I’ve been asking friends who are old enough to remember: when did the U.S. public reach the tipping point and turn against the Vietnam war. Many of them mention the Walter Cronkite moment, when he ended a particularly draining newscast on the war by saying “it looks like we have done enough in Vietnam” –or words to that effect.
That was it: a revered figure like Walter Cronkite experiences his own tipping point and shares it –right there on the TV screen, with our entire Mom-Pop-and-the-two-kids nation watching. A powerful moment indeed, but only one among a great many searing images.
And important as it was, it would still take a long long time, and many many more deaths, before the end of the war in Vietnam.
And now, back to “AMERICA, HOW COULD YOU?”
I’ve been asking that question in this blog in the last week or so, wishing to stimulate that simplest of spiritual exercises, The Examination of Conscience.
It’s a personal, very private exercise, in which the person searches and examines and answers within him- or herself, with no-one looking on, and only God and/or my guardian angel surveilling me, the profound moral questions, and the ultimate personal questions: “Is this right or wrong?” and “What must I do? What is my responsibility?”
I learnt this Examination of Conscience in my Catholic cathechism class as a really young lad back in Cobh, County Cork. Even a really young person could do a full EOC. It was not contingent on how much I knew or didn’t know at the time –it was not “did I or did I not have all the facts at my fingertips”; rather, it was “With the information I now have, should or should I not be doing this?”
There was nothing particularly Catholic about the EOC; I would imagine that any religious or even parental instruction of a young person would essentially teach the same thing.
And so, back to the question: “America, how could you?” If you recall, I asked it not of those of us who are For the War, or Against the War. I asked it of those of us who were For the War back in 2003, but have turned Against the War (more or less) because “Americans don’t like unsuccessful wars.”
Put like that, by the way, it all sounds very cynical and callous (and “cost benefit-ish” –as we know, hardly the right approach for questions of morality). But I am not suggesting that people have necessarily been taking this cynical approach; more often, I sense, that people have drifted unenquiringly into a tacit acceptance, especially when one considers how much deception and obfuscation and manipulation there has been surrounding this war from the outset.
But –not to let anybody off the hook: now is the time for a personal reassessment, for an Examination of Conscience.
Now is the time for taking responsibility.
You will recall that I have been sounding off about how it’s not Bush’s War; about how it’s Our War.
Let me tell you a little story.
Very early on, back in 2003, I came to recognize that of all the people writing about the war, it was the writing of Frank Rich in the NYT that I was most taken with, that I most admired. I came to sense that his training as a theater critic, the thousands of plays he had seen and reviewed, had given him a special ability to tell a good play from a bad play, to sense early how a particular plot was going to turn out, and with particular appreciation of the cast of characters involved, and their performances.
Rich was decisive and uncompromising and unrelenting and rewarding, with a powerful sense of righteousness, and a desire to hold feet to the fire. (He was indeed, both ‘Frank’ and ‘Rich’)
I was so taken with Mr. Rich’s particular gifts and the need for them, that on a few ‘special’ occasions I sent him an email of appreciation, to which –to my surprise– he sent me a couple of personal responses, which I very much appreciated.
The war wore on and some particularly awful things came to light –such as Abu Ghraib or the whole question of torture or the examples of inadequate body armor for our troops, or the swift-boating of John Kerry, etc. etc. And some of the personal deficiencies and inadequacies-to-the-task in the characters of Mr. Bush and others that we had entrusted with the leadership of our nation, came to light.
All of which Frank Rich pursued properly and relentlessly.
But, from time to time I became a little uneasy with his approach. Why, I wasn’t sure. But the more I thought about it, the more my unease seemed to center on the question of “Ultimately, is it Bush’s War or is it Our War.”
I wrote to Frank making the point of feeling that we had to look beyond Bush’s War and Bush, to Our War and Our Responsibility.
I did not get a reply. I understood why: certainly by this time he had risen very high in the firmament, and was doing many interviews, was working on his excellent book “The Greatest Story Ever Sold”. He must have generated a huge response from his fans, and from those he was pillorying. I myself was following him even more avidly than before.
But I did not get a reply to what I felt was a critical point in the evolution of the war.
No “reply”, that is, until last Sunday’s Frank Rich piece in the NYT’s “The Week in Review.”
In his piece entitled “The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us”, and subtitled “Bush is not the only one to blame for torture,” Rich laid it all out for us in his opening paragraph:
‘”Bush lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.”‘
The particular thing that had upset Rich was the latest uncovering of the DOJ memos “countenancing torture” following on Bush’s latest “we don’t torture” utterance. We employ “advanced interrogation” techniques. He quotes Andrew Sullivan, “once a Bush cheerleader” who discovered that the phrase “‘enhanced interrogation’ had a grotesque provenance: translated, “Verscharfte Vernehmung”…was the exact phrase that the Gestapo instituted to cover their Nazi sins.”
Rich went on: “…the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labelled “politics”. We turn the page.”
And later: “…it’s in our national self-interest to attend to Iraq policy the White House counts on us to ignore. Our national character is on the line too.”
His last paragraph leaves us in no doubt: “Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “Good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnalent Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.”
Thank you, Frank Rich.
Now, to work. Now, to ‘examination of conscience’.