First of a two-part Left Out series reviewing the legacies of America's wars in Panama and Iraq.
AS GEORGE BUSH ponders new ways to remind Americans of his two favorite wars, as Pentagon hawks try vainly to parley "successes" into bigger appropriations for high tech weapons, Saddam Hussein remains in power; Kuwait's democratic elite enslaves Filipino servants; Manuel Noriega gets ready for his acquittal; and America's domestic problems go unchecked, too big, too complicated and too politically explosive for the President who brought us Just Cause and Desert Storm to manage.
Two days after the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks, we invaded Grenada, a tiny, tiny island whose exact problems and import to the world are still entirely mysterious. But it was 1983, the economy was recovering, and the fiasco in Lebanon was not that big a problem. A few thousand American troops, a few casualties, one terrible Clint Eastwood movie.
In 1989, things were looking a little worse. The economy was slowing down. Tiananmen made American policy toward China look bad, and events in Eastern Europe (while optimistic) were clearly beyond American control. So we stepped up the rhetoric. We picked a dictator with a bad record. We ignored the fact that we had been supporting him and his drug activities for years. The Pentagon gave it a catchy name, Operation Just Cause. (Why do it? Just 'Cause.) 22,000 soldiers. Twenty-three die, 330 injured.
In 1990, the economy was clearly going downhill. The 1992 campaign was within striking range. Iraq provided a convenient excuse by invading Kuwait, a small, relatively reliable American ally. Saddam played the awful dictator perfectly. Again we ignored the fact we had supported him for years. Bombs away! 650,000 troops, fewer than 100 deaths. Songs, television specials and incredibly cool images of Tomahawks entering bunkers.
In some twisted way, the wars were a way to prove that presidents could do anything, absolutely anything, for years, and then reverse themselves and send people off to kill and die for the new cause. Back Saddam for years against the Ayatollah and the Russians, back Noriega for years against the Russians, the Nicaraguans, the Cubans, (the Salvadorans, the Hondurans, the Costa Ricans--he'd do anything). Do it out in the open and then, when it comes time, go get 'em.
AT A BRIEF, strange moment last year, America flashed back to 1983. For a few days in winter, Chrysler returned to its early 1980s advertising campaign: While a LeBaron scooted along a golden desert highway, Kenny Rogers belted out, "The pride is back, born in America..."
Forget for a moment that the American car industry is approaching collapse, or that the quality of Chrysler's cars suggest that proud is the one of the least accurate adjectives to describe the company. The reappearance of this ad was just a tiny patriotic drop in the sea of flag-waving pride that engulfed America during the Iraq war.
This outpouring of American pride--pride in our technological superiority (Rah Patriot Missile), in our brilliant military (Rah 100-hour war), in our humanity (Rah No Civilian Targets), in our racial equity (Rah Colin Powell, Rah Blacks and whites in the trenches), in our democratic ideals (Rah Restoring the Elected and Legitimate Government of the Freedom-Loving People of Kuwait)--has been a successful diversion of our attention from pressing economic issues.
It is "Symbolic Military Keynesianism" at its best. In traditional Keynesian economics--long the bane of Republicans--the federal government "primes the pump" of the domestic economy by increasing spending on unemployment benefits, jobs programs and the like. In military Keynesianism, the government primes the pump by building a massive military program--trading the efficiency of jobs programs for the enticement of military might.
Symbolic Military Keynesianism (SMK) is a substitute for both of these: Instead of priming the national economy, they prime the national symbolic economy. By turning inchoate regional barbarities into questions about the fabric of world democracy, our government created a feverish excitement about Panama and Iraq.
Pitched at this intense level--month after month of build-up, day after day of bombing, constant--but censored--television coverage, Bush et al distracted everyone from anything else by glutting the airwaves with Gulf "news."
For months, the Gulf War drove every other issue--the banking disaster, the Liberian massacres, the growing deficit, higher unemployment, the growing trade gap, and the legacy of the previous year's war in Panama--from newspapers and television broadcasts, from the national conversation. It was a dreamlike state of video war and triumph and it was a shame it ever had to end.
Whining Democratic senators who said we had "smart bombs but stupid children" sounded more like upset youngsters who got too small a piece of cake at the big party than outraged politicians. Sure, you could agree to disagree, but you couldn't disagree and make any difference.
BEYOND INDUCING AMNESIA, priming the symbolic pump had marvelous, if temporary, effects on how Americans saw themselves. Our technology suddenly became the best: Our smart bombs, our cruise missiles, our infrared goggles, our Patriot missiles (no Sonys here, pal) not only vanquished the primitive weapons of the Iraqis, they vanquished them humanely. Their Scud missiles hit Tel Aviv houses; our cruise missiles hit chemical weapons storage facilities.
Our military genius, our native American intelligence, proved itself again. One hundred hours and we beat those tricky camel jockeys to a pulp. And what was our military strategy based on? Football. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and his staff devised the plan, and called it a "Hail Mary," sending our troops around the western edge of the Iraqi emplacements and sneaking up on them from the back. The more appropriate football term would have been "end run," but American coaching got it right anyway.
We transcended our race problems. Twenty percent of American troops in the Gulf were Black. Colin Powell, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is Black. As the now-popular slogan has it, in the trenches, there is no Black and white.
We transcended Vietnam. In an "Army" magazine article summarizing the war, Vietnam appears as a constant shadow: "The conduct of this war was a far cry from Vietnam." George Bush made it as explicit as possible: Unlike Vietnam, he said, American troops in Iraq would not fight "with one arm tied behind their backs." As if that were the problem in Vietnam.
And, most important, our American values proved themselves as resilient as they ever were. The "diabolical" Saddam Hussein, as nasty as he wanted to be, attempted to conquer his tiny neighbor. But the world, convinced of the injustice of dictatorial, militaristic oppression, stood firm, inspired by the quick-thinking, quick-acting United States of America. While the Japanese and the Germans dickered over whether to help out, we jumped in to defend justice, freedom and democracy.
UNFORTUNATELY, symbolic pumppriming has shot its wad. Not only have our brief transcendental moments of pride vanished, but even the problems we thought we solved, or avoided, continue to haunt us.
American military technology (Patriot missile aside) does work adequately. But the rest of our technology sure doesn't. General Motors is firing 70,000 workers. Most of our advanced industries are barely alive, and last year, for the first time, we ran a deficit in computer equipment.
Our military intelligence also works adequately; we did win the war. The rest of American planning is less successful, and our native American intelligence is not performing. We have no adequate long-term solutions for our economic stagnation, our health care crisis, and even for our forgotten "war," the War on Drugs.
The idea that we transcended our racial problems in the trenches is an attractive one, but it has little connection to the economic and social barriers that continue to aggravate racial tensions in civilian society.
And our feverish rhetoric about democratic values has not been notably effective in practice. Not only are many Americans disgusted with their own politics, but Kuwait, which continues to oppress Palestinians and its other foreign workers, has made hardly a move toward actual democracy. Saddam Hussein remains in power. Hafez Assad of Syria is prospering. The Kurds are still dying, at the hands of Iraq and of our ally Turkey.
In Panama, the promised elections have still not been held, and when they are, the aristocrats led by Endara are sure to win. Noriega's political machine still exists, under new management, and with the same constituency, a constituency that doesn't want its leaders, but is nationalist enough to want to die rather than live under continued American occupation. Drug money still pours through the banks and keeps the place running on a shoestring. If not to prevent violence and totalitarianism, what were these wars for?
THE ANSWER, of course, continues to be money.
Kuwait's economy is up and rolling again, with thousands of new jobs for unemployed Egyptians and East Asians. Iraq, too, is rejoining the world economy, under UN-encouraged imperialist terms. Israel is getting more American aid for its cooperation. Panama continues to be a safe money haven and the canal continues to be ours. And the other banana republics still send us all the bananas we want.
So while our military adventures prime the symbolic pump at home, they prime the economic pump abroad, allowing capitalism to continue to reign and the oil to flow freely. At home, of course, Americans see very little economic benefit from the war, but we were feeling so damn proud of our boys and girls over there that all that money stuff did not even matter.
The pride in the fighters who were born in America realized itself in an explosion of hoopla and marketing. Every city had a parade, whether it was for Appalachicola's own 69th Reserve Quartermaster unit or D.C.'s national orgasm of delight--a parade that left tons of garbage in the city, torn-up streets as far as the eye could see, and slightly improved receipts at the local bar as everyone set one up for the boys.
THE PROBLEM NOW is that there are no more adequate targets for Team USA to fire on and forget. Symbolic pump-priming requires ever larger, ever more evil, targets. It was no accident that every war we have fought since Vietnam has been "the largest mobilization of U.S. troops since Vietnam." Americans are finally angry enough about domestic issues that another Panama won't do much more than raise a few pulses for a day.
SMK, like Keynesian economics, raises the aggregate demand. It's a dependence effect, an addiction where you need to try harder just to forget how bad things are. Very few of us would stand for just another Panama or just another Iraq without squealing a great deal. And very few of us would mess with the really big bad armies and navies that haven't yet come in from the Cold War.
Economic Keynesianism, at worst, leaves you with some nice government-built bridges. Symbolic Military Keynesianism leaves you with a vague sense of disappointment and massive hangover of drugs, crime, unemployment, a third-rate video duplicate of Whitney Huston "celebrating America's proudest moment" on HBO and a total absence of concern for the wreckage the military left behind.