Reviewed by Patrick McEvoy-Halston
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Jeffrey Record, in “Wanting War” (2009), would have you know that the Iraq war was/is a war of hubris, that Iraq presented no pressing threat but an enticing prize, neo-cons and George W. Bush made use of a nation’s powerful need to simply trust to empower their intent to go after. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, and possibly long, long ago accepted it in full, thinking what we most needed to know about the war has been repeatedly revealed; and perhaps for this reason, principally, we should go into why Record’s account does us all little good.
Record wants to leave no doubt that Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq after 9/11 had nothing to do with the new realities of the world revealed by the attack, and as such, left us all of course in a much worse fix (with such like Iran’s influence on Iraq now even being greater). Afghanistan was the more likely suspect, not Iraq; regional history was ignored rather than carefully studied; old gripes and plans, not newly awakened sensitivities, the primary movers. It was an abashingly stupid and ruinous thing to have done, and it depended entire on the “confluence of George W. Bush, neoconservative influence, and 9/11” (p. 92). The neo-cons had always wanted America’s foreign policy to be about showing all of America’s scummy enemies that it meant business, and thought to communicate this most clearly by every once in a while focusing intently on one of them and eviscerating them, as an object lesson to the others (pp. 92-5). They took advantage of a President who had no clear-cut foreign policy and could be lured by their offering of a plan which would offer profound personal satisfaction – in that it would lay waste to a personal enemy, Saddam, who’d greatly afflicted his father and, with America’s withdrawal in the previous Iraq War, hadn’t quite yet sufficiently been paid back for all his harm; and in it matching his preference for Manichaen, simplistic, solutions to pressing problems, to become a blessed chosen agent of God.
Record argues this war had one very noteworthy success – it did create a “nominally democratic political system in Baghdad” (p. 149) – but overall has proved a giant mistake, and implicitly that addressing the requirement we never see its like again in the future requires a greater alertness to two different styles of leadership leaders lean to. Leaders can either let reality inform their actions, or let their inner preferences loose upon the world. The first is responsible, but can lead to doubt which can admittedly be “cripp[ling]” (p. 141); the second can spur you into effective action (Record tends to make achievements of this course significant at first [as expected, the Iraq army was squashed in a hurry], but ultimately effectively lurches that leave you scrambling in quagmire), but isn’t “enough to craft an effective national security strategy” (p. 141), and is mostly not about tactics but inexcusable relapsing to childish preferences. His Shakespearean account of sly advisors and weak leaders prey to them, and neo-Victorian account of good sons who own up to their responsibilities and bad ones who never stop hoping to elide them, is noticeable enough that psychohistorians aren’t just about to let his account inform them only of Bush and the neo-cons: no doubt you’ll all start noting Record’s own simplistic, defensive tendencies, how he can – probably successfully – make an argument telling people we all have to look at leader’s wants and motives, without appearing to give psychologists any room to now take over. His title bespeaks of id, but there’s no room for psychobiography given here: one’s background can certainly influence you – as Bush’s particular religious upbringing plays upon him – but, ultimately, the choice is yours as to whether you take the easy or the hard way. It’s “King’s Speech,” stripped of its Freudianism. And recognizable as such, I think that the primary concern we would finish the book with is how we might work against this wall which can freely permit talk of delusion and unreality and binary thinking (though of course this actual term is never used), but staunchly still keep psychology (and empathy) out while leaving moralizing and righteous anger clearly in.
THE LURCH RECORD MAY WELL LEAVE US IN
But if we’re left stumbling over this problem, and wishing if only people could read it and see it as but a facilitator to the gates of something about Bush we’ve written, we’ve let ourselves be more worsened than marginally informed by the book; for we’d at the end be thinking mostly leaders, when psychohistorians should never find themselves thinking mostly of them. Psychohistorians should be wary when anyone puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of our “leaders,” who we know are but people we study to aptly guess at the psychic needs of those who wished them in, and this indeed is the only place Record puts it – Americans-at-large are to him, sensible, if not pronouncedly disgusted by excess and lack of good sense (other nations [or at least the ones America has tended to have wary relations with] come across as level-headed as well, with them being not-at-all sacrificial and in fact realistic and savy in matters of war [pp. 174-75]: Bush and his neo-cons are in this account, astoundingly alone.). To Record, “Most Americans do not believe that it is their country’s mission to convert the rest of the world into like democracies, and they have limited tolerance for costly crusades overseas that have little or no foundation in promoting concrete security interests” (p. 149). But aren’t we also the lot that’s spent the last thirty years or so participating in manic consumerism, losing ourselves into an excess of work and after-work purchase in an economy that may not at all have meaningfully improved despite the activity? Haven’t we all been lead by want, unconsciously knowing that we were thereby coating everything in our culture with a shine we could subsequently easily point to as evidence of the sinning self we would disown and stand cleanly apart from?
If Record had been eager to do something other than nicely complement his account of grossly negligent leaders (and my, does he ever offer it up: “U.S. performance in Iraq has been a monument to the combination of arrogance, ignorance, poor planning, worse execution, and a willful refusal to acknowledge, much less correct, mistake after mistake after mistake” [p. 149]) with a rudely ill-served, staunchly and commendably conservative and fair polis, he might have done some of the work that would have us psychohistorians learning from his wisdom rather than maybe actually being tripped up by his key folly. If he had, for instance, wondered if the fact that we were all so quick to wake up to this nightmare deception – with his book being maybe the thousandth to have come after Bush’s first term delineating Bush’s hubris – may suggest that maybe we all-along kinda knew the President was smacking back at a world in way that was grossly indifferent to precision and to good form, would be easy to thereafter spot-out as in fact actually rotten, and therefore why we all would want something like that.
I wonder it myself, and I think actually that we were at some level aware that our president was responding to 9/11 by drawing the world to recoil and maybe awe at our readiness to just whip out our collective cock and humiliate and fuck, in public, indifferently, before abashed and stunned you and you and you, whomever stumbled mostly readily into view in our reptilians minds after being let loose and agitated to seek out some tit-for-tat revenge. I wonder if we went after Iraq knowing it drew us back into a time when imperialism hadn’t gotten the cleaner coat we knew it needed, because it would make the humiliation we would “apply” less sparing and complicated – more indulgent and satisfying – and because it would be so easy to thereafter pin on the hubristic desires of leaders who made use of our understandable need to trust to draw us back into neanderthalic politics unrelated to our current world, to our current selves. I think we made use, are still making use, of the neo-cons and President Bush, maybe not so much ultimately even to deposit and disown our own “hubris” but to no longer recognize it in future; and so when authorities like Record sum up Bush and the neo-cons (or, more precisely, the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine) as evidencing a “nostalgic yearning for the days when wars were wars (and men were men),” as having very “little relevance in a world in which instrastate wars and intranational terrorism replaced interstate warfare as they primary threats to U.S. security” (p. 175), we can substitute into this well-pounded imprint of archaic, regressive, boarish manners – and therefore of manners, presentation, in general – in the definition of what all is actually occurring as a consequence of our foreign policies, a substantially more sober and current style, to help begin our process of making the sacrifice and humiliation we enjoy so that it’s largely invisible to us as anything but appropriate conduct. Individual Nazis may have needed twin selves, one that humiliates and destroys, and the other that goes home for dinner and talks domestic, to execute as much; but maybe we think we’ve found a way to (perhaps only temporarily) manage it with but one.
Record is by no means against war. He just wants it kept “competent,” “realist,” “clearly defined,” evidently last resort, with public and congressional support but presumably lead by “extraordinary statesmen like Roosevelt” (pp. 151-52). One wonders, though, with his intent to see Americans in his preferred fashion, probably losing himself to temporary needs of narrative empowered by the fact that he can rely on it not being anywhere near his alone, if he’d recognize it when he saw it. I kinda doubt that what Obama is actually doing, what Americans are enabling him to do, abroad, is competent and adult, but he surely knows he’s got to present it that way.
Psychohistorians know that leaders are ones to be particularly sensitive to, never criminally obtuse to, our most deeply felt desires. If Bush wanted war for gross reasons, we wanted it for the same as well. Bush intuited our desire to indulge one last time in blatant drunken excess, and delivered; Obama, our desire to continue on with the same but feel ourselves clean, by delivering ourselves for awhile to an aesthetics of sensibleness, consideredness, restraint and sanity, sourced from our leaders. Record sees Bush and the neo-cons as nostalgic and archaic; I see them as but part of the same gross one-two punch.
 To Record, Bush Sr. took a weightier account of the world which drew him ultimately to respect restraint (pp. 155-56), and he and Jr. end up seeming as much good path-bad path brothers in the same fraternal order as father and son.