DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA A president thoroughly in the dark By Tom Engelhardt
On January 4, the Pentagon "announced the identities" of six American soldiers
who had died between December 28 and New Year's Eve. It was just one of many
such listings over these past years and, like similar announcements, this one
had a just-the-facts quality to it - spare to the bone, barely more information
than you would get from a prisoner of war: rank, age, place of birth, date of
death, place of death, type of death, and the unit to which the dead soldier
These announcements, which blend seamlessly into one another, also blend the
dead into a relatively uniform mass. You can, of
course, learn nothing from such skeletal reports about the dreams of these
young men (and sometimes women), their hopes or fears, their plans for the
future or lack of them, their talents and skills, their problems, their stray
thoughts or deepest convictions, their worlds, and those who cared about them.
So few paragraphs are almost bound to emphasize not the individuality of the
dead, but their similarity in death. Five of these soldiers died from roadside
explosives (IEDs, or improvised explosive devices), one from small-arms fire.
Two died in Baghdad; two in Baqubah, the embattled capital of Diyala province,
north of Baghdad, where civil war rages; one in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar
province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency; and one in Taji, also in the
"Sunni triangle". None had a rank higher than sergeant. The oldest was only 22;
the youngest, 20.
Another thing five of the six had in common was not coming from a major US
city. In order of population:
- Private David E Dietrich came from
Marysville, Pennsylvania (population 2,428 in 2005), not far from Harrisburg.
Private First Class Alan R Blohm came from Kenai, Alaska (population 7,166 in
2003), 240 kilometers south of Anchorage.
Corporal Jonathan E Schiller came from Ottumwa, Iowa (population 24,998 in
2000), best known as the home of Radar O'Reilly in the TV show M*A*S*H.
It supposedly has "the highest unsolved-murder rate (per capita) in the free
Sergeant John M Sullivan came from Hixson, Tennessee (population 37,507).
Specialist Luis G Ayala came from South Gate, California (population of
103,547), part of Los Angeles and once the home of a huge General Motors plant.
Specialist Richard A Smith came from Grand Prairie, Texas (population 145,600
in 2005). "Legend has it," the Wikipedia tells us, "that the town was renamed
after a famous female actor stepped off the train and exclaimed "My, what a
Some of them, in other words, grew up in places
with vanishingly small populations, but even those who didn't came from places
you're likely to have heard of only if you grew up there yourself. As Lizette
Alvarez and Andrew Lehren put it in examining the last thousand American
deaths in Iraq for the New York Times:
The service members who died
during this latest period fit an unchanging profile. They were mostly white men
from rural areas, soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of
high-school football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in
Iraq for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or
All you have to do is look through the most
recent of these Pentagon announcements of deaths in Iraq to find more evidence
of that parade of places you just haven't heard of: Vassar, Michigan
(population 2,823), Paris, Tennessee (population 9,763), Wasilla, Alaska
(population 5,470), Tamarac, Florida (population 55,588), New Castle, Delaware
(population 4,836), and Vancouver, Washington (population 157,493).
This isn't new. You could say, in fact, that here, as elsewhere in the US
experience of war in Iraq, the Vietnam analogy seems to apply, at least to a
degree. Historian Chris Appy in his book Working-Class War comments:
and small-town America may have lost more men in Vietnam, proportionately, than
did even central cities and working-class suburbs ... It is not hard to find
small towns that lost more than one man in Vietnam. Empire, Alabama, for
example, had four men out of a population of only 400 die in Vietnam - four men
from a town in which only a few dozen boys came of draft age during the entire
But in the present all-volunteer military at the height
of an increasingly catastrophic, ever less popular war, this trend toward
sacrificing the overlooked young from overlooked US communities seems
What does this mean, practically speaking? Assistant Professor James Moody of
Duke University recently estimated that somewhere between 4.3 million and 6.5
million Americans "may know people who were killed or wounded in the recent
fighting" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That may sound like a lot of people, but as
Globalsecurity.org's director John Pike put the matter, "The probability of
knowing a casualty was about 100 times higher in [World War II] than today."
Similar figures for the Vietnam years would have been significantly higher than
the present ones as well (and, of course, the omnipresence of the draft gave so
many more Americans a sense of being at war). As University of Maryland
sociology professor David Segal put the matter, in considering Moody's
research, "The bottom line is that the American military is at war, but
American society is not. Even in Vietnam, everybody knew somebody who was
killed or wounded."
When on Wednesday night President George W Bush announced that he had already
"committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq", when he
"surges" them into Baghdad and al-Anbar province, he is surging from Kenai,
from Wasilla, from South Gate. And he is ensuring a spate of future Pentagon
"announcements" that will again take us to what's left of the hamlets,
villages, small towns, and out-of-the-way smaller cities of this country, the
places Americans increasingly don't notice.
When Bush talks to us Americans, as he did Wednesday night, about "a year
ahead that will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve", this is whom he
is mainly sacrificing. Today, in our civilized world, we are shocked when we
read of the bloody rites, the human sacrifices, of the Aztecs whose priests
ripped hearts, still beating, from human chests to appease their bloodthirsty
gods. These were, of course, the hearts of captives. In all his fervor, Bush
looks ever more like an American high priest who, for his own bloody gods,
is similarly ripping hearts from the chests of the living. Make no mistake, in
his speech of Wednesday night he was offering up human sacrifices from the captive
villages and towns of the United States on the altar of blind faith and pure,
A surge of words
In the US, Wednesday night's "surge" was mainly a surge of words, 20 minutes'
worth, 2,898 of them. In the buildup to the speech, as almost every last detail
of it was leaked to the media, untold hundreds of thousands of words surged on
to news pages, on to the TV news, into talk-radio chatter, and online - and so
many hundreds of thousands more, these included, will follow in the days to
As Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, Bush's "new
way forward" plan is guaranteed to run into a "wall of words on Capitol Hill"
but, she added, "not much more". The New York Times front-paged a story that
the Democrats were planning "symbolic votes" against the president's plan
"which would do nothing in practical terms to block Mr Bush's intention to
increase the United States' military presence in Iraq".
"Practical terms" means not words but Congress' undeniable power of the purse,
and so its right to deny at least some part of the tsunami of money the Bush
administration is demanding to carry out its latest plan. Only in recent days
has the possibility of using the purse to rein in the war begun to make its way
from the distant frontiers of critical pariah-hood on to at least some
In the lead-up to Bush's speech to the nation, almost nowhere did words not
surge - despite the odd irony that the president did not actually use the word
"surge" in his speech. Amid the deluge of words, only George Bush resorted to
the resounding sound of silence. As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek:
new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee - Carl Levin, an important
character now - sent Bush a private letter three weeks ago offering his
counsel. Levin never got a reply. Bush can be just as deaf to Republicans. At a
recent White House ceremony, Senator Susan Collins offered to brief him on her
Iraq visit. He responded by escorting her to the office of his deputy national
security adviser - and then left before she told her story.
the crisis atmosphere, much of the speech itself, when the president was not
plodding through his tactical changes in Iraq or offering insincere thanks to
James Baker's Iraq Study Group (ISG), was remarkably ordinary Bush boilerplate.
The newest (and most ominous) note struck hardly related to Iraq at all. It lay
in these two lines clearly aimed at Iran, a country the ISG wanted to draw into
negotiations: "I recently ordered the deployment of an additional [aircraft]
carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and
deploy Patriot air-defense systems to reassure our friends and allies." At a
moment when at least one US air strike had just taken place in Somalia, it
hinted at a different kind of surge entirely.
Otherwise, we had heard it all, including the plan, before. Bush struck only a
few Iraq notes that, with a modest stretch of the imagination, might be called
new and which are already all over the news. He called the situation in Iraq
"unacceptable to the American people" and to him. (No mention was made of the
Iraqis, of course.) He offered this: "Where mistakes have been made, the
responsibility rests with me," which, though already being headlined, managed
in typical fashion to sound as if he was somehow taking responsibility for
mistakes he had little or nothing to do with making.
He did speak of "benchmarks" twice - "So America will hold the Iraqi government
to the benchmarks it has announced ..." - but where exactly those "marks" were
and how the Iraqis were to be held to them no one listening to the speech could
have had a clue. Perhaps the single novel statement was this one: "I have made
it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's
commitment is not open-ended." Of course, it too went utterly undefined, but
assumedly when the present surge fails, it does leave Bush some vague kind of
out, were he ever to decide to use it.
When it came to much of the rest of the speech, you could easily have taken his
address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, or his September
11, 2006, anniversary address on the World Trade Center attacks, shaken the
words up and simply dumped them randomly into Wednesday night's speech without
reaching for a bit of new vocabulary. As in either of those previous speeches,
he created his usual hair-raisingly