Monday, November 1, 2010

"An age without surrender ceremonies"

Here’s a snippet from the book I’m finishing up this fall.  This passage is about what I think of as President Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” moment, and it raises questions about how to think about the role of wartime in American history during a period when wars don’t seem to end.

U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Kimberly Hackbarth
On August 18, 2010, the conflict in Iraq ended, live on NBC.  “It’s gone on longer than the civil war, longer than World War II,” said NBC news anchor Brian Williams.  “And tonight, U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq.”  The station and its cable affiliate MSNBC broadcast live footage of Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, embedded with the 4th Stryker Brigade, as soldiers drove across the border from Iraq into Kuwait.  “This has been a historical moment that we have just seen,” noted Engle, although the history-making quality of this episode required some explaining.  50,000 American troops were remaining in Iraq, fully armed, and reports of American casualties in Iraq would continue.

On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, progressives’ favorite new media celebrity, explained in her reporting from the Green Zone:  “War’s end like this....They end with a political settlement.”  NBC and its cable affiliate had been given an exclusive ability to cover these events, yet this moment’s ambiguity seemed to necessitate their insistence that this really was an ending of the war.  The evidence that this day was historic came only from the reporters’ insistence that it was historic.  There were no dramatic images like those accompanying the American pullout from Vietnam, with refugees clambering after a departing helicopter on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy.  There were no photographs of the signing of an armistice agreement.  Just troops in trucks.  Maddow said: “As the combat mission ends, that means the war is ending...The combat mission is over; the war is over.”

Then, on August 31, President Obama announced “the end of combat operations in Iraq” in a televised speech to the American people.  As mid-term elections neared, the president sought to turn attention to domestic matters, including a struggling economy.  He called it a “historic moment,” coming after “nearly a decade of war.”  Obama persisted in a rhetorical effort to ratchet back the “war on terror.”  Rather than casting the many years of conflict as a wartime in which the nation battled a militant form of Islam, he instead invoked a more limited set of ideas.  In Obama’s words, President Bush had simply “announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq.” Compared to Bush’s fiery rhetoric at the opening of the Iraq campaign, Obama’s description seemed technocratic.  His delivery was dispassionate.  He seemed more bureaucrat than war leader.  It was as if, rather than declaring an end to violent state-sponsored killings to serve a compelling national interest, he was announcing the close of a bloodless government program.  

Although the nation’s unity was tested during this era, Obama argued, there was one constant:  “At every turn, America’s men and women in uniform have served with courage and resolve.”  American troops had “completed every mission they were given.”  The nature of that mission seemed obscure, but once deployed, the personalization of American war support by the president and others meant that the nation could rally behind its soldiers without engaging the war’s broader purpose and what it may have accomplished.  The pullout of the last combat brigade was simply “a convoy of brave Americans, making their way home.”  Of the members of the Fourth Stryker Brigade who had “made the ultimate sacrifice,” Obama quoted a staff sergeant who said equivocally: to them, “this day would probably mean a lot.”

Even as Obama announced that “the American combat mission in Iraq has ended,” he also said that troops would remain “with a different mission.” It would also have a new name: Operation Iraqi Freedom was replaced by Operation New Dawn.  Just how different the mission would be was clarified when practical questions surfaced.  If combat was over, would American troops no longer be eligible for hostile fire pay, or for combat service medals?  The Army responded with a message to all troops: The “end to combat operations in Iraq” was effective September 1, “however, combat conditions are still prevalent.  Due to the nature of combat conditions, wartime awards will continue to be issued in theater until a date to be determined.”   Other combat service benefits would still be available.  “It is unusual for the Army to come right out and say the emperor has no clothes,” noted reporter Thomas E. Ricks, “but I think it had to in this case, because soldiers take medals seriously.”  And Associated Press pushed back from the White House message.  “Whatever the subject, we should be correct and consistent in our description of what the situation in Iraq is,” said an internal AP memo.  “To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials. The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months.”

Perhaps the paradoxical nature of this ending that was not an ending explains the absence in Obama’s speech of the president’s usual rhetorical power.  Grasping for metaphors, he emphasized that American troops “are the steel in our ship of state.  And though our nation may be travelling through rough waters, they give us confidence that our course is true, and that beyond the pre-dawn darkness, better days lie ahead.”  And so the mission had devolved to supporting the troops, while the troops themselves gave the mission meaning.  The circularity befitted what the president called “an age without surrender ceremonies;” an age when conflict could end, even as it remained on-going.

Cross-posted from Balkinization.