Ask anyone. The French can’t do rock – not the head-banging stuff, or the surfer stuff, or the bar-band stuff – none of it. Johnny Hallyday may be the French Elvis Presley – but that’s kind of a joke. He just sounds too damned French, which may be the problem. French may be too smooth-sounding a language, as it glides subtlety along, and there’s also the matter of ingrained cultural norms. If a culture develops a habit of sophisticated blasé detachment and ennui, where elegant style and flawless self-control are the best revenge, it sure ain’t going to develop rebellious and defiant hard rock. In a culture that admires deep thought – from Descartes to Sartre to the incomprehensible structuralists and beyond – purposefully crude rock music is unnatural, if not gauche. Anyone who listens to French pop and rock knows they’re faking it – and they kind of know it too. The rock stations in Paris play American stuff.
This isn’t a lack of passion – it’s just a matter of how you process that passion, and French pop music has long specialized in heartbreak and regret and what should have been and what will never happen now, which travels well enough. Think of the song Autumn Leaves – originally Les Feuilles Mortes, with lyrics by Jacques Prévert of all people. That was all tragic regret and every half-assed pick-up band in the late fifties and sixties covered it – it became a standard. At the same time the world was smitten by tiny Édith Piaf– all massive defiance and passion, in a small powerful package, the raw and real thing. Her signature song was “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” – No, I regret nothing – and everyone believed her. It was defiance. You make your decisions and you live with them. You did what you thought was right or that you felt was right, or sensed was right – in fact, you did what was right at the time – and only cowards have regrets. Cowards don’t even try. Regrets are for losers, which makes this interesting:
Piaf dedicated her recording of the song to the French Foreign Legion. At the time of the recording, France was engaged in a military conflict, the Algerian War (1954–1962), and the 1st REP (1st Foreign Parachute Regiment) – which backed a temporary putsch of 1961 by the French military against president Charles de Gaulle and the civilian leadership of Algeria – adopted the song when their resistance was broken. The leadership of the Regiment was arrested and tried but the non-commissioned officers, corporals and Legionnaires were assigned to other Foreign Legion formations. They left the barracks singing the song, which has now become part of the French Foreign Legion heritage and is sung when they are on parade.
Yes, the French Foreign Legion still marches to that tune – you make your decisions, to do the right thing, and you do it, and then you don’t whine about it later. You may have been wrong, terribly wrong, but you can still be proud, and proudly defiant. That’s heroic, or the sign of a sociopath. Piaf was one sick puppy after all – an alcoholic mess with a disaster of a personal life. But she was proud and defiant. Everyone loves that, even if it can be a bit scary.
We just don’t love the French, or haven’t since they calmly explained that they would not be joining us in our Iraq War – saying it was the wrong response to the issues at hand, and not very intelligent and certainly not a sophisticated response, and actually quite gauche. That tore it, and we’ve hated those guys since then, or at least many of us did. Everyone remembers Freedom Fries. It’s just that everyone forgot the Piaf song. A good number of those who got us into that war are singing that song, and that should have been the title of the startling new documentary on Dick Cheney – he regrets nothing, although he doesn’t sing about it, and he still hates the French.
Others are deciding on whether regret is appropriate. This is now the exact ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War – our Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad began on March 20, ten years ago. Eight years, eight months, three weeks and four days later we were outta there – with not much to show for it. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and even George Bush sheepishly admitted that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 at all – or more precisely, said he never even implied such a thing. Now Iraq is cozy with Iran and supporting the Syrian government as we try to figure out a way to support the rebels trying to overthrow it – and the Sunnis are still periodically blowing up the Shia, or the other way around, while the Kurds up north will sooner or later break away and join their Turkish brethren, causing no end of trouble. Only John McCain thinks this war was the best thing America had ever done. Everyone else is wondering how the hell this happened. Maybe regret, just this one time, really is appropriate.
How is it, ten years after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight, that 42 percent of the country still believes that invading Iraq wasn’t a mistake? What would it take to convince these people?
Another poll asked the question slightly differently – “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?” They got these results:
Only 24 percent of respondents to the new poll said they thought the war had been worth fighting, while 54 percent said it had not been. Another 22 percent said they were not sure. Three-quarters of Democrats and 55 percent of independents said the Iraq War was not worth fighting. But Republicans were more likely to say that it was worth the cost than it was not – by a 47 to 30 percent margin.
It’s the Republicans who were singing the Piaf song, which has its ironies, and earlier James Joyner pointed out something odd:
As we approach the tenth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq on March 20, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that it has been nearly seventy years since America’s last successful major war.
On August 15, 1945, known as Victory over Japan Day or V-J Day, the Japanese unconditionally surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War and establishing the United States as a superpower. Since that day, the United States has lost three major wars – Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – and is counting down the months until its loss in Afghanistan.
Kevin Drum adds this:
So what do all these unsuccessful wars have in common? I’d focus on one thing: none of them were ever intended to be major wars. … Conversely, the U.S. has arguably been successful in plenty of wars that were meant to be small and really did stay small: the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Libya, etc.
So there’s your lesson: if you plan for a small war, be damn sure that it’s going to stay small. If it might not, then plan for a big war. If that’s unacceptable, don’t go to war. That’s the bare minimum lesson, anyway.
There are other matters too. Nada Bokos, a CIA analyst in the lead-up to the war, notes here that at the CIA’s Iraq Branch in the Counterterrorism Center, they didn’t think Saddam had any substantial ties to al-Qaida, and reported that, but got edged out:
On Sunday, March 16, 2003, I watched Cheney on “Meet the Press” contradict our assessment publicly. “We know that he [Saddam] has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups,” Cheney said, “including the al-Qaeda organization.” I was basically watching Cheney field-test arguments that we would have to anticipate – and rebut – at CIA. Except instead of asking us questions behind closed doors, Cheney was asserting to the public as fact something that we found to be anything but. I found myself yelling at the TV like I was contesting a ref’s blown call in a football game.
Ah, there are lots of things to regret. This woman regrets that she was unable to convince Cheney he was dead wrong about the actual facts, but then he was a man impervious to regret, so he could not admit he was wrong, especially after what he said on national television and pretty much everywhere else. He’d have felt right at home in the French Foreign Legion. For a review of all this there’s the book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside-Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War – and the MSNBC documentary based on the book – fairly straightforward reporting on bad decisions and big egos and hidden motives and willful blindness, and a dysfunctional press. No one got much of anything right, but they won’t admit that now.
There were no regrets, but ten years has passed and that changes things. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, the man who came up with that “Axis of Evil” formulation in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, offers a long Newsweek column finally saying that “all of us who advocated for the war have had to do some reckoning”. The column is an attempt at that and opens with his asking for a bit of sympathy, or at least understanding:
My youngest daughter was born in December 2001: a war baby. When my wife nursed little Beatrice in the middle of the night, she’d hear F-16s patrolling the Washington skies. During the weeks before, anthrax attacks had killed five people and infected 17 others. What would come next?
In October, I attended a crowded briefing in the fourth-floor auditorium of the Executive Office Building, at which the Secret Service explained its plans to protect the White House against a biological attack. They weren’t very reassuring. Basically, we’d all be dead. Even more disturbing were the small-session briefings by staffers for the new Homeland Security adviser. They warned of simultaneous car bombings at strategic intersections, targeted assassinations of officials as they retrieved their morning papers from their stoops, and poisonous gases released in Metro stations.
Like many Washingtonians, my wife and I had prepared an emergency kit in the basement: canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, batteries. We had an evacuation plan, a rendezvous point two hours outside the city, and a stipulated wait time after which she was to presume I was a casualty.
These anxieties may sound luridly overdramatic today, but they suffused the mental atmosphere of the government of the United States as President Bush made the fateful decision to launch the Iraq War.
There was that, but also an obsession in the White House with the Middle East:
The first time I met Ahmed Chalabi was a year or two before the war, in Christopher Hitchens’s apartment. Chalabi was seated regally at one end of Hitchens’s living room. A crowd of nervous, shuffling Iraqis crowded together at the opposite end. One by one, they humbly stepped forward to ask him questions or favors in Arabic, then respectfully stepped backward again. After the Iraqis departed, Chalabi rose from his chair and joined an engaged, open discussion of Iraq’s future democratic possibilities.
The last time I saw Chalabi was in his London apartment, on the very eve of war. My little group arrived past midnight. Chalabi was listening to the evocative strains of Sufi music. He showed me a black-and-white photograph of seven men, wearing the clothes of the 1940s. They were the board of directors of a company his father had founded: a mixed group of Sunni, Shiite, and Christian, and even a Jew. Chalabi remarked that this picture was taken while Europe was tearing itself apart in genocidal violence. He didn’t add that it was taken shortly after British forces defeated a pro-Axis coup in Baghdad – but failed to prevent a murderous pogrom against Baghdad’s Jewish population.
I was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those “others” was Vice President Cheney, it didn’t matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed Chalabi was the exile we’d planned to put in power to fix everything, but he was a trickster and a fraud who just knew the right people within the Project for the New American Century – see all the details – and all the talk was of oil. He and Cheney had big dreams, or Cheney did – but the odd thing was, that in the end, no one made a decision about anything:
You might imagine that an administration preparing for a war of choice would be gripped by self-questioning and hot debate. There was certainly plenty to discuss: unlike the 1991 Gulf War, there was no immediate crisis demanding a rapid response; unlike Vietnam, the U.S. entered the war fully aware that it was commencing a major commitment.
Yet that discussion never really happened, not the way that most people would have imagined anyway. For a long time, war with Iraq was discussed inside the Bush administration as something that would be decided at some point in the future; then, somewhere along the way, war with Iraq was discussed as something that had already been decided long ago in the past.
That would mean there was nothing to regret. This just happened, so the question of regret gets tricky:
Over the past 10 years, there have been few days when the war in Iraq was absent from my thoughts. People often ask me whether I have regrets. It seems absurdly presumptuous to answer the question. I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me. And yet … all of us who advocated for the war have had to do some reckoning. If the war achieved some positive gains, its unnecessary costs – in human life, in money, to the prestige and credibility of the U.S. government – are daunting and dismaying. If we’d found the WMD, it would have been different. If we’d kept better order in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, it would have been different. If more Iraqis had welcomed the invasion as we expected, it would have been different. If the case for the war had been argued in a less contrived and predetermined way, it would have been different.
Yes, but Dick and Ahmed were sitting in the corner talking oil and that should have been a warning, as Glenn Greenwald notes:
Wars rarely have one clear and singular purpose, and the Iraq War in particular was driven by different agendas prioritized by different factions. To say it was fought exclusively due to oil is an oversimplification. But the fact that oil is a major factor in every Western military action in the Middle East is so self-evident that it’s astonishing that it’s even considered debatable, let alone some fringe and edgy idea. Yet few claims were more stigmatized in the run-up to the Iraq War, and after, than the view that oil was a substantial factor.
Greenwald points out that, in 2006, George Bush himself carefully warned us that there was a “responsible” way to criticize our efforts in Iraq and an “irresponsible” way to do that, and we’d better get it straight:
Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate – and it’s even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas.
The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it. They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right.
Greenwald reminds us that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq “nothing produced faster or more vicious attacks on war opponents than the claim that oil was playing a substantial role in the desire to invade” – and provides examples. It wasn’t about oil – what about the WMD stuff? Oops. What about the liberation of the Iraqi people? Oops. What about transforming the Middle East into a region of peace, filled with democracies with free market economies and all of them loving Israel? No? There’s a process of elimination at work here. Oil remains, and Greenwald quotes our new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, who said about the Iraq war in 2007:
People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.
Kevin Drum adds this:
I’m trying to remember if this is even a revelation anymore. Certainly anyone who argued at the time that oil was one of the motivations for the Iraq War was ridiculed mercilessly, but since then it’s been all but obvious, right? There was the fact that the only building that American troops protected during the post-invasion rioting was the Oil Ministry. There were all those lovely maps of Iraqi oil fields that we learned had been part of Dick Cheney’s energy task force since long before 9/11. There was the urgency over restoring Iraq’s oil production that seemed to take precedence over almost everything else. Hell, no less than Alan Greenspan conceded after the fact that the war was “largely about oil.”
Besides, in a broader sense, even lots of war supporters acknowledged that, in general, American interest in the Middle East is driven strongly by our interest in the stability of Middle East oil supplies. That’s not exactly a news flash, and if it’s true in general then it must also have been at least part of the specific motivation for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. After all, until we did that, the oil sanctions against Iraq would stay in place.
Drum is just pleased with Frum:
Still, it’s good to hear this from the horse’s mouth. The Iraq war wasn’t all about oil, but there’s not much question that it was in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.
Andrew Sullivan adds this:
Greenwald claims this is proof the war was for oil, not against WMDs. But the two are not mutually exclusive. As for good faith, I’ve long since stopped believing that Dick Cheney believed there really were WMDs in Iraq – but I remain unsure about Bush.
Sullivan says that he was “seriously convinced” by the WMD argument, because he wanted to be convinced, and says he now regrets that he was somewhat of a useful idiot – but then everyone has regrets, except for that Piaf woman, the guys in the French Foreign Legion, and Dick Cheney. Even George Bush has decided to remain silent – he won’t even talk about the matter.
Should one have regrets? Having none might be seen as heroic, or the sign of a sociopath. It’s too bad this happened on the ten-year anniversary of the start of the war:
An Ohio teenager wearing a t-shirt with “killer” scrawled on it gave a profane statement and made an obscene gesture in court as he was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Tuesday for killing three students in a school shooting rampage last year.
He sneered and gave everyone the finger – no regrets. It was an odd coincidence.