I was living in China during the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq. Separating fact from hunch, and political distortion from opinions of reasoned conviction was hard in any location. In China, it was especially tough because of the tightly controlled media (my phone was tapped and emails with particularly divisive verbiage had a way of not making it through to my inbox), and my comparatively child-like ability to understand the language in which they were delivering news in the first place.
In addition to my regular course load of teaching college freshman basic English, I taught an advanced class for a group of engineers from a giant steel corporation that basically ran the city I lived in. For many of these classes, I’d choose a conversation topic instead of lesson planning. In the process of informal debate, I’d write new vocabulary words on the chalkboard and explain a few new colloquialisms, and call it curriculum.
As the heat over the looming invasion intensified, my students couldn’t resist the chance of bringing up the arrogance of American foreign policy. They asserted the familiar argument: no war for oil; the US cannot act unilaterally to violate other country’s sovereignty on circumstantial evidence.
I didn’t know how to join their conversation either for or against. I could have held an opinion on general principle but I would have been entirely ignorant on how that principle might have applied to the confrontation with Iraq and the myriad grounds on which it was being forwarded at that point.
I remember wandering through a K-Mart with my mother during the Iran Contra hearings. I remember the dark green of Oliver North’s uniform as he testified, and the dingy color of the walls in the background. I remember coming home from school one day in Fresno and turning on the television to watch cartoons only to find a live stream of missiles landing in Baghdad during the first Gulf war. I remember Clinton’s address to the nation in 1998 explaining why he was bombing Iraq again “without delay, diplomacy, or warning.”
Those were vague scraps of memories dwarfed by fixations on music, women, and the mythology of my own adolescence. Iraq had nothing to do with the shape of my life in suburban California, but suddenly I was in another country realizing I had no honest way to answer claims about what my government was doing.
I was immediately skeptical of the opposition, though, because they had come to a hard and fast opinion about the issue before the case had been fully formed by the administration. And they didn’t seem to have any more comprehensive an understanding of the past than I did in my childish myopia. We’re encouraged to have convictions before facts.
You can see this in our popular discourse. The debate over healthcare reform reached its peak before a bill even existed, and it was argued along lines that were largely incoherent. The arguments against Iraq were, likewise, fervently asserted and minimally supported. Neo-colonialism was alleged. US support through weapon sales in the 80’s was a counter-balance to the genocide in Kurdistan (as if the fact that American weapons were used should somehow dull the horror of the crime in the first place). There was no nuclear program (you really sure about that?).
Winston Churchill said Americans always do the right thing, but only after they’ve tried everything else first. In how many debates over Iraq, or now more pressingly Afghanistan, have you heard someone say, “You know what, I have no idea. I actually don’t know anything about Afghanistan.”
To look at the news, you’d think we’re all foreign experts with years spent traveling around the middle east conducting business and carrying on correspondence with some of the brightest minds in the myriad cultures there. On what other grounds would we have to assert that the invasion of Iraq was actually a war for oil? Or that withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cut and run policy that goes against the sage advice of the general du jour?
The absurdity of the public debate is that we argue with ourselves and neither side knows what it’s talking about. We bend faintly understood facts to support the principled conclusions we’ve been holding up our sleeves the whole time.
One thing I’ve come to believe about Afghanistan is the idea that we should buy their poppy crops from Afghani farmers, which are currently being sold for conversion to heroin which finances, in significant part, the Taliban. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a self-sufficient agricultural economy and was one of the world’s best-known grape producers. Much of their land was destroyed during the fight against the USSR and, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Schoolers, 30 percent of the economy shifted to poppy farming after the Soviet departure.
Poppy crops bear fruit in one planting season. Grapes take years to bear fruit. After the American invasion in 2001, a huge part of the remaining agricultural economy in Afghanistan was destroyed. The Taliban, which had once outlawed poppy, now encouraged it as a convenient way to raise money for the fight against the American military. For the average farmer the choice between earning a living farming versus throwing in with the Americans for some k-rations and bribe money is an easy one to make.
I can’t forward many opinions about the war in Afghanistan. I’m not generally educated enough on the region, nor the beliefs of the people there, to be able to do much more than parrot facts I’ve heard elsewhere. But I have lived in poor places where people’s survival is dependent on the food they grow with their own hands. Where the houses people live in are the ones they build with mud brick and collected scraps of wood.
Offering these people a stable environment that encourages them to participate in a legitimate economy (a decriminalized and medically useful drug trade instead of a gangsterist one), and which offers subsidies for the gradual return to regular agricultural crops that help form the fundaments of a national economy in a resource starved country; this is as much a moral imperative as is the decision of what to do with our troops.
But I’ve never even been to Afghanistan. So I may be totally wrong.