FIASCO’s Crucial Adverb

In Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq (The Penguin Press, New York, 2006), Thomas E. Ricks wrote,

“The last chance [to prevent a U.S. invasion of Iraq] was offered by hearings on Iraq held in February 2003, but this was not an opportunity that Congress would take. It had made its choice the previous October when it gave the president a blank check to go to war”  (p. 86).

Two pages later, Ricks quoted from Senator Byrd’s remarks to Congress. Ricks observes that Byrd “puzzled over why Congress had gone AWOL.”   Byrd’s words: “There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. . . What is happening to this country?” (p.88). [The bolding belongs to this post.]

Ricks’s next sentence: “Congress as a whole became unusually unimportant during this period, especially the Senate and House Armed Services committees, the two panels that over the military establishment and so held the keys to airing Pentagon dissent and other concerns about going to war.” [The bolding belongs to this post.]

Fiction-writers, especially, but also writers in general are sometimes counseled to cut adverbs from their prose. In this case, however, “unusually” seems crucial; from it, one may infer that Ricks thinks Congress is routinely unimportant, perhaps mainly with regard to  war, and the adverb is a nice one-word echo of Byrd’s frustration.

It’s probably prudent to acknowledge that Senator Byrd’s politics, record, and personality may not encounter uniform respect or admiration, and Byrd  may well have remained senatorially silent during other crucial debates, but on the issue of going to war in Iraq, his words rang true when he spoke them, and they ring true now, and I suppose one ought to take truth from wherever it comes in one’s government.

One might also quibble with Byrd’s characterization of Congress’s predicament as one of “uncertainty.”  As I’ve noted before, I’m merely an amateur observer of politics, but it did seem to me then, and it does seem to me now, that almost all the Democrats in Congress were certain that if they didn’t support Bush’s craving for war, they would get creamed in the next election, and I suppose Republicans believed supporting the president was the right “play,” too: no loyal opposition, no opposition from within, as there was from a few Democrats during the Viet Nam war.

This section of Rick’s book fascinates because it takes for granted that Congress is ineffectual in matters of war. I wonder if political scientists think similarly; do most of them think the power of the Executive Branch, especially with regard to going to war, have expanded extraordinarily? Second–an pertaining most specifically to the issue of language and politics–is the the question of silence. Byrd wasn’t riled up about the arguments for war; he was riled up that there were no arguments. Political rhetoric is an easy target, and who among us has not simply wanted this or that politicians to shut up? But in this instance, I found myself wanting lots of rhetoric. Like Byrd, I wanted debate.  Third is the ironic detail that because Congress was ineffectual, timid, and cowed, it couldn’t even air dissent from within the military establishment. How bad does alleged representative democracy have to be to fail even to register dissent from within the military toward war? It’s not as if Congress were failing to register protest from anarchists.

Of course, Ricks’s profession cannot escape indictment, either.  American journalists failed miserably, and Judith Miller from the New York Times seems to have served as a kind of PR person for Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. I recall an editor from Tacoma’s paper suggesting that Bush had done “all he could” to prevent war. –All except waiting or not going to war, of course.

On page 196, Ricks recounts a meeting with Paul Wolfowitz in Iran, in midsummer 2003. Wolfowitz quoted: “It is pretty amazing. . . . The great majority [of American reporters and columnists, Jim Hoagland and Christopher Hitchens excepted] seem astonishingly pessimistic,” he said.

Those words were spoken over 6 years ago.

More legitimate debate, and much more dogged reporting: too much to ask for? Apparently so. I do wonder if even supporters of the war (like Hitchens) would have preferred more debate in Congress, or whether they were and are satisfied with the ends and don’t much care about the means, the “laying out of pros and cons” Byrd desired.


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