For the last few months, I’ve been having a very hard time getting a fix on the Iraq war. For some people, this might not be much of a cause for concern. For me, it was practically a life-crisis; being a very opinionated person, I’m not accustomed to feeling ambivalent about something as serious as an impending war. It’s not for a lack of interest or information, because I’ve exposed myself to every argument, every impassioned speech, and every glitzy presentation of the pros and cons of a war. I’ve talked to peace-marchers in Ottawa and I’ve talked to hawkish friends in the United Kingdom and the United States. And yet, I haven’t been able to find a side of the issue on which I feel comfortable.
But, I think I have it figured out at last. The reason why I find the discussion surrounding the Iraq issue so discomfiting, and I suspect that I am not alone here, is because there are no “good guys” in this conflict. From a young age, both through formal education and sometimes parental guidance, we’re taught to see the world in big, bold terms – good versus bad, in other words. While the early years of elementary school teach useful things like mathematics and English, they are far more concerned with ensuring that children have a strong sense of right and wrong. Most of the stories, fables, and fairy-tales that parents read to their children, from “The Three Little Pigs” to “The Boy who Cried Wolf” are equally concerned with providing kids with this ethical and moral hardware.
There is nothing wrong with this reality, since it provides us with a fairly effective way of interpreting the world and prevents the vast majority of us from turning into sociopaths. I recall with particular fondness a game my father and I used to play, in which one of us was the “Red army” and the other the “Green army.” It was a classic game of good versus bad, albeit on a small and purely provisional scale. And while the institutions of higher learning (universities and colleges, primarily) train us to stop thinking in black-and-white terms and instead focus on the shades of grey, most people slip back into the old habits.
Politicians are particularly effective at preying upon this need. Success in politics is largely the result of the ability to be consistently perceived as the “good guy,” whatever that might be in a particular moment in time (and, of course, it changes constantly – “welfare liberal” is now, for better or worse, a derogatory term) President George W. Bush is a particularly enthusiastic practitioner of this Manichean logic, casting the world in terms of good and evil. It was not terribly surprising to hear him use the word “crusade” in reference to the war against terrorism, or the catchphrase “Axis of Evil.”
And I’ll admit, in an event as significant as a potential war, I have resorted to the good versus bad simplification – the Red and Green armies, writ large. But the problem with this conflict is that there are no good guys. Sure, everyone is more or less agreed that Saddam Hussein is a pretty awful human being, and should take a hike to Elba, the Ural Mountains, or some place equally remote.
But beyond him, it gets much more complicated.
President Bush, in spite of the admittedly eloquent speeches in which his speech-writers claim that he is fighting for democracy, freedom, and the Iraqi people, has behaved badly. Both his and his administration’s motives are, er, oily, and I am not convinced that the invasion of Baghdad will go as smoothly as the Tommy Franks’s and Paul Wolfowitz’s of the world seem to believe, both for the American troops and the Iraqi civilians.
The lap-dog routine that Tony Blair and the British are happily performing is equally unappealing. Whether in search of increased international prestige or closer ties with the United States, their behaviour is what one might expect from a former world power turned geo-political afterthought. And while the British are the least offensive player in this sordid affair, their eagerness to please the American regime is still off-putting.
The calculating obstinance on the part of the French government is true to form, but repulsive nonetheless. They appear willing to endanger the functionality of the United Nations as an institution of global polity in the name of French prestige and honour (most of which was forfeited in 1940). Oh, not to mention the fact that they have a significant interest in Iraq’s oil industry.
Heck, even the Canadian government has made a mess of the matter. At one extreme, there’s “Baghdad Beaumier”, the nickname earned by Liberal backbench MP Colleen Beaumier for her decision to go and “play footsie” with Tariq Aziz in Baghdad. On the other, there’s Carolyn Parrish, who decided to insult Americans generally, who are, when they’re not waving automatic weapons, pretty nice people. She retracted, but then followed up by repeating her performance on the Mike Bullard show. Her saving grace may have been the fact that only seven people actually watched the show.
Even the mass media is looking bad, with Dan Rather interviewing Saddam’s body double and thinking he’s had a scoop, and the rest of them transparently impatient for some live—and killing—action so their crews aren’t wasting budget doing boring human interest stories on the troops waiting to kill or be killed.
All of the players in this mess are bad guys (and gals). They’re all behaving badly, whether in pursuit of oil reserves, international prestige, political capital, or a few more months of life in power. So I’m simply going to sit back, shut my mouth, and hope that not too many people get hurt. Unfortunately, at this point and with this cast of characters, that looks like the least likely outcome.
Ottawa, March 18, 2003 – 987 w.