August 24, 2005

Guns and Butter

Gelf recommends some background reading to get up to speed on the debate over the war in Iraq.

Aaron Zamost

While many turn to Dan Brown for insight into political events (including folks at Fox News), Gelf turns to real literature first. Every week or so, Aaron Zamost will present readers with two books relevant to current events: one for people who enjoy reading Tom Robbins—and another for those who like Tony Robbins.

Oh, we still read schlock—but we read it second.


You know the Iraq war isn't doing well when Henry Kissinger starts comparing it to Vietnam (CNN). This is the same former secretary of state to President Nixon who called the administration's strategy in Vietnam "unnatural."

But another of Kissinger's remarks on the Vietnam War—"It's not a matter of what is true that counts but a matter of what is perceived to be true"—may explain why the Bush administration continues to spout so much "on the march" rhetoric (i.e. the insurgency is in its "last throes," Iraq is somehow linked to 9/11, there is no middle ground between "staying the course" and "cutting and running," etc.) Perhaps the president believes that if he can somehow convince Americans that these things are true, it won't matter that they aren't.

None of this amounts to my saying anything new. But I think that's the point. I'm not a huge Nancy Pelosi fan, but the House minority leader was exactly right when she said that President Bush's recent speeches about Iraq "could have been made one year ago, two years ago." (CNN) Bush's "We're making progress" in 2005, sounds exactly like Bush's "We're making progress" in 2004.

Kissinger's quote about perception being more important than reality is equally relevant to critics of the Iraq war. Even if Bush's claims are correct, they don't matter if the public believes that the administration is merely running around in circles, doing the same things over and over again—just as U.S. troops repeatedly secure the same towns from insurgents, only to watch them refill with new terrorists.

It's becoming clear that the White House maybe, just maybe, finally appreciates the fix it's in (Editor & Publisher). There are serious problems in Iraq, and I agree with the president that we must stay and fix those problems before leaving. But as Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) said this week, "the longer we stay the more problems we are going to have." Leave Iraq now and leave serious problems. Stay in Iraq and create serious problems. It sounds like a...

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

A good friend of mine hates this book. He says that the writing is meticulous to the point of tedium, that many sequences are idiotic and pointless to the story, that the plot doesn't move, that there are too many characters, and that the description of these insane soldiers is, well, insane. To which my response has always been the same: So what don't you like about it?

Catch-22 is probably my favorite book of all time. It tells the story of Yossarian, an American bombardier stuck with his Air Force squadron off Italy during the final months of World War II. The book weaves in and out of the lives of several officers, detailing the often tragic circumstances that can beset a company unsure of the reasons behind the war itself. The circular reasoning of the bureaucracy drives many of these sane men insane—and vice versa—but crazy or not, there's no getting out of the war. (The catch from which the novel takes its name.)

Many of the novel's detractors (including my friend) complain that much of Catch-22 sounds like an LSAT logic problem. But they are frequently the same readers who relish the playfulness in books like Norton Juster's children's classic The Phantom Tollbooth. The tone of lunacy in these books is very similar. Of one character in the novel, Heller writes, "Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was." Is this any different from the narrator's voice in Tollbooth? (For example, Juster writes, "Wherever he was he wished he was somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered.") The only difference between the two is that in The Phantom Tollbooth no one gets shot down in an airplane over Dictionopolis.

Unlike the Bush administration, I won't repeat talking points that you've no doubt heard before (a Google search for "Iraq War" and "Catch-22" yields over 18,000 links), except to say that if you haven't read Heller's novel, or if you haven't read it in awhile, now might be a good time to do so. When Yossarian realizes that it doesn't matter if Catch-22 really exists—what's important is that people believe it exists—I can't help but think that Kissinger and Bush have more in common with the nutso American officials in Catch-22 than they would prefer to admit.

The Butter Battle Book, by Dr. Seuss

Grandpa, a member of the Zook-watching Border Patrol, has issued a claim of responsibility for a Triple Sling Jigger attack on the Zook community, just hours after Zook authorities said they had arrested a Kick-a-Poo Spaniel in the Jigger Rock Snatchem attack that left two Zook soldiers dead.

Grandpa claimed responsibility for the attack in a video broadcast Tuesday on Yook-language TV Station Al Foona-Lagoona Baboona. "That's the right, honest way!" Grandpa gritted his teeth. :You can't trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath." His remarks came amid a report from Zook officials that civil war could arise from differences over whether bread should be spread butter side down or butter side up.

With his public approval ratings falling and antiwar demonstrations mounting near his Yook home, Chief Yookeroo tried to rally support for the Butter Battle by arguing the conflict is a "vital part" of the war against butterism.

"We've made the decision to defeat the Zooks abroad so we don't have to face them here at home," he said. "The biggest threat we face now as a community is the possibility of Zooks ending up in the middle of one of our cities with an 8-Nozzled Elephant Toted Boom Blitz."

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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