smartest people I know.

I was observing that for many people, military service is about the only viable option because of their circumstances -- and if you claim that recruiters do not take advantage of that fact, then you're quite naive. Not everyone made the measured choice you did. A choice, by the way, I have enormous respect for.

But again, not necessarily a choice everyone gets to make with quite the same freedom you obviously did. If you found my discussion of Kerry's gaffe overly sarcastic, my apologies -- but I stand by my basic premise, which is NOT that the military is populated by idiots, but that the shambles that calls itself public education in the U.S., to say nothing of postsecondary education that has effectively put itself beyond the reach of the poor, has created an underclass whose job options, should they seek honest work, have them choosing between a McDonald's or Marine uniform.

The abstract "freedom" for which the Iraq war is ostensibly being fought has never been adequately explicated. It seems that criticism of the war effort is increasingly villified; the president sanctions illegal wiretaps and searches; torture has apparently become de rigeur for the good guys; and the most basic freedom, the freedom to make choices about one's own future, is increasingly curtailed among the lower classes, and for many education itself is only made affordable by donning a uniform. Where, precisely, IS freedom on the march?

As for Kerry's gaffe, it was idiotic. And the original joke itself wasn't all that funny. But I do maintain that out of the mouths of fools sometimes come truths that we ignore at our peril.

Please post back, anonymous. And please known that any genuinely insulting responses to your comments will be deleted.

Anonymous said...

Sir, I appreciate your response and accept the comments at face value, with no hidden agendas.

Please do not think that I believe that recruiters do not go for the “easy mark”, I know that they do. I have seen my share of

As I noted in my earlier comment, honest, open, hearty conversation and debate are healthy for democracy in general and our two nations (Canada and the United States) in specific. It makes us stronger, when the individuals involved use their brains as well as their emotions.

Thanks for reading my comment and taking the time to respond. Looking forward to your future posts.

Lesley said...

The sad part about all elections is the things that are said in the media and the ways that people interpret them. While it's normal for one party to attack another, it's highly unlikely that they will use things like actual facts to justify their positions. Watching American television I am exposed to it daily. John Kerry made a mistake. John Kerry should not have said what he did. John Kerry should not have stated he would not apologize and then turn around and apologize. Regardless of whether or not this is a war that should be fought, that the individuals risking their lives overseas are anything but intelligent, or whether or not the existing government in the U.S. should have made the decisions they did, the fact remains that politicians need to do more thinking and less speaking. But asking for that is like asking for world ain't gonna happen.

Let's just hope that the election comes soon so we don't have to be subjected to such juvenile comments from people who should be smarter than that.

Chris in NF said...

Anonymous -- I'm glad to see we're more or less on the same page, though we might disagree on some (or many) points. Thanks for your response to my response. This is the kind of dialogue and debate that gives me heart.

If you want to continue this discussion, please email me (the address is listed here in my blogger profile). I would be very interested to hear your further thoughts.

Leslie -- well said. I suppose the dream of electoral debate that doesn't descend into bloodsport is utopian, but we should keep hoping.

queen B said...

Taking the pop culture angle, I'd just like to say thanks for the quotation from "Family Ties". Zoquo. Ushnuu.


amy said...

This is from today's NY Times.

George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld think you’re stupid. Yes, they do.

They think they can take a mangled quip about President Bush and Iraq by John Kerry — a man who is not even running for office but who, unlike Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, never ran away from combat service — and get you to vote against all Democrats in this election.

Every time you hear Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney lash out against Mr. Kerry, I hope you will say to yourself, “They must think I’m stupid.” Because they surely do.

They think that they can get you to overlook all of the Bush team’s real and deadly insults to the U.S. military over the past six years by hyping and exaggerating Mr. Kerry’s mangled gibe at the president.

What could possibly be more injurious and insulting to the U.S. military than to send it into combat in Iraq without enough men — to launch an invasion of a foreign country not by the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, but by the Rumsfeld Doctrine of just enough troops to lose? What could be a bigger insult than that?

What could possibly be more injurious and insulting to our men and women in uniform than sending them off to war without the proper equipment, so that some soldiers in the field were left to buy their own body armor and to retrofit their own jeeps with scrap metal so that roadside bombs in Iraq would only maim them for life and not kill them? And what could be more injurious and insulting than Don Rumsfeld’s response to criticism that he sent our troops off in haste and unprepared: Hey, you go to war with the army you’ve got — get over it.

What could possibly be more injurious and insulting to our men and women in uniform than to send them off to war in Iraq without any coherent postwar plan for political reconstruction there, so that the U.S. military has had to assume not only security responsibilities for all of Iraq but the political rebuilding as well? The Bush team has created a veritable library of military histories — from “Cobra II” to “Fiasco” to “State of Denial” — all of which contain the same damning conclusion offered by the very soldiers and officers who fought this war: This administration never had a plan for the morning after, and we’ve been making it up — and paying the price — ever since.

And what could possibly be more injurious and insulting to our men and women in Iraq than to send them off to war and then go out and finance the very people they’re fighting against with our gluttonous consumption of oil? Sure, George Bush told us we’re addicted to oil, but he has not done one single significant thing — demanded higher mileage standards from Detroit, imposed a gasoline tax or even used the bully pulpit of the White House to drive conservation — to end that addiction. So we continue to finance the U.S. military with our tax dollars, while we finance Iran, Syria, Wahhabi mosques and Al Qaeda madrassas with our energy purchases.

Everyone says that Karl Rove is a genius. Yeah, right. So are cigarette companies. They get you to buy cigarettes even though we know they cause cancer. That is the kind of genius Karl Rove is. He is not a man who has designed a strategy to reunite our country around an agenda of renewal for the 21st century — to bring out the best in us. His “genius” is taking some irrelevant aside by John Kerry and twisting it to bring out the worst in us, so you will ignore the mess that the Bush team has visited on this country.

And Karl Rove has succeeded at that in the past because he was sure that he could sell just enough Bush cigarettes, even though people knew they caused cancer. Please, please, for our country’s health, prove him wrong this time.

Let Karl know that you’re not stupid. Let him know that you know that the most patriotic thing to do in this election is to vote against an administration that has — through sheer incompetence — brought us to a point in Iraq that was not inevitable but is now unwinnable.

Let Karl know that you think this is a critical election, because you know as a citizen that if the Bush team can behave with the level of deadly incompetence it has exhibited in Iraq — and then get away with it by holding on to the House and the Senate — it means our country has become a banana republic. It means our democracy is in tatters because it is so gerrymandered, so polluted by money, and so divided by professional political hacks that we can no longer hold the ruling party to account.

It means we’re as stupid as Karl thinks we are.

I, for one, don’t think we’re that stupid. Next Tuesday we’ll see.