THE presidential race in the United States kicked off such a long time ago that for months on end it seemed interminable. Now, at long last, the Hollywoodized spectacle of the party conventions is over. There are still eight weeks or so to go before the final reckoning on November 4, and it’s far from clear who will carry the day. The extent to which it will matter isn’t obvious either.
On Thursday, on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Barack Obama and John McCain are scheduled to make a joint appearance at commemorative gatherings in New York. It is extremely unlikely that either of them will refer in his speeches to the US policies that propelled the catastrophe of September 11, 2001. Primary responsibility for that day’s murderous assaults undoubtedly rests with the planners and the perpetrators. At the same time, it seems almost criminally negligent to ignore the background to those attacks.
To do otherwise, however, would complicate the narrative, and the received wisdom is that complex narratives are anathema to most Americans. Which makes it more or less inevitable for monumental historical mistakes to be repeated. A clearer vision of the recent past would make it easier to appreciate why Washington’s pursuits in the seven years since 9/11 have sullied the US brand and made the world an even more dangerous place. Yet even those who recognize the stupendous folly of marching into Iraq in 2003 tend to look upon the war in Afghanistan as justifiable aggression, and to see its increasingly bitter consequences as something that can be tackled simply by increasing the level of firepower.
That’s a bit like regretfully claiming that the Vietnam War would have ended differently had the US decided to rain even more bombs on a tiny Asian country. The aggressors in Vietnam used considerably more tonnage than the sum total deployed during the Second World War and were equally generous in the use of chemical weapons. They claimed at least two million civilian lives - three million if you count Cambodia and Laos. Yet the grotesque argument continues to be made that still more firepower would have denied the people of Vietnam the victory they so richly deserved. It continues to be made by the likes of John McCain, whose acceptance speech at the Republican convention was studded with references to the five years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
He was able to get away with this because in the overarching narrative the Vietnam War tends to be seen in the US chiefly as an American tragedy. This twisted perception proceeds quite naturally from a mindset that places the US at the centre of the universe. There should, then, be little cause for surprise that the 4,000 or so American troops who have perished in Iraq are, in the usual discourse, elevated far above the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed.
Critics of the Bush administration are generally not reluctant to blame it for the American lives lost in Iraq. It’s relatively rarer - but hardly unheard of - for the 55,000 American fatalities in Vietnam to be blamed on the policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Yet McCain is hailed as a war hero even by most of his supposedly progressive opponents. Unlike John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, who served in Vietnam but subsequently became a vocal critic of the war (even though, tellingly, he overplayed his combat experience in the campaign four years ago), McCain has never expressed any regrets. While campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2000, he was quoted as saying: “I hated the gooks [a derogatory reference to the Vietnamese; the equivalent in Iraq is “hajis”] and will continue to hate them as long as I live.”
It was “gooks” who saved his life after he bailed out a bomber that had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. He claims to have been tortured during his incarceration, but, like so many other American PoWs, he survived. American soldiers, in contrast, were disinclined to take prisoners. A large number of Americans who fought in Vietnam did so involuntarily, and it was arguably the military draft rather than the sheer immorality of American aggression that spurred large-scale opposition to the war in the US. McCain, by all accounts, was an eager participant in the mass murder. That makes him a war criminal, not a war hero.
If elected president in November, he will hardly be the first war criminal to have taken up residence in the White House. Meanwhile, his undeserved reputation as a Republican “maverick” has also steadily been receding in recent months. It rested in part on his unease over the alarming influence of Christian extremists over the Republican Party. McCain has lately been assiduously been wooing the evangelicals, and his campaign team is supposed to have come up with a masterstroke by recruiting Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a gun-toting Pentecostalist, as a running mate.
Palin’s Taliban-like allergy to abortion covers even victims of rape or incest, and her blockheaded opposition to sex education that extends beyond decreeing abstinence has evidently resulted in an unwed daughter who is pregnant at 17. It requires little imagination to conclude that circumstances such as these would have rendered Obama’s candidacy a non-starter. But Palin is white, and she thinks everything - including the Iraq war - is a gift from God, so it’s all right for the far right. Choosing her was clearly an attempt to woo Democrats disaffected by Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the nomination, but that strategy will work only if they were attracted exclusively by her gender rather than what she stood for.
In the case of the Republicans, the mantra of “change” translates into more of the same, even though George Bush was persona non grata at the GOP convention. Does it mean something different when the message is intoned by Obama? Who knows. One of the most perceptive reporters on the campaign trail, Matt Taibbi, writes in the current issue of Rolling Stone that he can’t help “being seduced by Obama, despite everything I know about the party he represents, it’s record and where it gets its money. There’s just something about the guy; he has that effect ... Maybe it sounds different coming from Obama because he actually means what he says.”
Yes, maybe he does. And it’ll be tragedy if we don’t find out. Even though it makes sense to keep in mind the wise words of stand-up comic George Carlin, who died last June: “It’s called the American Dream,” he said, “because you have to be asleep to believe it.”