What to Think About the War?

I’m big on the idea that our subjective attitudes color our perceptions. We inhabit a world of myths and fantasies masquerading as facts, and no one is immune. The most hard-headed, rational, objective observer still builds a picture in his or her mind and goes looking for bits and pieces of reality that match up with it. It’s not necessarily dishonest; it’s just how our brains work.

Obviously, a lot of that is happening now with Iraq. As we head into the presidential campaign season, a lot of money and effort will be spent on convincing each of us that the reality in Iraq conforms to one of two conflicting storylines: Bush’s and his Democratic challenger’s. And a lot of that sales job will be dishonest, in the sense that the people doing the selling won’t balk at knowingly misrepresenting things to try to make their case.

Those storylines are being fleshed out now. For those looking to replace Bush, the story is that Iraq is a mess, and it’s Bush’s fault. He lied to us to build support for the invasion, and while the lies worked (mostly) in convincing a still-reeling-from-9/11 domestic audience, they didn’t do too well with the rest of the world. As a result, we’re now bogged down in a Vietnam-style quagmire, with few allies, a faceless enemy that evaporates whenever we try to bring our superior firepower to bear, no exit strategy, and no credible plan for making things better. As time goes on the mess will get worse, our enemies will multiply and become better organized, until we have no choice but to leave the country, letting it fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, and having fanned the flames of anti-US passion to the point that we face worse terrorist threats than ever.

For Bush’s supporters, it’s basically the same picture, just with every assertion reversed. The pre-war justifications for invasion (at least as modified with the benefit of hindsight) were perfectly valid. The war is going great; we’ve got a broad coalition of the willing fighting beside us, and we’re kicking the bad guys’ asses. We know exactly what we’re doing, and the plan is working flawlessly. We’re enhancing our domestic security by fighting the terrorists on their turf, not ours, and over time we’ll succeed in killing them off, substantially reducing the threat of terrorism.

And then we’ve got those pesky “facts”. Obviously, each side chooses different ones, then claims that they conclusively show that its interpretation is the correct one. Some of the latest pesky facts are summarized well in this new article from Time magazine: Election season brings new questions for Bush on Iraq. There’s also this article from the Washington Post on the recent battle in (near?) Tikrit: Attack on US troops shows strength of Hussein loyalists. And this one from the Boston Globe: US troops patrol Tikrit in tanks in show of force following killing of three soldiers.

I dunno; these events seem to fit the “things are getting worse” story better than the “things are getting better” one. Time will tell, of course.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting into some of this with Donald Sensing, who falls very much into the “things are going great” camp. While I disagree with many of his conclusions, I’ve come to believe that he’s both relatively informed, and relatively honest in terms of not intentionally misrepresenting things. But I do think he’s laboring under a pretty selective fact filter. Here’s some of the latest examples of that: The Saddam-bin Laden connection (and my response here), and I try not to get personal here, but there are times… (and my response here).

3 Responses to “What to Think About the War?”

  1. Snegourochka Says:

    “And a lot of that sales job will be dishonest, in the sense that the people doing the selling won’t balk at knowingly misrepresenting things to try to make their case.” – You don’t say! The whole thing and the way it has been handled (and most likely continue to be) reminds of a courtroom with a bunch of lawers trying to make their case without any regard to or intention of trying to get objectively close-to-the-truth/reality answer.

    Snegourochka

  2. Craig Says:

    I really have doubts that most supporters of the war would be using phrases like “going great”, “kicking asses”, and “flawless” in describing the recent state of progress in Iraq. Most rational supporters realize the difficulties being dealt with and the need to create a broader scope of military and financial help.

  3. John Callender Says:

    That’s a good point. I made the “things are going great” storyline sound a lot loopier than the other one.

    I don’t think that the Bush administration (which clearly represents the geographic heart of the region from which the “things are going great” storyline originates) is necessarily willing to put things in such starkly upbeat terms, at least not at the moment. But I think the only thing holding them back is the desire to do as effective a sales job as possible. If they thought they could get away with it, I bet they _would_ be giving basically the pitch outlined above, reason be damned.

    But even if I didn’t express it very fairly, I’m definitely seeing two conflicting storylines over this. And when I get into some back-and-forth in the comments on right-leaning weblogs, I hear some pretty grand claims for the current operation’s accomplishments, and even grander claims for where it will lead us (or _would_ lead us, at least, if only us treasonous peaceniks could be parked in the back seat for a while so we wouldn’t jostle the president’s elbow while he’s driving).

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you again, and to have some of your eminently rational influence around to balance my wilder gyrations. Thanks.

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