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Remembering Why We Fight

By: William J. Bennett
May 19, 2004

Last month, given all of the attacks on our soldiers, and the conflicts in Fallujah and Najaf, I was reminded of T.S. Eliot, who wrote, "April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land; mixing memory and desire; stirring dull roots with spring rain."

Now, with the reports and images we are seeing from Abu Ghraib, the hearings in the House and Senate, and the slaughter of Nicholas Berg of Philadelphia, I'm not sure what to say about this month—it contends with April, to say the least. Our emotions are stirred, our consciences are challenged. Nonetheless, our mission must remain clear; our armed forces must remain resolute, and we must gird ourselves for what lies ahead. Given all we have seen and read over the past few months, I think what Churchill said is applicable today: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Now is the time to take our gloves off. Now is the time to show our hand. Now is the time to unleash our terrible, swift sword—a sword we may have kept sheathed for too long.

Let me start with the images of Abu Ghraib. We were all rightly disgusted and dejected by what we saw there. Several of our soldiers engaged in ugly, deplorable, disgusting, and inhumane acts. Let's remember those adjectives. We need to get our language right. Emerson said, "The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language." What happened at Abu Ghraib was not a matter of poor training or bad supervision. These were humans acting inhumanely. When I hear that they were not properly trained or supervised, I wonder if those who say that have lost their common sense as well.

What kind of training does someone need to know that it is wrong to abuse other human beings like that, mugging for a camera, knowing such images will travel somewhere—if not everywhere? This was not a matter of poor military training any more than it was a matter of poor military judgment. This was a matter of poor human training and poor human judgment. We don't need to read the Geneva Conventions or the Code of Military Justice to know this. This was basic stuff. You can find it in the Bible; you can find it in Aristotle. If you need the armed forces to be trained in decency, you've waited too long. This was not the fault of our armed forces any more than it was the fault of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or President George W. Bush.

Let's remember the characters here, and let's remember how it shows the character of America. Yes, some American soldiers did this ugly stuff in Abu Ghraib. But it was reported and stopped by other American soldiers. We have the image of Lynndie England (the cultural descendant of Tonya Harding), pointing to naked men, holding another man by a leash. We do not need to see her again. We've forgotten—perhaps because it wasn't much reported —the name of Army Specialist Joseph M. Darby. But as Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post wrote last week, both soldiers—Darby and England—had choices. England had the choice to engage in inhumane activity, and Joseph Darby had the choice to do nothing about it. Here, however, is what Darby chose: "He chose to place an anonymous note under the door of a superior describing the abuse. Later he chose to make a sworn statement, setting off the investigation."

We know little of England, save that she grew up fairly poor and in a trailer park. As if that general report explains anything. It doesn't. Here's what we know, now, of Specialist Joe Darby: "Darby lived in a coal town, in a household headed by a disabled stepfather. To make ends meet, he worked the night shift at Wendy's." Bad actions, wrong actions, even evil actions, have nothing to do with economics, poverty, wealth, or any other artificial construct any more than good actions do. They have to do with moral fiber. Those who attacked us on 9/11, as much as those who planned and trained them, were upper- and middle-class Arabs. Bin Laden is wealthier than any of us can hope to be. Mohammed Atta drove a Mercedes. Al-Zawahiri is a physician from an upper-class family. Let's hear no more of root causes; let's speak, instead, of right and wrong and good and evil. What Lynndie England did is not anywhere near on par with what our attackers did, but economic circumstance is the cause of neither of their actions. And as for shame, the bag should be on Lynndie England's head, not the prisoners'. She is the one who should be hiding, or should have been hiding, from the camera—not mugging for it.

There are questions that the press needs to answer for too.

To paraphrase Jonah Goldberg: Why is it that when shocking images might stir Americans to favor war—like the beheading of an American citizen—the journalists show great restraint? When those images have the opposite effect, why do journalists let them fly?

Let me put this in context: The very day that the Muntada al-Ansar website distributed the images of the slaughter of Nick Berg, almost every media outlet went on record to say they would not show that slaughter. CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC all said this, according to AP Television writer David Bauder. Fox News, I gather, did not make a knee-jerk decision; they did not go on immediate record with the AP. Perhaps they were contemplating the morality of it all.

We've been here before. Not only was there very little shown of the burning and beating and hanging of the contract workers in Fallujah at the end of March; you cannot even get those images now. There were immediate decisions not to show footage of 9/11 either. How many people in this room remember those who were in the Twin Towers and jumped out of them, to their certain death, thinking, evidently, that jumping from 80 stories and above was a better option than what they were going through? How many people know how many jumpers there were? NBC showed one man jumping, then stopped—saying it was a mistake. There were an estimated 200 people who jumped to their deaths, for a few more seconds of life, a few more seconds of relief, as they went to their eternal resting places, taking their last ten seconds of life in their own hands, using drapes and tablecloths as parachutes—parachutes that the force of their fall ripped from their hands.

Why do we not see the plastic shredders that humans were placed in under Saddam Hussein, sometimes head first, sometimes feet first? Why do we not see Hussein's torture chambers, which were operated as a matter of policy, and see instead only our abuse, which was an aberration? Why do we not see the mass graves of al-Hilla? Why do we only see our abuse and not their terror? And why do you almost exclusively have to read Victor Davis Hanson and Jeff Jacoby to learn about the successes in Iraq? Why—as Christopher Hitchens has said—do you have to go to Iraq yourself to see what is actually being done by our soldiers, what is being done to help, repair, fix, make better, that one-time cradle of civilization that Hussein turned into a deathbed and hellhole?

Yes, it is time, indeed even in the cruelty of April and May, to show that we are "breeding lilacs out of the dead land; stirring dull roots with spring rain."

Professor Hanson has done a wonderful job of explaining many of our great successes in this war. If I may paraphrase him: Osama bin Laden is either dead or on the run; and when terrorists are on the run, they cannot easily plan attacks. We have killed or captured two-thirds of the al Qaeda leadership and, for the first time in over a decade, marginalized the modern world's leading terrorist, Yasser Arafat. It was Arafat who taught the world the use of hijacking airliners for political purposes. During the Clinton administration it was he who visited the White House more than any other foreign leader. Arafat has not been offered one meeting, handshake, or embrace by President Bush. Libya has issued an international surrender. Saddam Hussein is in prison. The list goes on and on.

And as Jeff Jacoby has written about our successes in Iraq: "Unemployment has been cut in half. Wages are climbing. The devastated southern marshlands are being restored. More Iraqis own cars and telephones than before Saddam was ousted. Some 2,500 schools have been rehabbed by the U.S.-headed coalition. Spending on health care has soared thirty-fold, and millions of Iraqi children have been vaccinated. Iraqi athletes, no longer terrorized by Saddam's sadistic son Uday, are training for the summer Olympics in Greece. Many who fled Iraq under Hussein, are fleeing back -- especially from Iran. The exodus of refugees that was predicted on the eve of our liberation had it exactly backward: People are fleeing into Iraq." That list goes on and on, too.

It is this set of lists, these reasons—and not the abuse of a handful at Abu Ghraib—that caused Abu Zarqawi and his band of thugs to slaughter Nick Berg. They know what America is doing, and they know that if America wins this effort, they and their fascism will be finished. They targeted Nick Berg because he was an American—and possibly also because he was a Jew; and they would have killed him whether the Abu Ghraib story was published or not. How do I know? I know because the Abu Ghraib story was not disseminated when these barbarians burned, stomped, and hung our contractors in Fallujah. I know because the Abu Ghraib incidents hadn't even happened when Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl suffered exactly the same fate as Nick Berg in February of 2002. And, I know because Abu Ghraib was in the hands of Saddam Hussein on 9/11, when bin Laden and his allies killed, murdered, slaughtered 3,000 of us. We encourage their wrath by our existence, not by our actions.

One must judge this democracy—ours—as one must judge any country—democracy or not: in its totality, and in its mean. Not in its extreme, and not in its aberration. Although we should be proud of how we are treating our aberrant soldiers, with accountability and due process and punishment, I agree with what the late Pat Moynihan said. He asked then, and we ask now: "Am I ashamed to speak on behalf of a less than perfect country? Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don't. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them on television and in the newspapers." And we put our criminals—whether in uniform or not—on trial.

Why we fight is, indeed, as important as how we fight. So how have we fought? We need some context and perspective.

Our enemy attacked us on September 11 in disguise, not in uniform, not in marked warplanes from an enemy country. Rather, unlike Pearl Harbor, our enemies trained abroad, moved here, lived here under the guise of legality, and used civilian aircraft and civilian tactics to kill as many innocents as possible.

Also, unlike Pearl Harbor, their targets were not military but civilian.

And, unlike Pearl Harbor, it appears much of the money used to finance our enemies came from money raised in the U.S. and from money raised in countries that are purported allies of the U.S. How did we respond?

Yes, there was our abuse at Abu Ghraib. But as John Stuart Mill wrote, "There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it." Thankfully, the idiocy was that of a handful, and not universal.

But, we have not—as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the great liberal Earl Warren, did—established internment camps for over 100,000 U.S. citizens whose only crime was looking like people we were at war with in another country.

We have not engaged in racial profiling. We have given trials to those who claim abuses of our post-9/11 system. And we have even released prisoners from Guantánamo—to our detriment, as we now learn that four of those we've released have rejoined al Qaeda in Afghanistan, where, we also note, violence is now again on the rise. This administration's record on civil liberties, on profiling, on respect for minorities, is receiving far too little attention. Why, for example, are we never reminded—and how many of you are learning for the first time here—that the head of the U.S. Central Command, the person who now holds the position previously held by Norman Schwartzkopf and Tommy Franks, is an Arab American?

Our enemy is horrid, wicked, inhuman. Those are the adjectives for 9/11, and for 5/11. Not "inhumane," as some of our soldiers acted at Abu Ghraib. Inhuman. The moral equivalence, and the adjectival equivalence, needs to end now.

May 1lth is a day we need to remember. That is the day Muntada al-Ansar showed the beheading of Nick Berg. That is the day we were reminded of what one British parliamentarian said was the "undiluted barbarism" we face in this war. That is the day we were reminded of why we fight. We have shocked, disrupted, killed, and arrested the leadership of al Qaeda. But al Qaeda, as Corine Hegland wrote in the National Journal, is a virus more than a corporation. It is an evil virus. And how do you live with evil? You don't. Yale professor David Gelernter put it well on my radio show two days ago: "We can't share the earth with pure evil anymore than we can share the earth with smallpox."

Here is some of what the slaughterers of Nick Berg said at the time of his beheading: "Tidings of dawn and winds of victory have begun, for God has honored us with roaring victory in Fallujah...As for you Bush, dog of the Christians, anticipate what will harm you...you will only get shroud after shroud and coffin after coffin slaughtered in this manner." These quotes should be commonplace, to rouse us. I think most of America is unfamiliar with these words, and so many other statements of the enemy we face now.

They think they won Fallujah. And they think they are going to win this war.

They are not going to win this war.

So that they don't win, we need to escalate our efforts and put an end to their terrorism in Iraq. We need to make clear that we will now win in Fallujah. And, we need to take out Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

Earlier this month we bombed al-Sadr's office in Baghdad. But symbolism does not work with this enemy. Baghdad is not where al-Sadr was. We need to bomb him in Najaf, where he lives, whether it is in a mosque or not. A mosque loses its significance once the enemy makes it a military outpost; and once they do make it a military outpost, we should treat it as such—and take it out!

Once we show them we are intent on winning, then they will see who the strong horse is; and they will not treat Americans like this any longer: a) because they will be dead, and b) because we will discourage further acts of terrorism by our show of seriousness. I take bin Laden at his word: You show people a strong horse, and you show them a weak horse, and they will pick the strong horse every time—if they can still pick at all.

Being a strong horse includes how we act at home as well as abroad. We recently began a military hearing for Army Specialist Ryan Anderson, from Washington State. As one report put it, Anderson is "charged with four counts of attempting to provide al Qaeda with information about U.S. troop strength and tactics, as well as methods for killing Army personnel." Anderson is not numb, and he is not dumb. He is a 2002 graduate from Washington State University and a convert to Islam. Anderson is 26 and faces the death penalty. If found guilty, he deserves it. Nicholas Berg was 26 years old as well—and he received a different kind of death penalty. Berg died because he was an American, doing his best to help peaceful Arabs and Muslims build a democracy. Anderson may receive the death penalty because he was trying to help Islamo-fascists kill as many peaceful Americans as possible. Upon reading both their biographies, I was drawn again to Plato's Gorgias, where we are reminded that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. It is better to die as Nicholas Berg than it will be to die as Ryan Anderson, should he receive the death penalty. And it is better to be Nicholas Berg in death than Ryan Anderson in life.

We learn a great deal from our losses; we learn even more from loss than from gain. Right after 9/11, the nation was united in its grief and united in its desire to prevent another attack. We need to re-summon that moment. We are in a war. And though it may not feel or look like wartime here, in America, our enemies are not resting. It is wartime for them. We need to grieve the loss of Nicholas Berg, along with all our brave men and women overseas. We need to thank them. And, now, more than ever, we need—as Shakespeare wrote—to "make medicines of our great revenge" and fight for them, for ourselves, and for the last, best hope of Earth.