Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Slog Ahead

I don't usually dream when I sleep. Most often, I wrangle with half-baked thoughts just before my alarm starts screaming. I'm revisiting George Packer's brilliant The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq for my journalism class, and read his chapter "The Unfinished War" on Sunday. On Tuesday morning, I was in the middle of another morning fit when the image of Jeane Kirkpatrick's name stuck in my mind. In 1979, she wrote the essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards" for Commentary, arguing that American human rights advocates were wrong to challenge our dictatorship friends, since enemies like the Soviet Union and Iran were just nastier versions of the dictators we supported.

Packer also writes about Paul Berman, who after 9/11 had sunk into Sayyid Qutb's writing and began studying modern Islamic terrorist groups. He concluded, Packer writes, that modern day Islamic terrorists were advocating totalitarianism. And a war in Iraq was a war for liberalism. After reengaging Albert Camus' The Rebel, Berman found the epithet for his future book: "Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system."

I didn't recognize the name, but there was something peculiar about that guy. This morning, it hit me. I did recognize the name. Ejecting from another morning fit, I jumped out of bed and headed to my bookshelf, where I fished Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism from a stack of unread books. I paged to the epithet and there it was: "Here, suicide and murder are two sides of the same system." - Albert Camus. Below that, a quote by Sayyid Qutb read: "Death comes to all, but for him there is martyrdom. He will proceed to the Garden, while his conquerors go to the Fire."

At day, images of limber men wearing kaffiyes and wielding Kalashnikovs swam in my head. I thought of Saddam Hussein's bureaucratic system of terror, which Kanan Makiya writes about in Republic of Fear. I wondered, how does a rebel group overthrow a system like that? And how does the new system avoid becoming the violent regime it routed? Then I had a mild anxiety attack.

As I headed home for the night, I read The New Republic's editorial on the politics surrounding the war in Washington D.C. The editors didn't offer anything by way of new information or insight this time. I know the politics are pathetic, the situation in Iraq is dire either way the Americans go (be it a final withdrawal or more surge), and that Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb's "soft partition" plan will not make "breathing room" for Iraqi reconciliation, but it will stoke more ethnic cleansing. At least "soft partition" looks like a good solution, to Americans ready to end the war. And, of course, it would benefit the Kurds--who have wanted an independent state since the Roman Empire.

I think The New Republic did a better job with the editorial's subtitle, which I read in the table of contents on the next page: "Does the future of Iraq lie in pieces?" Talk about superb word choice.

There is so much to read about the war, so much to know about our shameful history with the region. (See Peter Galbraith's The End of Iraq and you'll know what I mean.) And of course, Iraq is the cradle of civilization--the place of Babylon, Ur, Samarra, Karbala and more. But the war has moved fast in Iraq. In America, most are trying to play catch up. It took months before the civil war was official, and even now our government treats the Iraqi government like it hasn't crumbled into warring factions. The surge was supposed to create "breathing room" for reconciliation, even though National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had almost no faith in Nuri al-Maliki in the early stages of the surge.

For most of us, the truth is still a matter of debate. According to a Newsweek poll in June, as many as 4 in 10 Americans still think that Saddam’s government played an active roll in planning, funding and executing 9/11. Iraq's secular regime was so crippled under sanctions by 2001 that Iraqis couldn't buy spare car parts or basic medicines. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden was a millionaire sponsor of terrorism and had led Al-Qaeda for longer than a decade. I can't help but wonder--are 4 in 10 Americans just plain stupid?

Or have I become an obsessive freak? I've been consuming information on terrorism, totalitarianism and Iraq for the past six months and I still have plenty on my plate. I feel like I am on book leave--my journalism class focuses on all sorts of reading about Iraq. Now I just got home and I'm writing a blog update, which is more intended for my future self than my readers, so I have a timeline of events to look back to when I start writing my senior project on Iraq next semester.

It's no wonder I'm getting overwhelmed, disillusioned, cynical. It's no wonder that I've lost faith in the war. And now I'm filled with a lot of negative energy, against America, against terrorists and against myself. So I'm going to pack up my mental bags and fly over to Africa for a little while. My traveling partner and I are going to get serious about planning for the trip we'll take after college. BBC Africa and IRIN are going on my new iGoogle homepage. Time to renew my passport, call some embassies and email some NGOs. And I've still got George Packer on my side--I just discovered today that his first book, The Village of Waiting, is about slogging through Togo in the Peace Corps, fresh out of college. Strange how things come full circle sometimes.

By the way, I also have a responsibility to myself. I haven't eaten well lately. I only own two wearable pairs of pants at the moment. I'm tired a lot. I have fitful sleeps. To most people, I probably look like a train wreck. And here I am--in one of the greatest, happiest, most successful years of my life. The war isn't even over...and I've lost all hope? This is when I need to stop complaining, dear reader. It's a long slog ahead, that's all.

Before I sat down to write, I filled up a bag full of dirty clothes and hauled them to the laundromat. For the second time tonight, I passed the tall, skinny black guy with a deformed shoulder and bloodshot eye, sitting along a wall by the clinic he lives in. I always pass him when I stroll down the sidewalk. I said what's up. He saw the laundry and nodded.

"Keep busy, guy," he said.

Well spoken, guy.

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