Forty years ago, the archetypal conscientious objector was someone who burnt a draft card that was going to get him sent to Vietnam. Today, he's a military or intelligence officer disgruntled with some aspect of the Iraq fiasco. Ben Griffin joins the growing legion of insiders who have seen the 'enemy' and concluded that he is us - or at least the Bush administration. As an SAS trooper Griffin was paid to risk his scalp for his country, but he won't do it for US foreign policy:
"As far as the Americans were concerned, the Iraqi people were sub-human, untermenschen. You could almost split the Americans into two groups: ones who were complete crusaders, intent on killing Iraqis, and the others who were in Iraq because the Army was going to pay their college fees. They had no understanding or interest in the Arab culture... There might be one or two enlightened officers who understood the situation a bit better but on the whole that was their general attitude. Their attitude fuelled the insurgency. I think the Iraqis detested them."
The term Untermenschen will repel many as moral equivalence, being Nazi jargon for Jews, Slavs and other vermin earmarked for extermination. But it's accurate to the extent that it captures the ideological nature of this conflict, and how this conditions the way US troops relate to the people placed under them. Ideology is and always has been the basis for US action in Iraq. Not WMD proliferation, not counterterrorism, not even preemptive military doctrine per se.
I don't mean an ideological struggle between liberal democracy and 'Islamofascism', to use that ridiculous term from the neocon lexicon. I mean an ideology that asserts one country's right to achieve political change in other countries according to its own design, regardless of consequences for the inhabitants. That engenders a mindset which treats Iraqis as so much cannon fodder in a Project for a New American Century. If this is how the leaders think, is it any wonder the troops behave accordingly?
"I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong. I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population... because these people were a different colour or a different religion, they didn't count as much. You can not invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that."
Regime change in Iraq was one step in a grand scheme that treats the rest of the world as objects, to be moved around by an American subject; the evidence shows clearly that the decision for war was made in line with this thinking, independently of the WMD argument. With the WMD prop gone and the outcome failing to fit the grand design, all that's left to justify the mess is a felicific calculus. 'Yes, many have died, and the country's going to hell in a handcart, but there've been elections, there's a constitution, we got rid of an evil dictator...'
Politicians and pundits are learning the hard way that it's not for them to decide who should die in the name of freedom. Hence the stream of self-justifying mea culpas from the conservative commentariat (Tim Dunlop has done a neat roundup at his blog, to which I'd add Andrew Sullivan and Victor Davis Hanson). But rather than checking first principles, they blame the variables - an unforeseeable insurgency, the craziness of those Arabs, etcetera ad infinitum. They can't or won't see what Hugh White put so lucidly in this morning's Age:
"The failure in Iraq is not a failure of execution; it's a failure of conception. The occupation and political reconstruction of Iraq was not a good idea badly implemented. It was a bad idea that no amount of administrative skill, political savvy, cultural sensitivity or military firepower could have made work."
Forget the reams of pre-invasion warnings by US government agencies. Forget the Vietnam experience. The lesson should have been learnt back in the days of Napoleon, who pumped 180,000 soldiers - about the number of Coalition troops currently committed to Iraq - into occupied Spain, ostensibly to bring that country the benefits of the Enlightenment and the Revolution on the points of French bayonets. Instead he got a six-year war that bled his army, cramped him strategically and produced all manner of humanitarian horrors. And finished with the Bourbons back in power, and Spain's development set back half a century. Deja vu...
Unfortunately, it seems that ideology is all many in the pro-war camp know. Far from questioning their own worldview, they claim the war isn't being fought ideologically enough. The current round of soul-searching looks more and more like a means of dumping Iraq in the trashbin of conflicts where America (or 'The West') didn't try hard enough, leaving them free to blame leftists, pacifists and the other usual traitors for everything wrong with the world. Next time - and the way the Iranian nuke affair's going, that may not be long - they'll do things right.
A smart man defined madness as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results...