In a widely-publicized interview last year, General Tommy Franks - who led
the U.S. military invasion of Iraq - said that the American people would be
inclined to discard our democratic form of government in the event of another
major terrorist attack. He speculated that a "massive, casualty-producing event
somewhere in the Western world" would prompt "our population to question our own
Constitution and to begin to militarize our country," putting an end to "this
grand experiment we call democracy."
General Franks believes that Americans have a fairly shallow commitment to
their freedoms. Democracy, it would seem, is only skin-deep; scratch the surface
- draw blood - and it withers quickly.
In a widely-publicized event earlier this month, George W. Bush presented
General Franks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After allowing ourselves a moment to savor the irony, letís examine the
national and global implications of General Franksí belief, especially when
contrasted with Mr. Bushís policies.
"Today the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are building a secure and permanent
democratic future," Mr. Bush said at the awards ceremony, further praising
General Franks for having "helped liberate more than 50 million people from two
of the worst tyrannies in the world." The general, however, has indicated that
democracy cannot survive in the midst of gross violence - even in America, the
longest-sustained democracy in the history of the world. How, then, can we hope
to instill a democratic foundation in countries that have no such history, and
are subjected to horrific attacks on an almost daily basis?
Mr. Bush, at his December 20th press conference: "[The enemies of freedom]
know that a democratic Iraq will be a decisive blow to their ambitions, because
free people will never choose to live in tyranny." The emphasis here is
added to make a point: Mr. Bushís expressed sentiments are directly at odds with
those of General Franks. The general believes a free people can quickly become a
fearful people, and then willingly choose a military dictatorship.
Itís worth noting that Americans have not hesitated to inflict
massive, casualty-producing events on other nations without abandoning their
general adherence to democracy. (Think Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.) But
causing that level of violence is a far cry from experiencing it firsthand, and
many of our reactions to September 11, 2001, have not been admirable. Virtually
overnight we saw the passage of the Patriot Act and the erosion of the Bill of
Rights. Some may argue that these are rational responses to wartime crises - but
keep in mind, Mr. Bush and his minions have made it clear that the "war on
terrorism" is a perpetual war; there is no end in sight. We can assume, then,
that the curtailment of civil liberties will also be perpetual.
As for our military response: Letís put aside, for now, the Bush
administrationís true rationale for invading Iraq. Why did a majority of
Americans tolerate it? Itís possible that, for the American public, the Afghan
war didnít fulfill the lust for 9/11 vengeance. Bombing a stone-age country back
into the stone-age doesnít sate oneís appetite for revenge - and our failure to
capture Osama bin Laden didnít help matters any - so we accepted expanding the
"war on terror" to a convenient, oil-rich target.
Bush & Co. have been eager to play on our emotions, perpetuating
fantasies of vast WMD stockpiles and the non-existent partnership between Saddam
Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Many Americans still believe Iraq played a key role
in the 9/11 attacks, and this administration continues to fan the flame; as
recently as Wednesday, General Richard Meyers - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff - said the recent attack in Mosul was "the responsibility of insurgents,
the same insurgents who attacked on 9/11Ö"
But - in the absence of WMDs and an Iraq/al-Queda connection - the current
rhetoric leans primarily toward the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a goal unto
itself. Said Mr. Bush: "One of the highest distinctions of history is to be
called a liberator, and Tommy Franks will always carry that title."
So now we are now purportedly trying to instill democratic governments in
Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. But whatís the point? If General Franks is right
- if democracy is indeed so fragile - isnít the effort at spreading it worldwide
a futile endeavor? Is it simply impossible for democratic values to be
sufficiently internalized to counteract the weaker aspects of human nature?
Saul Levittís 1959 play The Andersonville Trial dramatizes the
war-crimes trial of Henry Wirz, Confederate commander of a POW camp where 14,000
Union prisoners died. In it, Mr. Levitt confronts similar issues, and concludes
with questions rather than answers: "Men will go on as they are, most of them,
subject to fears - and so, subject to powers and authorities. And how are we to
change that slavery? When itís of manís very natureÖWe redecorate the
beast in all sorts of political coats, hoping that we change him, but is he to
General Tommy Franks, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, would say
And heís probably right.