Breaking Free of Nonsense

Maybe you had to be there. Only the few surviving aging baby boomers remember. CBS, from February 5, 1967, to September 15, 1969, broadcast The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – the show with the two irreverent young folk singers who were unconventional, but were safe enough for national television. They did a goof on being square. They were all playful innocence. That was cool, but unfortunately they were also sly. Later, Stephen Colbert would do the same sort of thing with his satiric version of someone an awful lot like Bill O’Reilly – year after year after year. Play the type, mercilessly, until everyone gets the joke. CBS miscalculated. They thought they were presenting playful irreverence about life’s little absurdities. They got that, but that was the gift wrapping. Inside was the satire about the big issues – and that was a problem.

This wouldn’t end well. The brothers booked Pete Seeger to sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – an anti-war song that sure seemed like an insult to Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War policy – “Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking, you’d like to keep your health. But every time I read the paper, them old feelings come on. We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy. The big fool says to push on.”

That was Johnson, the big fool. That was Vietnam, the Big Muddy. Everyone would get it, and CBS knew that would scare the advertisers away, and the affiliates would back out, one by one. This was also Seeger’s first appearance on network television since being blacklisted in the fifties. He was a god-damned communist, or close enough for most folks.

CBS said no dice, quite publicly, and then CBS caught such crap from its young viewers that they green-lighted the segment a few weeks later. Pete Seeger sang his song – but after that the network ordered that the Smothers Brothers deliver their shows, finished and ready to air, ten full days before the airdate – the censors would then edit the shows as necessary. That was a mess and the Smothers Brothers were gone soon enough, by mutual agreement. They simply couldn’t do what they did – but you don’t call the president “the big fool” on national television. Television is for light stuff. The rule is to offend the most people the least. That’s what advertisers demand, and they pay for it all. The Smothers Brothers shrugged and moved on.

The irony was that Johnson had realized even his own party was fed up with him. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and setting up Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, and the War on Poverty and all the Great Society stuff, just weren’t enough to make up for escalating the Vietnam War to the point where we had more than half a million troops over there – and 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive that showed we were not going to win that thing, ever. Even Walter Cronkite said so, on national television. The Smothers Brothers couldn’t say that on CBS, but Walter Cronkite could. Those were the days when the networks kept their news and entertainment operations separate from each other.

That didn’t matter. The writing was on the wall. Johnson was toast. He withdrew – and the Democrats were about to nominate Bobby Kennedy, who basically agreed with Pete Seeger, but Kennedy was assassinated out here in Los Angeles just before that mess of a Chicago convention, so the Democrats settled for Hubert Humphrey, who smiled a lot, and he lost to Richard Nixon, who didn’t agree with Pete Seeger at all. In 1968, Richard Nixon had promised “peace with honor” – because we really did have to get out of Vietnam. There was no point any longer. Even Richard Nixon knew that. The whole thing had been a bad idea, but then, Americans don’t cut and run. Hippies do, but not honorable Americans – but we did have to end that mess, and it couldn’t look as if we lost. That was unacceptable – and war in Vietnam finally ended April 30, 1975, as the last of our helicopters lifted off from the roof of our embassy in Saigon, with the last of our folks. There was no honor in that. Gerald Ford was president at the time – Nixon had resigned over other matters – but we were finally out of the Big Muddy. The “big fool” had died years earlier, a broken man – or a free man. He’d grown his hair long and was chain-smoking again and drinking as much as he wanted. He’d let it all go. He’d broken free of the nonsense that had befuddled him.

From JFK and LBJ: The Last Two Great Presidents by Godfrey Hodgson there’s this:

The man who was perhaps closer than any other to the decisions of peace and war under both presidents, McGeorge Bundy, is said to have come, at the end of his life, to the conviction that JFK would not have taken the decisions that LBJ took in the spring of 1965. Bundy’s former research assistant at New York University, Gordon Goldstein, reports that in his final years Bundy “arrived at a firm conclusion that he shared with me and discussed with various colleagues… that Kennedy would not have deployed ground combat forces to Vietnam and thus would not have Americanized the war.”

Goldstein recorded that in one of his work sessions with Bundy, the latter said, “What he” – that is, Kennedy – “wanted to do about Vietnam – shorthand, in political terms – was flush it. He didn’t want it to be a big item. And he didn’t think it was a big test of the balance of power. It was a test of American political opinion, but he could stand that in a second term.”

Goldstein recorded one perceptive, and sharp, aside of Bundy’s about his two employers: “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb. Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.”

That was the nonsense that befuddled Johnson, from which he could not break free, until he was out of office and in Texas sipping fine bourbon. Obama got there early. He has an informal doctrine, often invoked in White House strategy sessions – “Don’t do stupid shit” – and there was a lot of controversy about that when folks found out. Hillary Clinton said that she hated that ad hoc approach to the world and its challenges – but she and Obama later met and smoothed things over. She came to like that doctrine. It may also be the appropriate doctrine for the Middle East at the moment. We lost Ramadi. We may have lost Iraq, if there ever was such a place. Now what? Don’t do anything stupid.

That’s what the Smothers Brothers were saying back in the late sixties. That’s why they booked Pete Seeger to sing about the big fool. That may also explain this:

More than a decade after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that he never bought into the idea of democratizing the country. The man who once talked about the breakdown of Iraqi society by saying “stuff happens” and “freedom is untidy” told the Times of London on Friday that he didn’t agree with President George W. Bush about spreading democracy in the Middle East.

“The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic. I was concerned about it when I first heard those words,” Rumsfeld told the newspaper.

“I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories,” he added.

Fine, but there’s this:

“A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions,” President Bush said in a 2003 speech. At the time, Rumsfeld said that the U.S. would “help pave the way for a new Iraqi government, a government that will be chosen by the Iraqi people, not by anyone else.”

It seems he changed his mind:

Referencing the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, Rumsfeld told the Times on Friday that he now takes a broader view of what the Bush administration called the War on Terror. “You begin to look at this thing not like a war, but more like the Cold War… you’re not going to win this with bullets, you’re in a competition of ideas,” he said.

Still, there’s the record:

As a co-signatory of the statement of principles of the Project for a New American Century think tank, Rumsfeld urged Bill Clinton to topple Saddam Hussein and called on the US to “accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order”. The statement is widely identified as a germ of what became known as the neoconservative theory of “democratic dominoes” in the Middle East.

Throughout the early Bush years, key Rumsfeld lieutenants were top purveyors of the dominoes theory. Paul Wolfowitz, a fellow member of the Project of the New American Century who served as deputy defense secretary in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, predicted that Iraq would become the “first Arab democracy” that would “cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, across the whole Arab world”.

George W Bush, under whom Rumsfeld served as defense secretary for six years, had scathing words in his 2004 state of the union address for anyone who doubted the project of Iraqi democracy. “We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare,” Bush said.

“Yet it is mistaken and condescending to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.”

Wolfowitz and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley are now foreign policy advisers to Jeb Bush, by the way, and there’s that other Texan:

At his presidential announcement last week, former Texas governor Rick Perry called the withdrawal from Iraq “a national disgrace” and argued that the US had “won” the war in 2009 only to see the Obama administration squander its victory by leaving.

Only one clarification was necessary:

Rumsfeld said that “the implication that that statement was anti-Bush is ridiculous.”

He further clarified that he had the “broadly held view” that Saddam Hussein should be replaced by a government that would not have WMDs, wouldn’t invade his neighbors, and would be “reasonably respectful of diverse ethnic groups.”

Well, that third thing didn’t work out, but Heather Parton explains:

He really wasn’t one of those starry-eyed neocons who talked about turning Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy. He was always one of those Kissinger Realist types who just wanted to topple Iraq because it had been determined that we needed to topple someone and everything had been set up to topple Saddam. He was always more of a “shock and awe” guy than a “birth-pangs of democracy” guy like Wolfowitz.

Still, he doesn’t want to be the “big fool” in this case. He doesn’t want the next Pete Seeger singing nasty songs about him on national television. That’s what Scott Walker wants:

Probable Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker says he wouldn’t rule out a full-scale American re-invasion of Iraq “if the national interests of this country are at stake.”

Appearing on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, the Wisconsin governor initially demurred when interviewer Jonathan Karl asked if he’d rule out a “full-blown U.S. re-invasion of Iraq and Syria.”

“I don’t think we should ever send a message to our foes as to how far we’re willing to go,” Walker said.

He doesn’t think it’s necessary to send U.S. troops now, he said, but he “would not rule out boots on the ground.” He made a similar comment in February, saying he “wouldn’t rule anything out,” including sending U.S. ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State militant group, as commander-in-chief.

Asked again if he’d be open to launching a full-scale re-invasion of Iraq, Walker kept that option open.

“If the national interests of this country are at stake, here at risk in this country or abroad, that’s to me the standard of what we do for military engagement,” he said.

In short, he will NOT be a coward. He’d rather be dumb, and Conor Friedersdorf had already noted that he’s not alone:

Like John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and the establishment wings of their respective parties, he believes that the safety of Americans is directly proportional to our willingness to intervene militarily in Middle Eastern countries. He distinguishes himself only insofar as he avows that the degree of U.S. intervention in Syria should perhaps include “boots on the ground” at some future date.

Friedersdorf adds this:

The idea that America should be prepared to put boots on the ground “anywhere and everywhere” that Islamist terrorists operate suggests a possibility of restarting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and invading Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Chechnya, Nigeria – I’ll stop because it’s clear that even Walker doesn’t really subscribe to the standard he thoughtlessly put forth. His answer is discrediting because it betrays how little thought he has given these questions.

The position he actually holds is most likely that while it obviously won’t make sense to put American boots on the ground in some places where Islamist terrorists operate, there are other countries where ground invasions shouldn’t be ruled out, because “when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don’t allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores.”

What he fails to grapple with are the consequences of following this logic in the recent past. The Bush Administration’s decision to put boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately cost the lives of more Americans than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And it isn’t as if those wars eliminated terrorism from those countries. Iraq is more hospitable to Islamist terrorists today than it was before the war.

There’s no need to be dumb about this:

At the very best, it is extremely unclear that putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria would make the U.S. homeland any safer. But it’s obvious that it would put some Americans – the young men and women sent there – in far more peril of violent death. The fact that members of the military volunteered themselves to go in harm’s way in our stead doesn’t mean that they should be sent to be shot or blown up when the end result will very likely be many more U.S. lives lost than saved.

The same could be said of Vietnam, when the military wasn’t a volunteer military at all, and was said by many on that Smothers Brothers show:

Pat Paulsen: What are the arguments against the draft? We hear it is unfair, immoral, discourages young men from studying, ruins their careers and their lives… Picky, picky, picky…

On the other hand, there’s this:

In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province and send 400 American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi.

Although a final decision by the White House has yet to be announced, the plan follows months of behind-the-scenes debate about how prominently plans to retake another Iraqi city, Mosul, which fell to the Islamic State last year, should figure in the early phase of the military campaign against the group.

The fall of Ramadi last month effectively settled the administration debate, at least for the time being. American officials said Ramadi is now expected to become the focus of a lengthy campaign to regain Mosul at a later stage, possibly not until 2016.

We’re going back in, building a new base and everything, but this is not Scott Walker’s wet-dream:

To assemble a force to retake Ramadi, the number of Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar who are trained and equipped is expected to be increased from about 5,500 to as many as 10,000. More than 3,000 new Iraqi soldiers are to be recruited to fill the ranks of the 7th Iraqi Army division in Anbar and the 8th Iraqi Army division, which is in Habbaniyah, where the Iraqi military operations center for the province is also based.

But to the frustration of critics like Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who say that the United States is losing the initiative to the Islamic State, the Obama administration has yet to approve the use of American spotters on the battlefield to call in airstrikes in and around Ramadi. Nor has it approved the use of Apache helicopter gunships to help Iraqi troops retake the city.

General Dempsey alluded to the plan to expand the military footprint in Iraq during a visit to Israel on Tuesday, saying that he had asked war commanders to look into expanding the number of training sites for Iraqi forces. Speaking to a small group of reporters, General Dempsey said a decision had not been made on whether that would make additional American troops necessary.

Or maybe not:

President Barack Obama is poised to send hundreds more American military advisers to a new base in a strategic Iraqi region to help devise a counterattack against marauding Islamic State militants, U.S. officials said Tuesday, a shift that underscores American concern over recent battlefield losses.

The additional troops – expected to be about 500 – are intended to help Iraqi forces prepare for the looming fight to break the extremists’ hold on Anbar province, which has long served as a command center for anti-American insurgents near Baghdad.

Once approved by the White House, the added force would represent the Pentagon’s latest effort to strengthen a foundering training mission that has yet to produce many victories. The last U.S. troop increase came in November, when Mr. Obama ordered up to 1,500 new troops to Iraq, which now hosts 3,080 U.S. advisers, trainers and support personnel.

Here we go again, with the same issues:

The strategy falls short of more aggressive proposals from lawmakers including Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who have urged the president to send thousands more American troops to advise, assist and accompany Iraqi forces.

Mr. Obama came under greater pressure this week after saying after an international summit in Germany on Monday that he was awaiting Pentagon recommendations for enhancing Iraq policies, and that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy.”

“One has to wonder whether this president just wants to wait out the next year and a half and basically do nothing to stop this genocide, bloodletting, horrible things that are happening throughout the Middle East,” Mr. McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said Monday in the Senate.

Administration and defense officials said Mr. Obama was referring not to the broader strategy in Iraq but to the narrower mission to train, to advise and equip Iraqis against Islamic State, also called ISIL. “There is a strategy for ISIL, which I think has been well articulated,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “Specifically, the discussion was about how we will increase our ability to train Iraqi security forces.”

Isn’t that cowardly? Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb. Johnson didn’t want to be a coward. Only the names change. Even Donald Rumsfeld knows better now – but it is hard to break free of nonsense. Ask the Smothers Brothers.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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