Blogs > Cliopatria > Portrait of a Liberator

Jan 7, 2006 5:50 pm

Portrait of a Liberator

Remarkable letter in today's edition of Stars and Stripes:
The bottom line up front (BLUF) is this: If the United States leaves Iraq before the job is at least 90 percent done, it would be catastrophic on a biblical scale ("War based on a lie," letter, Nov. 28). First, you would have civil war and ethnic strife. Then would come the genocide — if I offended anyone, I apologize; I meant"ethnic cleansing." After all that, another Taliban-style regime would take hold. Then another" coalition of the willing" would have to be assembled and we would be right back in Iraq.

Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. What would have happened if the U.S. had prematurely come home during World War II? This is no easy task. It takes time to force change on people.

Personally, I hate this country. I hated it the first time I was here. I will despise it and most of its ungrateful people until the day I die.
Regardless of the reason we are here — weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to al-Qaida, or whatever — the BLUF is that we are here and have a job to do.

Staff Sgt. David J. Wallach
Forward Operating Base Summerall, Iraq

It takes time to force change on people you despise. And the baffling thing is, they don't even seem grateful.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Chris Petit--

Where have I "explicitly" disavowed the legitimacy of rights and law? A citation would be appreciated.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Chris Bray--

Sorry, but you're being disingenuous. You're both undercutting Wallach's letter and trying to use it to score an ideological point. The problem is you can't seem to be explicit about either thing.

Most soldiers get angry when they're put in crappy circumstances. Most people get angry then. But when someone spouts off in anger and under duress, it's foolish to take their meaning absolutely literally. Example: you're at the bedside of someone after brain surgery and she says, "Oh my God, this is so bad, I want to die." Since "words mean what they mean," would you take that as a directive to end treatment? No. You'd read between the lines and realize that she was in terrible pain but that she didn't quite mean what she said.

Yes, words mean what they mean. But people don't always mean what their words mean, and this is a case in point.

Anyway, if "words mean what they mean," why not respond to my original challenge and tell me what you mean? Wallach says he hates Iraq and hates Iraqis, but recognizes that we have to use force to make "them" free. I interpret this charitably as the claim that we have to use force against those Iraqis that would keep other Iraqis unfree. Perhaps he hates "most" Iraqis because the ones he's met really suck. So he's a bit prejudiced.

But you say he's right to be angry. Is that supposed to be some sort of veiled comment on the legitimacy of the war? Or is he supposed to be legitimately mad at the people attacking him? Or what?

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Well, if we're really going to be literal about what Wallach said, he didn't say he hated Iraq since the "first day" he was there. He said he hated it the first time he went there--meaning he started hating it after his first deployment there. It sounds like a minor difference but isn't. "I hated it since the first day" sounds like he came with the hatred for the place right from the start. "I hated it the first time around" sounds like he hated being deployed there--more understandable.

Anyway, to answer your question: if I were the Iraqi, I'd realize that the people doing Wallach's job are apt to be in a bad mood, given what they do (not always, but often). But I'd also realize that people in permanently bad moods can do good and worthwhile things.

I might remember my history, for instance, and recall that after the partition of India and Pakistan--and the withdrawal of those sullen and hated troops of the British Raj--200,000 people were slaughtered in a civil war, and that the violence didn't end until those sullen white troops came back and restored order (then left again). The troops weren't fun to deal with, but they were better than civil war.

Or I might think of the Reconstruction South and remember that while military occupation was no fun, it sure beat being ruled by the KKK.

Or I might think of the worst neighborhood in the worst cities in any bad city anywhere around the world: Rio de Janeiro, Karachi, Gary Indiana. The cops there are not nice. But better sullen, angry cops than none.

As for your post, I think its implication was amply clear: the link to the cartoon in the last line makes it so. You weren't expressing perplexity. You were expressing outrage. The point of my challenge was to push you from the latter to the former. If I've succeeded, good, but that isn't where things began.

I look forward to your series and I may respond to it, in whole or in part, on my own blog.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


You're going to have be a little more explicit about what you take to be wrong with Wallach's argument. Contrary to the sarcastic comment you've offered, its wrongness isn't at all self-evident.

There is a more charitable way of reading his letter than the one you've (implicitly) offered. It is that there are plenty of people to despise in Iraq and it will take time to subdue them before the relevant changes can be made to the country. How is that wrong? The same exact thing might have been said of the Reconstruction South, of post-partition India, of post-Communist regimes, etc. etc.

It is also true that while some people are grateful for it, many people are visibly ungrateful for the use of force involved in securing their own freedom. Such people are either too stupid to see the relevant connections, or incapable of seeing them, or whatever. So they demand freedom but grouse about the requirements of securing it (or do worse than grouse). Wallach is right about that, too. And right to complain about it.

There is, finally, a good reason to read such a letter charitably. People under stress sometimes exaggerate the truth. If one reads their writings literally, one misses this fact--and misses the truth, too. Wallach is obviously under a great deal of stress. It's not clear to me why we're obliged to cut the anti-war movement acres of slack for the stupidity they've slung for the last three years, but can't offer the Sgt Wallachs of the world a little bit when they could use some. I've seen some pretty stupid anti-war arguments expressed here at HNN for years. The anti-warriors here have not exactly been diligent in weeding the good out from the bad.

In sum, I'm at a loss to see what is so obviously wrong about Wallach's letter. If you want to debate it, I'd suggest making your argument explicit rather than letting it turn on the supposed outrageousness of this rather sensible letter.

Chris Bray - 1/13/2006

If I were an Iraqi remembering my history, I might also remember Major General Stanley Maude announcing to my great-grandfather's generation in 1917 that the British Army "do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." I might also remember that Iraq didn't become independent from the British until 1932.

Your recounting of history is interesting: Lots of violence being repressed by outside powers, no violence being done by outside powers. Is there a place for R.E.H. Dyer in your memory?

Chris Bray - 1/12/2006

A thought experiment: You're an Iraqi; I'm an American soldier. I walk up to you on the street in Tikrit and I say to you, "I despise you, and I've hated you and your country since the day I arrived here. But, anyway, never mind that -- I'm here to force change on you. Will you cooperate?" What's your answer?

Or say that I don't say any of that, but I project it in every thing I do: the way I talk to you, the way I walk through your town, the way I enter your home.

The attitude this soldier is expressing -- however understandable, however forgivable, and however much it constitutes "spouting off" and can't be taken to mean precisely what he means -- is incompatible with a project to use armed force in the service of a project of liberation. I am interested in the tensions between the stated goal and the frustrations of the soldiers who are expected to work toward that goal. I didn't post this letter in the service of a grand agenda; I thought it was an interesting reflection of a complicated and unfortunate situation. I wasn't entirely sure what I made of it, and expected that readers would interpret it on their own and maybe discuss it. Your demand for a fully fleshed-out argument assumes that you are reading an academic journal. It's a blog. Something caught my eye, and I thought it would be interesting to note and discuss.

But I will try to lay out my thoughts more explicitly in the next few days. I have already begun with a post today.

Chris Bray - 1/10/2006

Somehow a comment that I tried to post here didn't make it onto the page, so I'll try to very briefly say what I don't have the patience to fully repeat: I am an infantryman, currently serving in the Middle East, so it would be difficult to ascribe to me a view that American soldiers are all mindless victims. And I really defy you to identify the place where I've described the commander in chief whose orders I obey as "Chimpy McBushitler." Your comment here is pretty pathetic.

Chris Bray - 1/10/2006

Even better: I just googled up your faculty page, and here we have yet another professional academic with no apparent military service ranting about the stupidity of professional academics who lack the experience of military service. Taking notes from Victor Davis Hanson?

Chris Bray - 1/10/2006

I'm an infantry sergeant on active duty (you fucking idiot), and not a leftist, and have not written that soldiers are "mindless victims of Chimpy McBushitler." Go fuck yourself. Or maybe try reading and thinking before you open your ignorant mouth.

Pierre Mauboussin - 1/9/2006

Nice to see the two leftist perspectives on American soldiers so neatly encapuslated:

Pettit: they're racist brutes
Bray: they're mindless victims of Chimpy McBushitler

In fact, of course, they are neither. Sgt. Wallach is performing his duty even though it conflicts with his own sense of the situation, which is a lot more than many academics seem to be able to do in the classroom (a far less difficult environment).

Pettit talks about the abstract rights of Iraqis: but where were they before Sgt. Wallach and his comrades in arms went to Iraq?

The simple fact is that Sgt. Wallach and other US soldiers have done more to make those abstract rights real in Iraq than all the left-wing bloviators infesting the academy have ever done, and none of Pettit's childish sophistry can change that fact.

Chris Bray - 1/9/2006

The man said that he hated the place from the day he arrived, and will despise most Iraqis until the day he dies. Words mean what they mean -- I don't know how to torture a conditional hatred of a few recalcitrants out of that statement.

I do very much agree that we should cut Wallach, and others like him, some considerable slack. His circumstances are untenable, and he's angry. Hard to blame him.

chris l pettit - 1/9/2006

I am really hoping that your post is tongue in cheek.

You can actually support the bigotry in his statements? The arrogance? The nationalistic ideological nonsense? I know I can't argue law or rights with you Irfan, because you have explicitly acknowledged that they don't exist in your ideology and that everything is about power and imposing your ideology on others. I am not sure whether your use of freedom (and defense of his) is something that is permitable. It is surely an Orwellian usage, and defined in terms of your power based ideology, and you should at least state that. In a rational sense, freedom is not being exported in any way shape or form.

You are correct that there are people who are violative of peoples rights in Iraq, but again, you cannot make a rights or law based argument because those arguments are universal and you would then have to hold yourself and the US soldiers to the same standards, which would make your argument hypocritical at best. The argument that there are nasty people in Iraq only speaks to your narrow ideological has no relevance in what the Iraqi people think...and you logically must realize that, since you are articulating a narrow ideological position, you cannot complain about the ieological positions of others...meaning you have no basis for complaint about those you disapprove of other than to say that they don't agree with your power based definition of who is wrong or right. So again, you are imposing and forcing your definition of freedom and who is wrong or right on others. Why do you despise the people? Because they don't agree with your ideological standards. It can't be because they don't conform to legal or rights based standards...since those you support are guilty of the same crimes...rendering you either a hypocrite or the viewpoint irrelevant.

You have a rather twisted definition of freedom...I would speak in the terms of right to freedom of expression...or self determination...or some other universal standard...something you cannot do. Freedom applied from the barrel of a gun? We don't even need to go over that argument it has been debunked so many times. You are a bright enough scholar that I am surprised to hear such nonsense coming out of your mouth (or computer).

As for the anti-war movement...I grant you that there are those who are as ideologically twisted as your post and stance is...and who, unlike you, claim to be based in universalism and law, as opposed to admitting their ideological bias...which you have freely admitted on past occasions. However, if one makes a consistent argument based in international law, rights theory, and the general principles underlying those ideas...steering clear of ideology and power based imposition of viewpoints, one can point out the hypocrises of those who claim to be dealing in "freedom" "rights" or "law"...ideas that all are universal in nature and become meaningless and Orwellian when used by the ideologically based. So while you have complaints with the anti-war movement, those of us who seek to rise above your ideological bases that will always result in prejudice and conflict, and attempt to adhere to the acknowledged system of legal governance that promotes overcoming ideological bias have a pretty good way of superceding your power based position. Again, you can argue that it disagrees with your view of the world, and that you think your view is best and seek to impose it on everyone...but that has nothing to do with freedom or rights. Michael Byers would probably join you in the argument that everything is power based, those seeking to impose their ideologies on others dominate the internationa sphere and this is difficult to overcome, and that we can basically throw "law" "rights" and "freedom" out the window except in their Orwellian uses by ideological promoters...but that does not mean that these arguments cease to exist, or fail to point out the paucities in your position. All it means is that, due to miseducation, power based relations and the impostion of ideology, we return to Hobbes state of nature and decide not to use our abilities as humans to reason and reach a state of universality as a community of mankind. I guess that sort of position makes myself and others in the international human rights community sort of freaks of to actually use reason, logic, rationality, and avoid ideological hypocrisy.

The way I see it you can either take a position based in law and rights or you can admit your ideological bias and never utilize those words in argument again, since they cease to have meaning when enforced in an ideological framework. You take the latter position, I take the former. I find your postion to be abhorrent and a cause of many of the problems in the care not about humanity as a whole but rather seek to impose your ideology on others. It is an interesting impasse in many forms...


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