Maureen Dowd: Teaching Remedial Decency

Teaching Remedial Decency
Published: June 3, 2006

Before the war, America railed against the Iraqi leader for slaughtering innocent Iraqis. Now the Iraqi leader is railing against America for slaughtering innocent Iraqis.

Iraq is blustering about sending away American troops to make life better for Iraqis, after American troops were sent in to make life better for Iraqis.

With fury swirling over the Haditha massacre and the shooting on Wednesday of two women, one of whom might have been pregnant and on the way to a hospital, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki laced into the American military, accusing it of regular attacks on civilians that were “completely unacceptable” and pledging his own inquiry on Haditha.

“They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion,” he said, adding that some in the military “do not respect the Iraqi people,” and that assaults on unarmed civilians will help determine how long American troops are welcome in Iraq.

Bold talk from a tenuous government dependent on U.S. forces to prop it up during a sectarian bloodfest.

It’s a bitter irony. And not even a terribly illuminating irony, since Saddam truly had a regime of butchery and the American military is not in the business of atrocity, even if an undeniable atrocity was committed and even if the war has become something of an atrocity.

“It’s one of those things where we have become the enemy,” John Murtha said ruefully on CNN.

American troops are under spectacular emotional pressure. They go out every day, not knowing Arabic, not understanding the culture, not knowing who the insurgents are, not knowing when they can go home or which of their buddies will be blown up before their eyes by an unseen enemy.

The troops were not trained for a counterinsurgency, because Bush hawks ignored the intelligence reports that predicted an insurgency and civil war. These kids were turned into sitting ducks because the neocon con to sell the war needed a gauzy prediction of Iraqi gratitude and a quick exit.

It is admirable that the Marine commanders want to morally sensitize the troops while they are in such a hostile environment, but it also seems a bit absurd, sending them to summer school in “core values.”

There’s no way to teach someone not to shoot an unarmed woman or child. If somebody doesn’t already know why they shouldn’t murder a baby, it’s not clear that a refresher course will help.

The problem with brushing up on core values is that if you don’t know them by a certain point you can’t learn them. You can’t teach remedial decency, any more than you can teach remedial ethics to White House officials who vindictively leak information about critics of the war after vowing not to leak.

As Norman Schwarzkopf said, in a quote that is part of the military’s slide show on core warrior values: “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.”

From Reverend Dimmesdale to Bill Bennett to President Bush, people who righteously preach values and aspire to be moral exemplars often get bitten in the end.

The world is now looking askance at American values, even though W. ran on a platform of restoring values to the Oval Office and was propelled to victory by “values voters.”

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld engineered the invasion of Iraq in part to revive what they saw as lost American values. They wanted to stiffen the squishiness about using force left over from Vietnam and the moral ambivalence left over from the do-what-feels-good 60’s.

In their worry about a spineless America, they made America all spine — overly vertebrate. They started thinking with their spine.

They wanted everyone to be afraid of us, and now nobody’s afraid. Certainly not the nutty president of Iran, whom the administration is forced to kowtow to, now that the American military is not a fearsome force in potentia, but a depleted, demoralized and disparaged force trapped in Iraq trying to police a civil war.

The invasion that was supposed to help terrorism has made it worse. The invasion that was supposed to make America more feared and beloved has made us more hated. The invasion that was supposed to banish post-Vietnam syndrome has revived it.

The virtuecrats of the right thought they would demonstrate American virtue to the world as they imposed American democracy. But now, with murder charges expected against some marines, and a cover-up investigation under way, the values president is running a war that requires a refresher course on values. A bitter irony.

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