The Movie-Made War World of George W. Bush
by Tom Engelhardt
Here’s a memory for you. I was probably five or six and sitting with my father in a movie house off New York’s Times Square — one of the slightly seedy theaters of that dawn of the 1950s moment that tended to show double or triple feature B-westerns or war movies. We were catching some old oater which, as I recall, began with a stagecoach careening dramatically down the main street of a cow town. A wounded man is slumped in the driver’s seat, the horses running wild. Suddenly — perhaps from the town’s newspaper office — a cowboy dressed in white and in a white Stetson rushes out, leaps on the team of horses, stops the stagecoach, and says to the driver: “Sam, Sam, who dun it to ya?” (or the equivalent). At just that moment, the camera catches a man, dressed all in black in a black hat — and undoubtedly mustachioed — skulking into the saloon.
My dad promptly turns to me and whispers: “He’s the one. He did it.”
Believe me, I’m awed. All I can say in wonder and protest is: “Dad, how can you know? How can you know?”
But, of course, he did know and, within a year or two, I certainly had the same simple code of good and evil, hero and villain, under my belt. It wasn’t a mistake I was likely to make twice.
Above all, of course, you couldn’t mistake the bad guys of those old films. They looked evil. If they were “natives,” they also made no bones about what they were going to do to the white hats, or, in the case of Gunga Din (1939), the pith helmets. “Rise, our new-made brothers,” the evil “guru” of that film tells his followers. “Rise and kill. Kill, lest you be killed yourselves. Kill for the love of killing. Kill for the love of Kali. Kill! Kill! Kill!”
“Wipe Them Out!”
Kill! Kill! Kill! That was just the sort of thing the native equivalent of the black hat was likely to say. Such villains — for a modern reprise, see the latest cartoon superhero blockbuster, Iron Man — were not only fanatical, but usually at the very edge of madness as well. And their language reflected that.
I was brought back with a start to just such evil-doers of my American screen childhood last week by a memoir from a once-upon-a-time insider of the Bush presidency. No, not former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who swept into the headlines by accusing the President of using “propaganda” and the “complicit enablers” of the media to take the U.S. to war in 2002-2003. I’m thinking of another insider, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. He got next to no attention for a presidential outburst he recorded in his memoir, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story, so bloodthirsty and cartoonish that it should have caught the attention of the nation — and so eerily in character, given the last years of presidential behavior, that you know it has to be on the money.
Let me briefly set the scene, as Sanchez tells it on pages 349-350 of Wiser in Battle. It’s April 6, 2004. L. Paul Bremer III, head of the occupation’s Coalition Provisional Authority, as well as the President’s colonial viceroy in Baghdad, and Gen. Sanchez were in Iraq in video teleconference with the President, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (Assumedly, the event was recorded and so revisitable by a note-taking Sanchez.) The first full-scale American offensive against the resistant Sunni city of Fallujah was just being launched, while, in Iraq’s Shiite south, the U.S. military was preparing for a campaign against cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
According to Sanchez, Powell was talking tough that day: “We’ve got to smash somebody’s ass quickly,” the general reports him saying. “There has to be a total victory somewhere. We must have a brute demonstration of power.” (And indeed, by the end of April, parts of Fallujah would be in ruins, as, by August, would expanses of the oldest parts of the holy Shiite city of Najaf. Sadr himself would, however, escape to fight another day; and, in order to declare Powell’s “total victory,” the U.S. military would have to return to Fallujah that November, after the U.S. presidential election, and reduce three-quarters of it to virtual rubble.) Bush then turned to the subject of al-Sadr: “At the end of this campaign al-Sadr must be gone,” he insisted to his top advisors. “At a minimum, he will be arrested. It is essential he be wiped out.”
Not long after that, the President “launched” what an evidently bewildered Sanchez politely describes as “a kind of confused pep talk regarding both Fallujah and our upcoming southern campaign [against the Mahdi Army].” Here then is that “pep talk.” While you read it, try to imagine anything like it coming out of the mouth of any other American president, or anything not like it coming out of the mouth of any evil enemy leader in the films of the President’s — and my — childhood:
“‘Kick ass!’ [Bush] said, echoing Colin Powell’s tough talk. ‘If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can’t send that message. It’s an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal.
“There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!’”
Keep in mind that the bloodlusty rhetoric of this “pep talk” wasn’t meant to rev up Marines heading into battle. These were the President’s well-embunkered top advisors in a strategy session on the eve of major military offensives in Iraq. Evidently, however, the President was intent on imitating George C. Scott playing General George Patton — or perhaps even inadvertently channeling one of the evil villains of his onscreen childhood.
American Mad Mullahs
Let’s recall a little history here: In the nineteenth century, Third World leaders who opposed Western imperial control were often not only demonized but imagined to be, in some sense, mad simply for taking on Western might. Throughout the latter part of that century, for instance, the British faced down various “mad mullahs” in North Africa.
Later, such imagery migrated easily enough to imperial Hollywood and thence into American movie houses. But here was the strange thing: In the Vietnam years, that era of reversals, a president of the United States privately expressed, for the first time, a desire to take on the mantle of madness previous reserved for the enemy in American culture (and undoubtedly many other cultures as well). It was not just that President Richard Nixon’s domestic critics were ready to label him a madman, but that, in his desire to end the Vietnam War in a satisfyingly victorious fashion, he was ready to label himself one.
“I call it the madman theory, Bob,” Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman reported the President saying. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, was equally fascinated with the possible bargaining advantage of having the enemy imagine the President as an evil, potentially world-obliterating madman. “Henry talked about it so much,” according to Lawrence Lynn, a Kissinger aide, “… that the Russians and North Vietnamese wouldn’t run risks because of Nixon’s character.” What made this fascination with the idea of a mad president more curious was that it fused with fears held by White House aides and advisers that Nixon, finger on the nuclear button, might indeed be impaired or nearing the edge of derangement. “My drunken friend,” “that drunken lunatic,” “the meatball mind,” or “the basket case,” was the way Kissinger referred to him after receiving his share of slurred late night phone calls.
So, in a historic moment almost four decades ago, a desperate president suddenly found it strategically advisable to present himself to his enemies as a potential nation slaughterer, a world incinerator (and his aides were privately ready to think of him as such); the leader of what was then commonly termed “the Free World,” that is, was considering revealing himself as a mad emperor, a veritable Ming the Merciless.
Skip ahead these several decades and, presidentially, things have only gotten stranger. After all, we now have a president who has openly, even eagerly, faced the world as the Commander-in-Chief of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, Extraordinary Rendition, and Offshore Imprisonment; a Vice President who appeared openly on Capitol Hill to lobby against a bill banning torture; and key cabinet members who, from a White House conference room, micromanaged torture, down to specific techniques in specific cases. Talk about Ming the Merciless.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, you had one president whose critics would call him a “baby killer” — “that horrible song” was the way President Lyndon Baines Johnson referred to the antiwar chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” — and another ready to take on the mantle of madness for purposes of private diplomacy; and each was reportedly brought to the edge of private madness while in office. But both were also uncomfortable with imagery of themselves and exceedingly awkward in the televisual world of politics that was already starting to surround them; neither imagined himself “in the movies.”
Last Screen Appearance?
Usually Ronald Reagan, an actual actor, is seen as the president who spent his time in office playing the role of a lifetime, but, as it happens, he had nothing on George W. Bush. From the moment the attacks of September 11, 2001 gave him his “calling” as a “wartime” president, he has been deeply embroiled in acting out his cartoonish version of the role of the century. In fact, he has often seemed like little more than an overgrown boy plunged into his own war movie and war-play memories.
Let’s remember that, soon after 9/11, this President launched his “crusade, this war on terrorism” with an image of a poster from some generic Western of his childhood. (”Bush offered some of his most blunt language to date when he was asked if he wanted bin Laden dead. ‘I want justice,’ Bush said. ‘And there’s an old poster out West… I recall, that said, Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”) For years, he visibly glowed when publicly dressing up in a way that was redolent of the boy version of war (that is, doll… er, action figure) play. While Abraham Lincoln never put on a uniform and an actual general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, put his in the closet in his years as president, Bush uniquely and repeatedly appeared in public togged out in military wear, looking for all the world like a life-sized version of the original 12-inch G.I. Joe action figure — whether “landing” a jet on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and stepping out in a nifty flight suit, or appearing before massed hooah-ing troops in specially tailored jackets with “George W. Bush, Commander In Chief” carefully stitched across the breast. (In fact, more than one toy company did indeed produce G.I. Joe-style Bush action figures.)
Evident above all, from September 14, 2001 — when he climbed that pile of rubble at “Ground Zero” in New York City and, bullhorn in hand, to “USA! USA!” cheers, wiped out the ignominy of his actions on the actual day of the attacks — was just how much he enjoyed his role as resolute leader of a wartime America. While his Vice President and top advisors were grimly, if eagerly, preparing to whack Saddam Hussein and taking the opportunity to create a permanent commander-in-chief presidency, the President was visibly having the time of his life, perhaps for the first time since he gave up those “wild parties” of his youth.
A rivulet of telling details about his behavior has flowed by us in these years. We know from Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, for instance, that, after 9/11, Bush kept “his own personal scorecard for the war” in a desk drawer in the Oval Office — photos with brief biographies and personality sketches of leading al-Qaeda figures, whose faces could be satisfyingly crossed out when killed or captured. In July 2003, frustrated by signs that the Sunni insurgency in Iraq wasn’t going away, he impulsively offered this bit of bluster to reporters (as if he were the one who would take the brunt of future attacks): “There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring ‘em on.”
In those moments when he spoke or acted spontaneously, there are plentiful clues that Bush took deep pleasure in finding himself in the role of commander-in-chief, and that he has been genuinely thrilled to do commander-in-chief-like things, at least as once pictured in the on-screen fantasy world of his youth. He was thrilled, for example, to receive from some of the troops who captured Saddam Hussein the pistol that the dictator had with him in his “spiderhole.” Back in 2004, TIME Magazine’s Matthew Cooper reported: “‘He really liked showing it off,’ says a recent visitor to the White House who has seen the gun. ‘He was really proud of it.’ The pistol’s new place of residence is in the small study next to the Oval Office where Bush takes select visitors.” Similarly, he returned from one of his brief trips to Iraq “inspired” by a meeting with the pilot who shot off the missile that incinerated Bin Laden wannabe Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
On and off throughout these years, you could glimpse just what a cartoon-like white-hat/black-hat persona he imagined himself to be playing. This was true whether he was in his blustery tough-guy mode, as when, in September 2007, he arrived in Australia publicly proclaiming that the U.S. was “kicking ass” in Iraq; or when, as commander-in-chief, he regularly teared up with genuine (movie) emotion as he handed out medals, some posthumous, for bravery; or even when he discussed his own wartime version of “sacrifice” — he claimed to have given up golf for his war. As he told Mike Allen of Politico.com: “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”
The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin has pointed out that even Bush’s callow sacrifice of golf wasn’t real — he kept on playing — but that hardly matters. What’s crucial is that all this real life play-acting still moves, even thrills, him. Recently, for instance, he gave a graduation speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he once again compared Iraq to World War II (and so, implicitly, himself to President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a bust of whom he has kept in the Oval Office all these years). As Associated Press reporter Ben Feller commented: “Bush noted it was his last military academy commencement speech, and he seemed to savor it. He personally congratulated each cadet as cheers bounded across the stadium.” Note that word “savor,” when linked to the military and his commander-in-chief role. It’s been a quality evident in the President’s ongoing performance these last seven years. The photos of him goofing around with Air Force Academy graduates after his speech tell the story well.
In all this, you can sense a man in his own bubble world, engrossed in, and satisfied with, his own performance — both as actor and, as in childhood, audience. What Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has added to this is the picture of a man who, even in 2004, was already dreaming Vietnam disaster (”This Vietnam stuff… We can’t send that message.”); who, perhaps sensing that his blockbuster was busting, like Richard Nixon before him, proved willing to mix the white-hat and black-hat codes of his movie childhood in remarkable ways. Under the strain of a failing war, in private and among his top officials, he didn’t hesitate to take on that “guru” role and rally his closest followers with a call to kill, kill, kill!
A confused pep talk indeed. Even if Bush is still exhorting his top officials not to “blink,” Americans should. After all, there are almost eight months left to his presidency, and a man of such stunning immaturity, who confuses fantasy with real life, and is given to outbursts of challenge, bluster, and bloodlust should be taken seriously. Nixon’s “mad mullah” stayed private until transcripts of the Watergate tapes and memoirs started coming out. For us, the question remains, will this President be able to take a final turn on-screen before his term ends, playing the “mad mullah” in relation to Iran?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture, has recently been updated in a newly issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best of Tomdispatch book, The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso), which is being published this month.
[Note for Readers: As far as I know, the key passage in Sanchez’s memoirs quoted in this piece was first noticed and commented upon by that indefatigable Iraq reporter, Patrick Cockburn. Unlike the key passages in Scott McClellan’s memoir, this one from Sanchez’s book has been little attended to. However, Dan Froomkin (cited in this piece), who does the Washington Post’s online column, White House Watch, also noted its existence. That’s not surprising. He seems never to miss any important development when it comes to the Bush administration. I link to his invaluable column often. As far as I’m concerned, it may be the most striking example of the sort of service a sharp columnist for a major paper can offer in the online world. I find it a daily must-read and recommend it strongly. Finally, if you want to know more about Mad Mullahs, American war movies, and a host of other subjects from World War II through the Iraq War, check out my recently updated book, The End of Victory Culture.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt