The tail end of the trip I just returned from took place in Nashville, TN and was charged with readings and viewings about the occupation of Iraq and the current political trends in Washington: I finished reading Nashville resident Al Gore's book The Assault on Reason and then later the same day, saw the new documentary film No End In Sight. The two tie together nicely, and so I have a review of them both here.
No End In Sight is pitched as an insider's tale of the reckless decision-making and subsequent incompetence that has propelled the invasion and occupation of Iraq forward from the planning stages to the present day, and it satisfies that characterization quite well. I was impressed with the broad scope (in rank, affiliation and political persuasion alike) of the subjects that writer/director Charles Ferguson was able to secure for the film - everyone from former State Department leader Richard Armitage to soldiers and diplomats who had been on the ground in Iraq carrying out the haphazard instructions from afar. What's more, they seemed unusually candid and authentic, almost humbled by the chance to reflect - saying out loud how badly things were done, clearly second guessing themselves and their decision-making process they engaged in, barely containing their frustration at the conflicts and politicking within the Bush administration that prevented any real meaningful collaboration or planning to take place. It was amazing to hear from some of the people who were ostensibly planning for life in Iraq after the invasion, and all the roadblocks and impossible tasks they encountered. It reminded me somewhat of Errol Morris's The Fog of War, with the same kinds of long, uncomfortable pauses as people who were directly responsible for life and death decisions came to grips with their place in history.
Beyond the interviews, the film is a great chronology of the invasion and occupation as a whole. With the inattentive and lopsided media coverage the many-hundred-billion dollar adventure gets, it's all too easy to forget that it's been going on for more than 4 years and that so many different milestones of presidential, congressional, and national identity (many of them unfortunate) have been reached along the way. But despite the moving stories of discontent from U.S. soldiers and the wrangling of egos and power agendas in the U.S., this is about huge losses of life, total destruction of communities, cities, cultures, livelihoods, and a profound sense of injustice, all sustained by the Iraqi people at the hands of our country's military/industrial complex. The collection of footage often never shown in mainstream media for its heartbreaking implications is in itself a story of unacceptable disconnection from this tragedy.
One of the soldiers interviewed for the film, Field Artillery Gunner Hugo Gonzales, talked about how his life now was preoccupied by trying to find some meaning in the occupation there, especially given his debilitating injuries and near-constant pain. I felt such sadness for him and his fellow soldiers, knowing they have in most cases done what they believe is right and necessary, and that some of them are now feeling pangs of doubt (if not plain outrage) about the nature and origins of their mission. As I walked out of No End in Sight, it was clear to me that any universally useful meaning will probably only come years from now, when the machinations of national and cultural self-consciousness will finally lead to some wider-spread sense that the whole ordeal was a catastrophic mistake. But until then, the movie gives us as much perspective as might be possible while the battles continue and more lives are needlessly lost.
While President George W. Bush would not be interviewed for the movie, other interviewers have asked him and his advisers about the logic and decision-making process that governed the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and most often the response is to brush off the mistakes of the past, saying that dwelling on them doesn't really serve a useful purpose, and to talk about what needs to happen to move forward (hey, that sounds familiar!). While I understand this perspective, I think it is horribly flawed.
And so I really appreciate that in The Assault on Reason, Al Gore took the time to look deeply at the thought processes, public and private conversations, and general approach to decision making that has dominated the Bush administration's tenure, not the least outcome of which was the mess in Iraq. Gore starts with the psychology of fear and takes us on a whirlwind tour of how it is used to subvert our appreciation of reason, even to the point where the decisions we make are not in our own self-interest. He looks at the language and framing used by modern politicians (certainly with a critical focus pointed right at conservatives) and how every pressing issue of the day -- from climate change to foreign policy to immigration to Katrina to the economy -- are being poorly addressed or not addressed at all because of the paralysis of the nation due to these tactics. The sad part of his thesis is that, for those who are assaulting reason, it's all about power:
Throughout history, our innate fear of others-who-are-different-from-us has combined all too frequently with some malignant dogma, masquerading as a message from God, to unleash the most horrific violence and oppression in the repertoire of hell. Moreover, this deadly form of exclusivist group passion can be virtually invulnerable to reason. So it is especially useful to demagogues who learn how to fan it and exploit it to gain and consolidate power. --p. 48
Like some interviewees in No End In Sight, Gore effectively lambastes the Bush administration for its approach to Iraq, but does so in the context of the notion that the Iraq invasion was a distraction from the search for Osama bin Laden and those who attacked the U.S. on 9-11. He returns to the amazing phenomenon where some high percentage of U.S. citizens surveyed incorrectly believed Saddam Hussein had something to do with those attacks, and the rhetoric and carefully planned talking points of the neocon planners that facilitated that trend. In other words, because of the way reason has been assaulted and the truth twisted, lots of people died.
Gore is optimistic about possibilities for improvement and solutions to the phenomenon he lays out, but I'm not sure I can agree with the specific paths he sees to resolution. His primary conclusion is that if Americans can reclaim the practice of meaningful public debate about the issues that face us, we can once again be a nation governed by reason and true democracy. Specifically, Gore sees the promise of the Internet as the key vehicle to that reclaiming, and goes on to promote some of his own efforts with Current TV to that effect.
...the Internet is perhaps the greatest source of hope for reestablishing an open communications environment in which conversation of democracy can flourish. It has extremely low entry barriers for individuals. The ideas that individuals contribute are dealt with, in the main, according to the rules of a meritocracy of ideas. It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge. --p. 260
It sounds really good, but as George Lakoff and others have identified, pinning our hopes for the resurrection of a nation driven by progressive values on the notion that everyone just needs to be more reasonable is NOT a strategy for success. The reality is that people will let their understanding of the world and their short-term preferences override any deep comprehension of what might be reasonable or right; even, as I mentioned above, when they are making decisions that conflict with their own self-interest. I've experienced that often here in my home town, where some of my attempts to engage those with opposing viewpoints using the tools of logic and reason results only in further misunderstanding, animosity, and even outright resentment at the attempt. I've come to understand this as something I can't really completely blame on the people I'm engaging - if I can't interact with them in a way that is meaningful and useful to both of us, then that's partly my fault, too.
Still, Gore's clarity of vision is worth hearing out, even if it isn't a comprehensive one. As with soldier Gonzales` attempt to find meaning in the events of the past four years, Gore does manage to make a lot of sense of how we got where we are in a fear-based national identity, and I consider The Assault on Reason to be an essential contribution to the discussion about what we want for ourselves from here on out.