War as Cope: Ukraine as Desert Storm, Iraq-Afghanistan as Vietnam
what role does Ukraine play in your life?
You may, as you will, support Ukraine’s military. Certainly I have no love for Putin or his invasion. But the emotional investment in this war effort is something very dark, to me, and redolent of America’s hubristic past.
I was a child during Desert Storm, the first American conflict in Iraq. Looking back the intensity of the pro-American propaganda of the time was incredible. As a child in school we listened to, and were forced to sing, Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” over and over again. We said the Pledge of Allegiance with unusual fervor. We wrote letters to the troops. We were told stirring stories about how American Patriot missiles had shot down many SCUD missiles - stirring lies, it turns out. The whole country was just suffused with jingoism and militarism, to an extent that even affected me as a nine-year-old. Of course we would later eclipse even that absurd pro-war frenzy after 9/11.
It was not until I was an adult that I realized that the absurd fervor for Desert Storm was in fact about Vietnam. Fifteen years earlier, American helicopters had fled in humiliation from Saigon, and nothing had happened to take the sour taste out of the mouth of Americans since. There was plenty of power projection in that decade and a half, but no great good wars for the United States to win in grand and glorious fashion, unless you worked really hard to talk yourself into Grenada. America had been badly stung by losing a war to a vastly poorer and less technologically-advanced force. Americans had been nursing their wounds all those years. So when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the “international community” rose to expel him, the country was ready. We were ready for another righteous combat of the Goodies vs. the Baddies. We were ready for the good guys to be the winners again.
This dynamic, I’m certain, is the source of American bloodlust over Ukraine.
We have now spent twenty years without good, noble wars against the Baddies ourselves. Afghanistan was a war effort undertaken in rage and terror, and was accordingly never intelligently conceptualized at the most basic level. The war aim of finding and capturing bin Laden and destroying Al Qaeda gave way to a war on the Taliban that ensured an endless occupation. The Potemkin government we installed was never popular with the people of the country, entailed comical levels of corruption, and showed no ability to train a loyal and effective Afghan army. After 20 years our country tired of spending hundreds of billions on that failure, we left, the government collapsed almost without resistance, and the Taliban are in power again. In Iraq, the basic arguments for the war (WMDs and a Hussein-al Qaeda connection) were swiftly revealed to be bullshit. Saddam’s army fell quickly and he was dispatched after a show trial, but a persistent insurgency inflicted thousands of American casualties. The chaos enabled the rise of ISIS and its various horrors. The new Iraqi government we’ve installed is impossibly corrupt and scores a 31/100 on Freedom House’s ratings of a country’s dedication to political rights and civil liberties. That’s what the United States has gotten for $8 trillion spent on warmaking since 9/11.
America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser. So I once heard. Americans, particularly the kind of Very Serious people who make up our intelligentsia, are desperate for a good war. A just war. A war where we win. They’re sick of wars that feel morally complicated, sick of wars that they have to feel queasy about, sick of wars that aren’t just Goodies and Baddies. They are very, very hungry for good war. I think Ukraine is the Desert Storm a lot of people have been waiting for: a war with (they insist) perfectly simplistic moral stakes, an impossibly noble (they assume) set of Goodies, a marauding and senseless (they demand) set of Baddies. All they’re waiting on is victory. And it’s for this reason, this view of war as one big cope, that the pro-Ukraine position is the single most rigidly enforced consensus in our country since 9/11. There is no other issue on which the majority has more vociferously demanded total consensus or more viciously attacked any who dissent or even ask questions. Because America needs a win. People need to believe in a Goodies and Baddies world again.
There are, of course, all manner of hard questions that we could ask, even if we were supportive of Ukraine in this war. That this is a conflict that has constantly inspired left-leaning people to literally say “well, yes, there’s Nazis, but…” might be seen as a matter of some concern. Perhaps, we might just say, isn’t that a little disturbing? But not in this discursive environment. Or we might consider that a total loss for Russia could be one of the most dangerous outcomes for the world even if you support Ukraine. What do you think happens, with a wounded and isolated Russia? Let’s say people get what they want and Putin is deposed. What do you think happens next? We finally get that shining city on a hill in Moscow that we were promised with the collapse of the Soviet Union? That we’ll get the world leader we expected Bagdhad to be in 2003, that a foreign country with foreign people and foreign concerns will suddenly become a docile member of the liberal-capitalist order? Maybe the best post-Putin outcome would be for a similar corrupt autocrat to take his place; at least then there might be stability. A far more likely and more frightening outcome is that leadership is splintered, you have in effect a set of rival warlords squabbling over the spoils, and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal is exposed in a terrifying way. Seems like something to worry about.
But, no. To a degree that genuinely shocks me, hard questions have been forbidden. Complications have been denied. Comparisons to previous conflicts have been forsaken. And this from Democrat and Republican, liberal and leftist, neocon and Never Trumper. It’s constant, everpresent, and relentless, the denial of any complication in the case of Ukraine and Russia. The glee and the gloating and the urge to ridicule anyone who takes even a single step outside of the consensus is remarkable, unlike anything I’ve ever really encountered before. And I find that I can’t even get people to have a conversation about that, a meta-conversation about why the debate on Ukraine is not a debate, about why there are many people who will consider any political position except one that troubles the moral question of Russia’s invasion, about why so many people who learned to speak with care and equivocation during Iraq now insist that there is no complication at hand with this issue at all. I can’t even get a conversation about the conversation going. People get too mad.
There is no a priori reason why Saudi Arabia’s ongoing rape of Yemen should inspire such apathy compared to Ukraine. I mean, Arab life is cheap to Americans, but even still, you'd think we'd summon one tenth as much coverage. But then Yemen isn't a war that makes people feel good. It's a bummer, not a child's vision of stalwart knights against the evil wizard. And I think the last two decades of failure for the American military machine, and our failure to fight good wars, has everything to do with it, has everything to do with the remarkable enforcement of consensus on this issue.