The attacks that burned me out
Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site MainStreet.com ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, I was asked about war.
I confess that growing up in the age of Reagan and his weird wars might have totally and permanently burned out my outrage over presidential adventures in armed conflict. First, remember that Reagan bombed Libya before Obama, killing the daughter of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 1983, and Lockerbie — when Libyan terrorists took down an airplane full of innocents over Lockerbie, Scotland — took place two years later. To a teenager with little knowledge of world affairs, that potential if pointless cause and effect was a pretty good introduction to the ambiguities of modern warfare.
There was also Operation Urgent Fury, in which we overran the tiny island of Grenada (population 100,000) to, um, rescue U.S. medical students from the dangers of seeing Communists try to govern. Maybe. Frankly, our goals and reasons were a little unclear to me (and the name of the operation is, frankly, very distracting; it sounds vaguely erotic, but in an Ayn Rand kind of a way). I know we won, though, creating a benchmark for minor military accomplishments — like graduating from “tadpole” in swim class — and a lifetime of political punch lines.
The invasion of Grenada also took place in 1983, a year after Britain’s war in the Falklands, in which U.K. forces overran some islands (population 3,000 or so) invaded by Argentina and, um, rescued some livestock from becoming delicious asado, instead consigning them to become objectionable mutton.
And in 1986, we officially got the War on Drugs, and even as a kid I knew that “Just say no” was no more a successful strategy than asking the Libyans to sing “Kumbiyah” (or bombing their country just a little). It also seemed like a domestic distraction from the absolute, No. 1 weirdest military intervention we had, in which Reagan sold weapons to the Iranians to pay for a war in Nicaragua that was illegal because Congress had said no to funding it. And even as a kid I remembered that Reagan rode heroically into office vowing to never negotiate with terrorists such as the Iranians who took Americans hostages after deposing a leader we liked — pretty much the same reason we invaded Grenada and were funding the Contras in Nicaragua. What was so weird was that no one seemed to care very much about the hypocrisy, which to a kid is a pretty big thing; we see stuff as black and white. There didn’t even seem to be much outrage about the fact a president was going around behind Congress’ back, subverting the U.S. Constitution.
Reagan capped all this by claiming he beat the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War largely by forcing an arms race that broke the Soviet economy. Even as a kid I knew the Cold War and its arms buildup started in 1947, which was still four years before Reagan starred in “Bedtime for Bonzo” with a chimp and 33 years before he became president. Him getting credit is like awarding a runner for winning a marathon after he’s jumped in a couple blocks from the finish line.
The Iraq war did get me pretty riled up, because it was obvious we were going in just because we wanted to, but fighting in Afghanistan had moral justification. And now Libya again, which is pressing on nerves that haven’t felt anything for almost three decades, the last time we bombed the place.
Of course I feel far off from the fighting. President George W. Bush asked us to spend rather than sacrifice to support his wars, and President Barack Obama is asking nothing of us whatsoever, including to support his actions. It’s just, like, a thing he’s gonna do, even if we could all get behind the idea of backing rebels who want democracy — they do, right? — and freedom from the man who took down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 270 innocents, because that was just a thing he was gonna do. (I also can’t help remembering that it was the Brits, the heroes of the Falklands, who released Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi for, according to Wikileaks documents cited by The Telegraph newspaper, CNN and others, access to Libyan oil.)
I feel far from the war and real sacrifice because I feel alienated from the way government decides its incursions, violent or otherwise, and our constantly shifting standards about what constitutes an outrage. Gadhafi’s a monster but the shah wasn’t? Low gas prices justify releasing a murderer? Reagan’s a great American for subverting the Constitution?
There are some in Cambridge upset over our actions in Libya, and that Obama more or less acted on his own, but the City Council also grandly, harmlessly and somewhat pointlessly voted Feb. 28 for international leaders to try to get Gadhafi to resign. We’re conflicted in every sense of the word.
But I watch it all mainly with a sense of remove. Eight years of Reagan, and the ever-growing burnishing of his place in history, has raised my sense of injustice to such a high level that not much fazes me anymore.