Living in a Fantasy At Home and Abroad

It was only a matter of time before the people who go to Disneyland/World would want to live there. Our housing industry, nothing if not accommodative to customer tastes, has obliged. Springing up on what had been pastureland a few years ago are early-20th-century downtowns—replicas of the past, but without the dirt crime and grit of the real thing.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “dozens of faux downtowns [are] popping up across the country, from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., spurred by a demand for urban living scrubbed of the reality of city life. A careful mix of retail, residential and office space built with traditional materials such as stone and brick, Legacy looks like a city but has neither panhandlers nor potholes.” In Legacy Town Center, the faux downtown outside of Dallas, the paper says that “Many residents rarely venture even to downtown Dallas, which has been trying to turn itself into a place to live for almost a decade …. ‘There’s too much riffraff down there,’ says Ron Pettit, a 36-year-old contractor, as he snacks on brie and grapes at a table outside.”

These places are better than simple gated communities; these are gated communities of the mind and imagination, the final step out of the 21st century into timelessness, into never-never land, a sweet and safe place which did not exist in any of the wonderful back-thens but have become such a large part of the American here and now. What a strange situation: a backward-peddling nation, unable to look at its present, much less deal with contemporary problems, physically constructing a series of back-lot movie sets for itself to live in.

An inside-out, upside-down picture of life by which one lies to one’s self about the present by lying to one’s self about the past. So complicated, so screwy! They’ve even been doing it with the new baseball parks designed to bring us back to the era of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

So here we all are, in our luxurious, slap-happy retro dream, while away, away, away out there across the world, our reveries are jostled—but only ever so slightly—by tardy reports from places like Haditha and Guantánamo. The reactions to these bits of information read as though they came from inside a gated, retro community enclosing an opium den.

Here is Mr. Peter Beinart in The New Republic, as quoted by Mr. William Kristol in The Weekly Standard: “Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That’s how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don’t just assert it. We prove it. That’s the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it’s what we need right now in response to this horror.”

To which Mr. Kristol answers: “No, it isn’t. The last thing we need in response to Haditha is hand-wringing liberalism.”

They’re both on the pipe, strolling through some developer-inspired political Xanadu. You’ve got to be holed up in a Green Zone of the mind to kid yourself into thinking that the world is going to kiss our bottoms in admiration because, after having been caught in the headlights by Time magazine, we are belatedly hanging the Marines who did the killings by their ears. Court-martialing the Marines doesn’t prove to anybody but ourselves that we are different from jihadists. To the rest of the world, punishing the Marines is an automatic propaganda gesture that even such outstanding liberals as Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao would carry out. Mr. Beinart’s words are but one more example of the kind of self-flattery which flourishes like the green sward of our gated communities.

From the safety of his own faux city, Mr. Kristol goes on to say: “The war against the jihadists, a war Beinart supports, is not a metaphorical one. Liberals may want to win a war on terror without fighting, and are shocked that in a war, crimes and abuses occur. But here’s the hard, Trumanesque truth: In war, terrible things happen, including crimes and abuses and cover-ups.”

In truth, Mr. Kristol, the reactionary with the alligator smile, confuses fighting with talking tough. Politicians of his stripe think that invoking Harry Truman is an effective anti-liberal put-down. Once you mention Truman, the he-man’s liberal and, puzzlingly enough, the modern right-winger’s political hero, they expect those who disagree to shrivel and skulk away into the cowardly night.

When you make up the past as you go along, it need not conform to any known set of facts, but, for the record, were Harry Truman alive now, Mr. Kristol would abominate him as a vote-stealing machine politician, a pro-union, pro-socialized-medicine, pro-price-control ineffectual wartime President who failed to lead the country to victory by refusing to do what needed to be done to win the war in Korea. Oh, well ….

But by Mr. Kristol’s lights, President George W. Bush is a wartime leader able to make changes when things aren’t exactly going to plan. So he writes: “It is heartening that he [Mr. Bush] met last week, in private, with a group of diverse experts on Iraq, in order to get fresh points of view about the situation there.”

Lest you still entertain a lingering doubt or two over how Iraq may turn out, Mr. Kristol goes on to say: “The president understands that this war isn’t going to be won unless he ensures that it gets won. It won’t get won if the president doesn’t aggressively defend the honor of our soldiers and Marines. And it won’t get won if we succumb to liberal hand-wringing, or indulge in conservative happy talk. But it must get won. Winning the wars this nation commits to is also the way we keep our honor clean.”

In Retro City, our choice is between liberal hand-wringing and right-wing blab about honor and “winning wars our nation commits to,” the old staying-the-course line. In the Williamsburg of the mind in which these sterling fellows live, there’s not so much as a hint about the practicalities.

What might they be? To find out, we need to take a second look at the Haditha massacre. The men involved are doomed to long terms of hard labor at Leavenworth, so there’s no need for more dumping on them, poor bastards that they are. If Mr. Kristol’s Harry Truman were around now, he might say, “Follow the buck—and when you do, it will take you to Donald Rumsfeld’s office and President Bush’s desk. Haditha happened because there were not enough soldiers in Iraq.”

These men were on their second tour of duty in a land that apparently has about six wars going at the same time. They cannot speak the language, and at this point, one wonders what good it would do if they did. They are in a foreign land fighting God knows who for God knows why for God knows how long and how many times. In fear, anger and confusion, they killed a bunch of people—murdered them even—but at the bottom, it happened because there are not enough troops in Iraq and the troops that are there are increasingly badgered, bewildered and bedeviled by murderous enemies who cannot be seen or identified most of the time. The number of enemies increases daily even as the population in which our troops must operate becomes more hostile and unforgiving. Iraq has become an anarchic bloodbath. Our natural allies, the professional and business classes, are fleeing the place before they are all assassinated.

Regardless of how well disciplined they are, how much firepower they have, 150,000 troops cannot contain this situation, much less dominate it and extinguish the killings. To continue with the present force levels is to contribute to a disgusting and indefensible slaughter of human beings. Going on as we are is madness, and it’s criminal. There were not enough troops in Iraq three years ago, and there still are not enough troops.

Moreover, at the rate the situation is deteriorating, by the time the United States has “stayed the course,” it may be physically forced to withdraw. At the 150,000-troop level, day by day, month by month and year by year, the situation grows more difficult, and some day it may have gotten so bad that we are unable to leave without taking significant losses.

The part of the world that does not live in faux cities and kitchy-kitchy-koo-restored communities understands that at the 150,000-troop level, there is no exit strategy, nor is one possible: We only have the strength to hold on.

Mr. Beinart and Mr. Kristol, the two of them, must understand that the price of staying in Iraq is not oratory on the theme of sacred honor or blabology about tough-guy liberalism or tricking the world into thinking we are what Mr. Beinart imagines we are. The price is raising an army.

The United States must send an army to Iraq that is large enough to pacify the country. That’s a half-million men and a few women standing on every street corner in every city and village, not a few desperate and harried Marines rushing to and fro to smother (with decreasing success) the newest and worst outbreaks.

An army of such size in today’s America would have to be conscripted. The name of every 18- and 19-year-old man and every woman capable of bench-pressing over a certain number of pounds gets put in a draft lottery. The scheme is simple; the politics are horrendous, because all of a sudden it’s no longer telling a public waxing fat on war that they are heroes. In the blink of an eye, the speechmaking about sacrifice will have been made real.

Is that going to happen? Is hardship supposed to come to carefully planned gated communities where the nostalgia is three-dimensional? There are no hard choices in the faux cities, nor is there any parallel in history of a people which similarly built sand castles and then inhabited them—unless it was the peasant village constructed for Marie Antoinette on the grounds of Versailles. There, she and her intimates played at being simple people until the real simple people came and chopped off her head.

Living in a Fantasy At Home and Abroad