The Cure for the Iraq War Hangover

Remember Stripes, Bill Murray's take on American self-esteem after Vietnam? "We're American soldiers!" Murray famously joked. "We've been kicking ass for 200 years! We're 10-1!" Well, make it 10-2. Which begs the question: exactly how much is this postwar period going to suck?

The end of June was a rough time for the neoconservative revolution – a time of suddenly deflated dreams, political panic-selling, horrifying and previously unthinkable concessions to pragmatism and common sense. Just as Lenin on his deathbed had to suffer the rank humiliation of seeing his workers' paradise resort to limited capitalism to save the Soviet postwar economy, George Bush in his last presidential days of pending indictments and plummeting approval ratings was suddenly forced to swallow the indignity of fellow Republicans calling for "diplomatic solutions" in Iraq.

Republicans calling for diplomacy? What's next, Don Rumsfeld leading a gay pride march? Things got so bad by the end of the spring that even wrinkled old hawk George Voinovich, for years an automatic "aye" on Dick Cheney's senatorial scorecard, got it into his head to dress up in hippie garb and issue a statement calling for "responsible military disengagement" from Iraq. Also abandoning ship were John Sununu, Norm Coleman, Dick Lugar . . . It was as if the whole of the old "kill the bastards" coalition decided simultaneously to run for the hedges, each one taking with him a piece of the emperor's clothing – leaving poor Bush alone and cupping his johnson as he stared sadly out the Oval Office window in the direction of the Middle East.

Next thing we knew, White House spokesliar Tony Snow was grimly admitting to stunned reporters that the president saw troop withdrawals "over the horizon." A hush went over the press room, for everyone present understood; Snow's statement marked the unofficial end of the Iraq War.

It also marked the beginning of a whole new era of American loserdom. Remember Stripes, Bill Murray's take on American self-esteem after Vietnam? "We're American soldiers!" Murray famously joked. "We've been kicking ass for 200 years! We're 10-1!"

Well, make it 10-2. Which begs the question: exactly how much is this postwar period going to suck? The post-Vietnam era was bad enough. Indeed, that whole Indochina adventure was a perfect preview of the modern American habit for failure. We showed up in Southeast Asia, killed two million or so people, sprayed half the Vietnamese peninsula with deadly chemicals, then pulled up suddenly and went home to spend the next 20 years or so making soft-lit, woe-is-us movies about how depressing it is to buy a Mexican hooker when your legs don't move.

To cap it off, America's humiliating defeat in Vietnam at the hands of a few million skinny farmers in pajamas – a defeat that was at once military and moral, a defeat not only of American manpower but of the America-as-superpower idea – that defeat inspired the creation of a whole new political movement dedicated to overcoming the "malaise" of losing. From Reagan to Bush I to Rush to W., the resultant conservative groundswell argued tirelessly that America had been unfairly robbed of its "pride," that only the intervention of a traitorous ensemble of reporters, protesters and overweight lefty film directors had prevented the Vietnam adventure from coming off aces. Said traitorous ensemble had thrown America's cultural priorities so out of whack, the story went, that even a bona fide war hero like Bob Kerrey was forced to apologize for having slit the throats of unarmed women and old people during combat way back when. Implicit in the election of George W. Bush in 2000 was a sort of earnest promise that no American would ever again have to apologize for killing an unarmed old person, with a hunting knife or any other weapon for that matter.

By the eve of the Iraq War, the only "lesson" that America had learned from Vietnam is that it took America a long time to recover from the experience – a moral that must have been a source of some amusement to those Vietnamese who were still eating poisoned fish, giving birth to three-headed babies, etc. In any case the invasion of Iraq the second time around was really an announcement that we were now fully recovered from the Vietnam bummer. The fact that we were able to go to war without any observable logical reason for doing so was key to the whole venture. After all, such an invasion would have been politically unthinkable in the first twenty years after the evacuation of Saigon. Even for Desert Storm, we had to wait for someone else to start the fight. But Iraqi Freedom, that was the real deal – war just for the sheer enjoyable fuck of it, started for reasons even sillier than the Gulf of Tonkin. The pride was back.

Except that now the pride is gone again, and one has to wonder, how exactly is America going to recover this time? Because the utter failure of America's Iraq adventure wasn't just a massive blow to our international cachet, and a serious setback in the effort to get a grip on the whole terrorism thing. It was also a stark repudiation of 30 years of agitation by political conservatives to prove that Vietnam was an unjust aberration.

Next time, they said, we'll do it right, and we won't lose. And indeed, they kept cameras out of the battlefield, and convinced the TV networks not to film coffins or frightened teenagers holding their guts in, and developed awe-inspiring technologies that limited casualties and overwhelmed any and all enemy forces in numbers – and they learned to simply ignore mass protests, and stifled upper-class dissent by cancelling the draft, and they made sure returning soldiers were treated as heroes this time around, etc. etc. etc. They fixed, they thought, every tactical mistake, and yet the defeat was even starker this time. We lost to a bunch of hairy dudes with garage-door openers and 50-year-old shells. Our enemy didn't even have China or Russia backing them this time. They were just a bunch of sneaky guys with beards, and they whipped a country with a $600-billion defense budget, a country that ruled the sea lanes and had its foot on the neck of international capitalism. Who could we possibly blame for this one?

Well, that's going to be the big question now, isn't it? America has always defined itself by its wars. Our intense longing for a return to the days when we could view ourselves through the sepia-toned prism of Band of Brothers WWII heroism has driven us to jump into one wrong-headed bloodbath after another. That persistent cultural memory of being the gritty good guy in green engaged in fierce industrial battle with heavily accented bad guys across the ocean has carried us even to this day – so much so that no amount of My Lais or Abu Ghraibs has yet been able to budge mainstream America's implicit belief in the inherent righteousness of any war we choose to fight.

But those days may be over. Iraq was such a monstrous failure on every level – such a senseless and extravagant waste of lives both American and Iraqi, and one almost certain to result, moreover, in a palpably worsened security situation – that when future generations of warmongers start campaigning to bring the "pride" back, very few Americans are going to know what the fuck they're talking about. Which pride was that again? The pride of "Shock and Awe"? The pride of "Mission Accomplished"? The pride of spending $400 billion in five years only to end up providing less electricity to Iraq than before we invaded? After Vietnam, we were down on our luck; now we're officially an international joke. Shit, even the Italians have a better recent war record than we do.

The worst thing about all of this is that in America's immediate political future there will be no shortage of well-funded opportunists who will try to bring the "pride" back by campaigning for this or that restorative military campaign. Because we never fight anyone who can meaningfully fight back, and because we've already been whipped badly in North Africa and the Middle East of late, our choices for future invasion targets may have to involve a slightly less imposing class of belligerent nation – Reunion Island, say, or Liechtenstein, or possibly even Great Britain if we get really desperate. And when we get beat by one of those juggernauts, that's when the really ugly feelings will kick in. We'll know the American empire has finally fallen when Oliver Stone makes his epic about the 101st Airborne being pushed into the Gulf of Siam by the Thai tourism ministry.

In all seriousness, the one saving grace of all of this is that America in the years since the end of the Vietnam War has evolved in a direction of such extraordinary collective stupidity that it is entirely possible that even after the inevitable helicopters-leaving-Baghdad moment, a huge plurality of the population will not even be aware that we just lost another war.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, we'll be able to pitch the cessation of hostilities as meaning just about anything – victory, defeat, troops leaving for lunch, anything. And once the money-shot exit moment is past, the country will move on to the next boozed-out Lindsay Lohan scandal three minutes later, leaving the legacy of the Iraq War to be mainly an issue of how skilled we'll be in future years at lying to ourselves about our history. And unlike knowing when and how and who to fight, we're still pretty good at that.

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. His book, Smells Like Dead Elephants, is due out next year.