[Please note that this is the most recent entry in an as-yet-unfinished series entitled “A mind is a difficult thing to change,” in which I describe the process of my political change and discuss political change in general. The posts in the series are listed in reverse historical order. To find earlier entries, please scroll down to the bottom and then work up. I have started with general discussions of the formation of a political identity, then detailed the formation of my personal political identity and that of many liberals of my generation, with particular emphasis on the Vietnam years. Later posts describe my process of slow post-9-11 change.]
You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.
This segment of the story begins with a shock to the system: 9/11.
For me, that shock was just the beginning–the catalyst, as it were–of a slow process of change that took several years to complete and probably isn’t over yet. It unfolded in a manner that was mostly solitary and internal; involving watching, listening, reading, and thinking.
Looking back, I realize that two elements were absolutely necessary for this to occur: a powerful motivation, and access to information.
The motivation was provided by 9/11 itself, as I wrote towards the end of my last “change” post:
It now seemed to be no less than a matter of life and death to learn, as best I could, what was going on. I knew it wasn’t up to me to solve this; I had no power and no influence in the world. But still something drove me, with a force that was almost relentless, to pursue knowledge and understanding about this event. The pursuit of this knowledge no longer seemed discretionary or abstract, it seemed both necessary and deeply, newly personal.
The access was provided by the internet. The worldwide media was newly at my fingertips. Without it, I would never have encountered the varied sources that led me down the path of change, but would instead have stuck with the old tried and true–the Times, the Globe, the New Yorker, Nightline, and NPR–and I am certain I would not be sitting here today, writing this blog.
Prior to this, I’d been neither a news junkie nor a history buff. My consumption of such things seems to have been about average: the usual cursory high school history courses plus one or two in college; the quick reading of a daily newspaper and a weekly periodical; and the viewing of the nightly news on TV, background noise while I concentrated on cooking dinner or tending to the family.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t have a clue that my online reading and increased interest in news, history, and politics would lead to any sort of mind- or life-changing experience. It would be interesting now to be able to look at a list of what I read post-9/11, and in what order I read it (well, maybe not all that interesting, since, for one thing, it would be insufferably long). But since I wasn’t prescient enough to know what was going to happen to me as a result of my reading, I have no such list. So I’ll just have to try to recreate the general course of events as best I can, understanding that it will only be an approximation.
THE DAYS AFTER
Like so many people, I was in a state of heightened emotion and awareness after 9/11. I, who had rarely watched cable news on television, was now viewing it many hours each day, and also reading my usual newspapers and periodicals with greater intensity and focus.
For the first few days after 9/11, I watched President Bush very carefully. He seemed worried and squinty-eyed, brow furrowed in tense puzzlement, speaking words that were meant to be reassuring but sounded hesitant and uncertain. This didn’t surprise me; I’d never expected much of him to begin with.
It’s not that I’d thought Bush was stupid. Not exactly, anyway. I had disabused myself of the “stupid” notion way back during the 2000 Presidential debates. Watching them, I’d disagreed with much of what Bush had said, and I couldn’t stand his cocky manner–it grated on me. But I was grudgingly forced to admit to myself that he was at least passably able to think on his feet.
I’d heard he was dumb so many times that I fully expected him to amply demonstrate it in the debates. He was uninspiring and certainly far from eloquent, and I didn’t agree with most of his ideas, but he stated them with relative clarity. Nothing indicated brilliance, for sure, but nothing he said sounded even remotely stupid.
Some time shortly after those 2000 debates, I’d watched a TV interview with Laura Bush. Most of what I’d seen of her till then had consisted of smiling and waving; I’d heard her say only a few words here and there. She’d seemed to me to be a sort of plastic Stepford wife, controlled and bland. But during this interview there was something–some charm and sweetness, some flashes of humor and wit–and, over all of it, a warmth and ease and graciousness I could not deny.
I didn’t want to like her. But like her I did. And I had to–just had to–further admit that it was unlikely (although not impossible!) that a simpleton or a fool or a creep could have attracted and held on to a woman like that.
But that was a far cry from actually liking Bush or supporting him in any way. I did not. And when the election results had stalled in the seemingly endless vote-counting and court actions, putting everyone through tension and misery, I’d been rooting for Gore all the way–if not with enthusiasm for the man himself, then with fear of the alternative. I hadn’t really been thinking much, if at all, about world affairs during the election–they hadn’t seemed especially important for some years, since the fall of the Soviet Union. No, it was the probability of Bush’s appointing conservative Supreme Court justices, cutting stem cell research, and a host of other conservative domestic policies I was worried about.
Throughout the long back-and-forth of the election and the vote counts, the court rulings and the overrulings, I was on tenterhooks. But when it ended up going Bush’s way, I never felt cheated. Nor did I feel that he’d cheated, although I was bitterly disappointed with the results.
What did I think? I thought the election had been a virtual tie. And I thought that, in the end, the tougher man had won.
Not the better, not the smarter or the kinder, nor the most likely to be a good President–just the more hard-nosed. He hadn’t done anything illegal, in my opinion; he’d merely pushed it for all it was worth, and milked the legal system until he got the result he wanted. And Gore? He’d failed to show the sort of intestinal fortitude required to win this particular battle.
When I thought about it, I didn’t like it, nor did I like Bush. Not at all. But it occurred to me that hard-as-nails toughness might not necessarily be the worst trait to have in a President–that this had been some sort of Darwinian struggle for existence in which the winner was, if not the best man, then the fittest man for the toughest job in the world.
Now, looking back, I see that these three combined notions of mine–that Bush was not a stupid man, that he had to be at least somewhat nice to have a wife like Laura, and that the toughness he showed in the fight to win might not be a bad attribute for a President–must have been somewhat odd in a liberal Democrat. They might, in fact, have been signs of a sort, signs that I was the type of person who, like it or not, couldn’t deny certain evidence if I felt it was right in front of me, who might be ripe for a change of heart and mind if enough evidence ever happened to present itself.
But at the time, I didn’t think in those terms at all. I just figured that, after the disappointing results of the election, I’d settle in for four years of turning off the TV whenever Bush appeared. After all, I’d done that before–especially with Nixon, and often with Reagan. In fact, I was quite a pro at getting through Republican administrations, since the only Presidents I’d ever voted for had been Carter and Clinton.
So when 9/11 occurred, one of the things that had upset me was that Bush was President. I didn’t for a moment think he’d be up to the task–although, to be fair, I also couldn’t imagine that Gore would have been a whole lot better.
During the previous year, to save paper and money, I’d already begun reading my two favorite newspapers online rather than in the dead tree versions. After 9/11 I found the Times‘s series of short biographies on the lives of the WTC victims to be especially moving. I sat at my computer almost every night, weeping as I read it. The dead seemed so young, so promising, so much-loved–and such ghastly, wrenchingly violent ends, such tragic bereaved survivors left behind. Timelines of 9/11, and particularly the story of Flight 93, were riveting, and the latter inspiring, as was the heroism of the firefighters and police.
But this was just the story of the day itself. It was compelling and emotional, but it wasn’t the “why” I so craved to understand.
About a week after 9/11, I happened to turn on my car radio as a man was being interviewed. I didn’t catch his name, but he was talking about Arabs, Islam, and the 9/11 attacks, and relating the whole thing to the history, philosophy, culture, and religion of the region. After a few sentences I knew I needed to learn more about him, and to read some of his books, because here was a person who seemed to have thought long and hard about the very questions that were haunting me.
The man turned out to be Bernard Lewis. I learned that he was elderly, and that he was a leading scholar of Moslem and Arab history, culture, and literature who’d been writing on the subject for decades, unbeknownst to me. Here was someone attempting to explain the terrorists (see this, for example), embedding the whole thing in history and context.
I didn’t know whether Lewis was correct or not–how could I? But what he said sounded plausible, and had as foundation his long lifetime of scholarship. And what was most impressive to me was that his forthcoming book What Went Wrong, on which this interview was based, had already been written–although not yet published–before the 9/11 attacks occurred.
Talk about topical! You may recall, if you’ve read my previous essay in this “change” series, that I’d been puzzled and disappointed by the failure of the media and most experts in the field to have accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. So one of the things that gave Lewis credibility with me was the fact that he had seemed to “get” 9/11 before it had even happened, and to be wrestling with the “why” of it before many of us were even perceiving the extreme seriousness of the threat.
BUSH ADDRESSES CONGRESS POST-9/11
After 9/11, President Bush was to address a joint session of Congress. Only ten days earlier the building had been evacuated in panic, and by now it was strongly suspected that it had been the real target of Flight 93. The situation felt very dramatic as I turned on the TV and awaited his speech.
I knew security was tight, but that fact didn’t totally reassure me. It seemed far-fetched, but if a plane had swooped down just as Bush had begun his speech, crashed into the center of the assemblage, and brought the whole edifice down in a fiery furnace, I would not have been especially surprised.
So I was keyed up and apprehensive as Bush strode into the room and onto the TV screen. I expected nothing stirring from him, and nothing even particularly admirable. My goal was a simple one: that everyone assembled live through the speech, and that Bush not stumble and falter so badly that he’d make everyone feel even more uneasy about him.
But Bush looked resolute and seemed focused. His speech was crisp and well-delivered. Both these things were surprises to me; I found them difficult to believe. What’s more, every now and then I thought I could discern in his words the influence of that man I’d heard so recently in the radio interview, Bernard Lewis. Could it be that Bush had heard of him? Or, at least, that Bush’s speechwriters had heard of him?
The broad outlines of the fight ahead were drawn. Bush (or was it his speechwriters and/or advisors? I couldn’t decide) saw this as a global struggle that would last many years and be fought on many fronts. The first one was to be Afghanistan; no surprise there. Bush gave a list of demands to the Taliban and indicated that if those demands were not met, we would bring the war to them.
It’s not that this speech caused me to suddenly develop faith in Bush–far from it. But it went a small way towards indicating that he might have some sort of minimal competence–or rather, a possibility of minimal competence. That was all.
But I absolutely hated–detested–Bush’s message. War! My memories of the Vietnam War were of an endless and bloody struggle that had led to failure and a shameful retreat. The Gulf War hardly seemed relevant here–it had been short, relatively simple, and straightforward; the repelling of an invasion. This promised to be a very different war against a very different enemy, and much more like Vietnam.
As we geared up to go to war in the next few weeks, I found my apprehension increasing. At no point did I consider that this war was avoidable, because it was clear the Taliban would never accede to our demands and turn Bin Laden and the other Al Qaeda members over. It was just as clear that we could not back off. The articles I read in the Times and the Globe during the buildup to the war were exceedingly ominous, and the talking heads on CNN agreed: the predictions were of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people dead in indiscriminate bombing, millions more starving and/or freezing or dying of disease, and a war that echoed both our Vietnam experience and the ten-year Soviet nightmare in Afghanistan itself. A double whammy.
I’d been aware of the latter war, particularly as it had related to the fall of the Soviet Union. The Afghan War was considered to have bled the USSR dry economically and in terms of its will to fight. The almost impenetrable Afghan terrain and weather were factors, and the ferocity and tenacity of the Afghans themselves were legendary. I’d read that this war had been the USSR’s Vietnam, and that it had helped destroy the Soviet Union. Now, repeatedly, I read how these same elements would inevitably trap us there for long and bitter death-dealing years. Over and over, I read that the people of Afghanistan hated us, and had no interest in their own “liberation.” This was going to be a long, vicious, and costly struggle against an utterly implacable foe.
But, unlike Vietnam, it didn’t feel as though there was any other choice now. We had to destroy the Al Qaeda havens in Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, once we began this war there could be no turning back and no pulling out. It felt more like I would imagine the start of World War II had felt to my parents’ generation. In this, my then-87-year-old mother was a guide; she said it felt even worse than the beginning of World War II.
As the ultimatums were issued to the Taliban and the deadlines passed, it became clear that the war would begin in a day or two. I remembered old war movies from WWII in which families in England huddled around their radios, listening to the BBC for news of the war, hanging on every word. I felt that way now. Only this time I wasn’t huddled around the radio; it was the computer.
REPORTING THE AFGHAN WAR
Almost from the moment the war began, it seemed to be going very badly. First, there was the killing of Abdul Haq in late October, a man who’d been touted as the most likely person to lead Afghanistan after the war since Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, had been killed by suicide bombers shortly before 9/11.
Haq’s death seemed a strange and terrible and confusing thing, with details from a movie. Ambushed, and calling for help with a satellite phone? An unmanned drone appearing in response, but too late to help?
Shortly thereafter, in early November, there was an article by Seymour Hersh that appeared in the New Yorker (see this Slate article discussing it to refresh your memory; the original Hersh article has been impossible for me to locate online so far). The name didn’t ring a bell at the time, although I later did a search and discovered he was the journalist who’d broken the My Lai story so long ago. His Afghanistan article presented our operation there as a disorganized, incompetent tragedy of errors.
It focused on a covert operation that had occurred towards the beginning of the war a month earlier:
…a two-pronged “special operations” (that is, commando) attack last month on a Taliban airbase and on a complex of buildings sometimes used by Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Although the Pentagon presented the operation as successful (intelligence was collected at both sites), the sizzle of the Hersh piece [was] his conclusion that it was a “near-disaster” that left the U.S. military “rethinking” the future of such special operations inside Afghanistan.
I read the entire piece with mounting concern. The Vietnam comparison (although I don’t recall it as being overt) was not lost on me. If this piece could be believed, we didn’t seem to know what we were doing in Afghanistan.
But could it be believed? I trusted my beloved New Yorker, of course. But I could not escape the perception that there was something very odd about this particular article. Not only was it rather poorly written (something unusual for the magazine, as best I could remember)–disjointed and disconnected–but it read like a gossip column. It relied completely on unnamed and unidentified sources, which made a certain amount of sense for a piece about a covert operation during a war in progress. But that meant that the entire incident, and Hersh’s interpretation of it, was something that could not be checked–we had to rely totally on his credibility and reliability, and on that of the New Yorker‘s editors.
And that wasn’t all. I wondered about the point of publishing this piece in the first place. Why did we need to know this so very badly? After all, it wasn’t as though Hersh was alleging that terrible war crimes had been committed, as at My Lai. This was just a single mission ostensibly gone bad, occurring very early in a war against a terrible enemy (surely everyone agreed the Taliban were terrible?)–a war we desperately needed to win, not a discretionary one. I didn’t see that there was any overriding public purpose in exposing this mission as failed; certainly not enough to justify the breach of security and the possibility of harming our morale and enhancing that of the enemy.
So, who was Seymour Hersh, anyway? It may seem hard to believe, but in years past I had never paid particular attention to who had written a story as long as it appeared in a major media source that I trusted. The Times, the Globe, the New Yorker–I trusted that their editors would only publish reliable writers, and that all articles would be scrupulously fact-checked. Yes, I knew that all newspapers and magazines had a political slant (be they liberal or conservative), but that was only in the editorials, right? Even though I knew there might be some underlying agenda, the news pages–the facts–were sacred.
As I write this, a phrase from Paul Fusell’s book about World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, comes to mind: “never such innocence again.” How can I explain my previous naivete? How had it escaped me that bias was not confined to the editorial pages?
I can’t totally explain it. But I know that part of the answer is that I had not read many publications on the other side in order to compare. Nor had I read many original sources such as speeches on which the articles were based; I relied on the newspapers to summarize for me. To do otherwise would have taken some effort in those pre-internet days–I would have had to have gone to a library, or to have bought a great many newspapers and magazines at a newsstand, and also to have had an interest in investing a great deal of time in the endeavor.
But without any special motivation to do so–for example, everyone I knew read the Times, and I’d been taught since childhood that it was the paper of record–it simply did not occur to me that there was any compelling need to compare or to check sources. I guess that’s what’s meant by the phrase “living in a bubble.”
But the Hersh article piqued my curiosity as well as raising red flags. And now, with the internet, it was so easy to do a bit of research. When I looked Hersh up online, I discovered some odd things. Yes, he’d been the highly respected and honored journalist who’d broken the My Lai story. But I also found other facts that were profoundly disturbing. (Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate the exact articles about Hersh that I read at the time, but they were more or less similar to this one and this, which are more recent.)
It turned out that, after his My Lai fame, Hersh had gone on to write for the NY Times during the 70s. He was instrumental in breaking stories about the CIA’s domestic spying, reports that led to the formation of the Church Commission and, ultimately the “firewall” with which we’re familiar today. He also clearly had a leftist political agenda which he was not shy about stating.
But what was far more interesting to me was that he’d departed from the Times under a cloud of allegations that he had browbeaten sources and played fast and loose with the facts. Later, he wrote a series of suspect books (see this one and this), and was taken in by an obvious hoax and forgery during the writing of one of them, a biography of JFK entitled The Dark Side of Camelot.
Many in journalism (some of them even liberals!) had come to regard Hersh as generally untrustworthy; quotes such as the following (from a more recent article) were not uncommon:
“I don’t read him anymore because I don’t trust him,” says Holland. “I find Hersh a perplexing character,” says Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, who has written extensively about the Kennedys. “He’s done great work, but he wildly overreached with the Kennedy book.” These days, Thomas reads Hersh differently. “I read what he writes with some skepticism or doubt or uncertainty.”
The fact that Hersh wasn’t being kept on a tighter leash by the New Yorker editors made me wonder. It caused a flicker–perhaps even more than a flicker–of doubt. But at the time I wrote it off as an isolated incident.
As the war continued through November, I checked the news online several times a day. Because Afghanistan was halfway around the world, I could hardly wait to learn what had happened. In my eagerness to get the latest news as quickly as possible, I started to branch out, searching for English language newspapers in Europe and Asia. I was impatient to hear the latest news of troop movements, bombing reports, battle results, territory gained–and above all, analyses of what it all might mean and predictions of what was going to happen next. Earlier, without the internet, I hadn’t had access to all those widely-flung papers, nor felt the driving need to read the news as soon as it occurred. But now all these sources were just a mouse click away.
I still read my old standbys. But when I started reading many other papers as well, I discovered a surprising thing. The Times and the Globe and most of my previous reading sources (the New Yorker, Newsweek) had pretty much agreed with each other. But now some of the papers predicted widely different outcomes, and analyzed the meaning of events differently. As I got to know the different papers and magazines, however (news ones such as the Telegraph, the Guardian, National Review, and many more), I noticed that each paper was internally consistent, whether optimistic or pessimistic about the war’s progress, or somewhere in-between.
As time went on, the pessimistic ones–the newspapers and periodicals that had predicted a Soviet-style long-drawn-out battle–were being proven wrong. In fact, the Afghan War was over a little more than two months after it had begun (and the Special Forces-type operations that Hersh had trashed had apparently been instrumental in the victory).
The war had lasted only two months and about ten days; it hardly seemed possible. And the casualties? Although there was some variation in the estimates of the civilian casualties of the war, the most reputable ones all seemed to be somewhere between one and two thousand people, nothing like the numbers that had been predicted. Where were the refugees, the plagues, the famines, the dread winter? In addition, our casualties were very low (I can’t find an exact figure, but the total of all US combat deaths in Afghanistan seems to have been similar to that of the Gulf War, between one and two hundred).
It was extraordinary–so different from the prewar predictions as to be nearly miraculous. And to top it all off there were scenes of intense celebration by the Afghan people at what could only be described as their liberation (now, without the scare quotes). It was moving, it was a relief–it was a puzzlement.
What had happened? How had the media–my media (I hadn’t yet encountered the phrase “the MSM”)–gotten it so wrong? I waited for the explanation.
Where were those prognosticators now that things had gone so much better than expected? When territory had been won in such short order, and with such relatively little loss of life? When the military proved not to have been mired down in quag, but to have been exceptionally flexible and reactive in its tactics? .
Where were they? On to the next gloomy prognostication, that’s where. I never could find the declarations of “we were so wrong; things are much better than they looked just a month ago.” Here was an entire host of Emily Litellas saying, “Never mind.” And now it was on to the next thing: “the Taliban are about to return.”
This had been the first time I had ever followed a war so closely–day by day, almost hour by hour. It was the first time I’d eagerly devoured so many stories as events unfolded. And, most importantly, it was the first time I’d read a variety of newspapers, both geographically and politically. It was the first time I had been made frightened and deeply apprehensive, over and over again, by negative predictions in my favorite papers–and then discovered, to my growing puzzlement and even annoyance, that these predictions bore no more relation to subsequent reality than if they’d emanated from the I Ching. It was the first time I noticed that the more reliable papers had seemed to be the more conservative ones.
But these were only a string of incidents. They were puzzling and disconcerting, but I had no framework to make sense of them. Yes, during the Afghan war the more conservative papers seemed to have been more reliable in their predictions and their facts than the liberal papers. But this had no particular meaning to me. Surely, this was some artifact of the peculiar situation of this war; it was a meaningless anomaly.
Later, some time during the spring of 2002 I was doing a Google search. By chance it led me to my first blog, a now-defunct site the name of which I can’t even remember. The immediacy and vibrancy of the voice, talking about politics as though having a conversation with me in my living room, caught my fancy, and I started clicking on the blogroll. In short order I was hooked on blogs, a fascinating Greek chorus (or set of competing Greek choruses trying to shout each other out) commenting–sometimes brilliantly–on the action.
I was still regularly reading my old liberal sources (NY Times and Boston Globe, the New Yorker and even some new regulars such as the LA Times, the Guardian, and the New Republic). But now I was also reading the Telegraph and National Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post, MEMRI and English versions of Arab papers, Canadian and Australian and Scottish ones, and the blogs–a vast cacophony of voices. And it was becoming clearer and clearer–at least to me–that the arguments in the media from the middle or the right were making more sense–and had more predictive value–than those emanating from the left.
It was as though I were sitting in a court of law as a member of the jury and being asked to decide a case. Before, I had heard only the presentation from one side. Now I heard both sides, and was trying to give both a fair hearing, and to approach my task without prejudice or preconceived notions. I was reluctantly coming to a certain distressing conclusion: more often than not, the voices on the left were less credible than those on the right.
I still had no notion of changing my point of view about politics in general. But then more events took place, and new reportage on those events. There were several turning points (which I plan to tackle in later installments of this series) in particular: Jenin and the “massacre” that wasn’t; the buildup to the war in Iraq and the reportage afterwards; and my first forays into voicing my thoughts to others, and their reactions to me .
Along the way I encountered constant comparisons to Vietnam, especially in connection with the war in Iraq. This led me to revisit the history of that war. What I found shocked and surprised me, changing my point of view about that war, a view I had thought was etched in stone as hard and enduring as the granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial .
Another metaphor: the process was like doing a jigsaw puzzle. At first I only had a few pieces in my hands, and no real way to tell what the picture was going to turn out to look like. But bit by bit I started assembling it, and began to discern the outline of a new form as it was slowly being revealed. In the end, events that were happening in the present merged with a reassessment of the past, enabling the picture to emerge ever more clearly, piece by piece.
Two of the missing pieces to that puzzle ended up fitting quite snugly: new information about those photographs, the ones that had caused such a sensation during Vietnam: the field execution by General Loan, and the little napalmed girl running naked down that dirt road so very long ago.
[Go to Part 7A]
[ADDENDUM: Links to previous posts in this series can be found by scrolling down on the right sidebar and looking under the heading “A mind is a difficult thing to change.”]
[FURTHER ADDENDUM: Norm Geras explains that there is some doubt about whether Trotsky was in fact the originator of the opening quote. Sorry, Trotsky fans.]