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Bush & Terror: An Exchange with Norman Mailer

To the Editors:

Why does Norman Mailer’s “The White Man Unburdened” [NYR, July 17] leave one with such mixed feelings?

Regarding “Unburdened,” my first reaction was to exult, Mailer is back! “The White Man Unburdened” shows Mr. Mailer at his rhetorical, polemical best. Unlike other, seemingly halfhearted recent forays, this one is deeply felt, the source of the essay’s resounding prose, its unforced alliterations, the reader’s desire spontaneously to agree.

Nevertheless, in setting up and mowing down President Bush’s explanations for the war in Iraq, Mailer’s venerable hair trigger focuses, as usual, on economics, sociology, and above all culture to explain politics. We are offered once again the nefarious centrality of the corporation in American society, race matters, and the ever-present drumbeat of machismo, thwarted and reborn, in American political leaders.

He writes, “The key question remains—why did we go to war? It is not yet answered.” Can this really be true? So many answers have been given, it would be surprising if someone has not stumbled on the truth.

If we could not find our machismo anywhere else, we could,” he says, “certainly count on the interface between combat and technology.” Thus the war.

Mr. Mailer cannot seriously believe that no one has suggested machismo as a, the, Bush motivation in Iraq. The photo accompanying the text—President Bush about to launch his tailhook caper—has been commented on ad nauseam. And so on. What is certain is, on the other hand, that no such allegation has appeared in such glorious, heavyweight prose.

Mailer rightly puts at the heart of the matter the impact of 9/11 on American society. But it was not just a matter of social demoralization, as he says. It is the probability, or certainty, that terrorists already have weapons of mass destruction in their possession. This should surprise no one, since so many sources are on the loose around the world. The truly demoralizing fact after 9/11 is that, of ten terrorist attempts, nine will be stopped. Why Norman Mailer doesn’t even mention, let alone take account of this fact, is puzzling and, finally, infuriating.

As for the over-focus on President Bush himself and his machismo antics: Bush is at once too easy and too difficult a target. Antics, certainly. But it isn’t convincing to criticize Bush’s morale-building (for the military and public opinion), and electorate-building (for himself and his party), when they are both arguably legitimate purposes. Bush can be opposed politically, but does it really get a hook into him to mock building morale and trying to get reelected? Antics aside, what is he supposed to do? Or is it only the antics?
Second is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which Mr. Mailer does not seem to notice. Where are Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in “Unburdened”? Nonexistent? Irrelevant to Iraq? The threat of catastrophic terrorism and the geopolitical justification (accepted or rejected) for the Iraq war were not simply shaken out of thin air. Mailer needs to be held to account for his views, or lack of them, on this score.

Third, Mailer on machismo, American cultural images, and the changing racial balances on sports teams: Striking as his insights are, is such “evidence” necessary, let alone sufficient explanation for foreign policy? I hope not.

Fourth, to argue that Saddam Hussein was in fact a punched-out, fat-bellied palooka ready to go is indeed a good point. The French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy made it a few months ago on the New York Times Op-Ed page. Iraq, in part, was selected as the chosen regime, M. Roy suggested, not because it was strong but because it looked strong but was weak, easy meat for America’s military might. It would be the prelude to the Wolfowitz-Cheney strategy of “letting the sequels play out” in surrounding countries, not least in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. (By the way, M. Roy was therefore one of those who had little trouble figuring out the main reason for the Iraq war.)

Finally, and most importantly: The most devastating threat to Americans, not from Saddam Hussein but from WMD in the hands of terrorists, is quite real. Chemical weapons would be bad enough. Biological weapons could kill many more people than chemical weapons, no doubt orders of magnitude more, while dirty nuclear bombs, or miniaturized genuine nuclear weapons, would be yet more catastrophic. This is not a moral question, or one that can be successfully approached through the ancient prism of old left ideology. It is a matter of facing a fact.

It could just be, in other words, that the Bush administration is trying to do its job—however it got elected, however it is trying to get reelected, and however scandalous its domestic policies, including Ashcroft and Homeland Security. The bottom line is not machismo but the security of the American people. One hopes they’ll get it right.

Ronald Tiersky
Amherst, Massachusetts

Norman Mailer replies:

Given the courtesy of Ronald Tiersky’s critique of “The White Man Unburdened,” how can one not reply? I have to recognize, however, some limitations for myself. The new questions are large. In effect, Ronald Tiersky is asking: “What would you have done after 9/11?”

Well, I can present other scenarios than the one offered by our two good Doctors of Magic, Rove and Bush, Masters of the Advertising Sciences (Mendacity and Public Manipulation). Their access to confidential material is orders of magnitude larger than is available to any of us, but their scenario has been skewed by the outsize need to mischaracterize the greater part of the intelligence they do receive.

Let me argue then that a military response to 9/11 was an error. Going into Afghanistan became an adventure that ended as a cipher. (The warlords are back in power and bin Laden is still at large, even though our military entrance into Afghanistan came because the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden. For icing on the cake, the Taliban now seems to be returning.) Iraq was even less to the stated purpose. Embarking on a full-scale war to rid oneself of terrorists is analogous to hunting a hornet with a Sherman tank. When the tank knocks down the house that shelters the hornet, the creature whips into the attic of the next house. Containment might have been a better strategy for Iraq. Containment would certainly have offered a horde of attendant annoyances (especially when no WMD were found), but it could have been linked to a worldwide collaboration of the police powers of all the well-developed and many of the underdeveloped nations of the world. A number were sufficiently vulnerable to large-scale terrorism to be ready to collaborate in a global venture, which, for that matter could have been concentrated first on Afghanistan. Granted that there were obvious obstacles—intelligence agencies never share information easily for fear of exposing the source. But even 20 percent of a comprehensive effort could have done no worse at the business of capturing Osama bin Laden. And might have done more.

Of course, one cannot eliminate terrorism altogether any more than one can wipe out an entire strain of bacteria through antibiotics. On the fringes, new, virulent, more impervious strains develop. Depredations, however, can be kept under some control, whereas war is bound to generate novel mutations of terrorism. Such, at least, is the theory here advanced.

Obviously, I cannot vouch for this approach with whole confidence. All-out terrorism is a new species of human disease. Personal viciousness, when multiplied to this degree, fulfills Engels’s dictum: Quantity changes quality. Terrorism is now megahuman in its cruelty. If we had begun, however, with an international police effort including Afghanistan and it had not been able to fulfill its objectives, war would then have seemed a more logical next step, and there would have been less need to manipulate the American public in order to go forward with it. We might also have had a real coalition.

There was never much chance of that. Powell and the State Department would probably have worked with the UN, but there were other programs being forwarded in the administration and they were closer to Bush. The forces who were for world empire—could that be Rumsfeld and Cheney?—were hell-bent on the US going it alone in Iraq en route to Syria, Iran, Pakistan, the milestones from their point of view to US domination of the globe. That would be our best international solution as they saw it. Only America could be trusted for so holy and immense a venture. It is the aftermath in Iraq that has proved the largest blow to their plans—everything takes so long when it comes to injecting democracy into the hearts of fundamentalists.

Bush and Rove, interested in building a powerful long-term Republican majority among white male voters, were, I have argued, out to demonstrate how great a force was our military. Add to that Bush’s fatuous, even inimitable, purchase on cant. He was all for giving a demonstration of the manner in which good could destroy evil. While there’s no use in being a politician if you can’t lie to pick up votes, Bush has abused the privilege. So we suffered all the damage that has been laid on America by the administration prevaricating at top speed all the way to Iraq, misspeaking so egregiously that 25 percent of the nation still thinks that Saddam Hussein was the genius behind 9/11 (with what cost to our spiritual literacy is not easily counted).

The next White House vision that is bound to prevail, the sturdy argument of the neocons, will insist that the war with Iraq, no matter which lame offerings were presented previously, now shows itself as a necessary war. Peace between Palestine and Israel was not possible without a choke-hold on the Middle East. Now we have the choke-hold and so can pursue the roadmap. It is the neocon verion of Realpolitik, and there are huge obstacles to be overcome before it could come true, but what if it is bona fide? Despite all the damage done to America’s sense of reality, what if a species of peace does come to Israel and Palestine? Can it be argued then that it was not worth it? As Stalin remarked, you break eggs to make an omelet. Do they say no less now in the White House?

Wonderful. If the roadmap works and Israel and Palestine come to live together in some kind of reasoned fashion, then Bush will also have gained a choke-hold on the argument—provided terrorism does not increase drastically in other places. Ronald Tiersky makes the cogent point that “the most devastating threat to Americans [is] WMD in the hands of terrorists.” Agreed. Nonetheless, the question persists. Will a peace with Gaza and the West Bank serve as a real deterrent to al-Qaeda? Perhaps—but does that really feel probable?

Maybe we will do well to learn to live with terrorism as a chronic condition, an ongoing upheaval to all sorts of good hopes, plans, and projects. All the same, until it reaches the numbers of our annual automobile accidents (more than 40,000 mortalities), can we recognize that there may be worse things in store for our Republic than projected weapons of mass destruction (which are, after all, never easy to deliver), and one of them is the shameless exploitation of American perception? A blinded democracy is soon on its knees begging for a leader to show the road.

At present, the specter of fascism settling upon us remains just that, an exaggeration, a specter, but will we escape it if we are struck by economic miseries? That is the time when we will need to be at our best rather than gulled in thought and dulled in language by our reigning Doctors of Advertising Sciences. Tiersky concludes his letter by suggesting that the real bottom line on the Bush administration, whatever its admitted low maneuvers, may be that it is still trying to do the job of searching genuinely to provide us with security.

The answer may be that there are more important things to safeguard. What does it profit us if we gain extreme security and lose our democracy? Not everyone in Iraq, after all, was getting their hands and/or their ears cut off by Saddam Hussein. In the middle of that society were hordes of Iraqis who had all the security they needed even if there was no freedom other than the full-fledged liberty offered by dictators to be free to speak with hyperbolic hosannas for the leader. So, yes, there are more important things to safeguard than security and one of them is to protect the much-beleaguered integrity of our democracy. The final question in these matters suggests itself. Can leaders who lie as a way of life protect any way of life?

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