"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Chickenhawk Down



In his book It Doesn't Take a Hero, retired U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf describes the evolution of the plans he and his staff made following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. As his mission to defend Saudi Arabia quickly grew into an offensive plan to drive Iraqi troops out of everyone's favorite oppressive rococo emirate, Schwarzkopf developed a four-step course of action intended to grind his enemy down into miserable fighting condition before finishing him off with an overwhelming and elaborately staged ground attack. Problem is, all of that grinding and staging took time — and quite a few of the people Schwarzkopf worked for wanted to see the lion eat the fucking gladiator already. Following one White House meeting at which he'd asked for more time and more troops, Stormin' Norman reports, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called to warn the Desert Storm commander that he was being loudly compared, by a top administration official, to George McClellan. "My God," the official supposedly complained. "He's got all the force he needs. Why won't he just attack?" Schwarzkopf notes that the unnamed official who'd made the comment "was a civilian who knew next to nothing about military affairs, but he'd been watching the Civil War documentary on public television and was now an expert."

And then, twenty pages later, Schwarzkopf casually drops the information that he got an inspirational gift from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney right before the air war finally got under way. Cheney was presenting a gift to a military man, and he chose something with an appropriate theme: "(A) complete set of videotapes of Ken Burns's PBS series, The Civil War."

But that wasn't the only gift that Dick Cheney had for Norman Schwarzkopf. Having figured out that the general was being too cautious with his fourth combat command in three decades of soldiering, Cheney got his staff busy and began presenting Schwarzkopf with his own ideas about how to fight the Iraqis: What if we parachute the 82nd Airborne into the far western part of Iraq, hundreds of miles from Kuwait and totally cut off from any kind of support, and seize a couple of missile sites, then line up along the highway and drive for Baghdad? Schwarzkopf charitably describes the plan as being "as bad as it could possibly be... But despite our criticism, the western excursion wouldn't die: three times in that week alone Powell called with new variations from Cheney's staff. The most bizarre involved capturing a town in western Iraq and offering it to Saddam in exchange for Kuwait." (Throw in a Pete Rose rookie card?) None of this Walter Mitty posturing especially surprised Schwarzkopf, who points out that he'd already known Cheney as "one of the fiercest cold warriors in Congress."

And so, of course, you already know what Dick Cheney — fierce cold warrior, vigorous advocate of the earliest and bravest possible attack, a man not afraid to take bold action with the lives of other men — did during the Vietnam war, when he was just the right age to open his personal pandour's box and go put some of that martial ferocity into direct practice: He took five years worth of deferments, four as a student and one as a soon-to-be-father, and avoided serving in the military altogether. Which is not to say that he wasn't fiercely in favor of the whole sick mess.



Certainly the erstwhile fierce cold warrior feels a deep connection with the young men who went to Vietnam in his place. At the mostly sunny Republican nominating rally, last month, Cheney spoke movingly of his reaction to the somber sight of the graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Every time he choppered into Washington past the military burial ground, Cheney said, he looked upon "its gentle slopes and crosses row on row. I never once made that trip," he added, "without being reminded how enormously fortunate we all are to be Americans." See for yourself: The graves at Arlington National Cemetery are marked with blocky granite headstones - row on row of them. Maybe he was talking about the little crosses carved into the grave markers, which he must have seen clearly from up there in the helicopter (In which case all those reports about Cheney's health should take into account the fact that the man still has better eyesight than any billion randomly chosen teenagers). Or maybe that "crosses row on row" line is an allusion to John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields," with its Cheneyesque exhortation to the reader to throw his life away in a pointless and unending struggle. But who are we kidding here? Everybody knows Cheney wasn't thinking of anything he's actually seen or read or experienced. He was thinking of the opening scene in that Tom Hanks movie.

Of course the use of stirring, emotionally freighted personal narratives that turn out to be the wholly invented shadow of cold reality is an old problem in politics, and Cheney isn't anywhere near the best practitioner of that queasy art. Al Gore, for a benchmark example, left delegates sobbing and heartbroken at the 1996 Democratic National Convention with a quavering, barely contained account of his sister's death from lung cancer back in 1984:

From out of that haze her eyes focused intensely right at me. She couldn't speak, but I felt clearly I knew she was forming a question: "Do you bring me hope?" All I could do was say back to her with all gentleness in my heart, "I love you." Tomorrow morning another 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too. Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's. That is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.



It took reporters several entire hours to figure out that Gore had continued to accept cash from the tobacco industry for seven years after his sister's death. And that, speaking to tobacco farmers during the 1988 campaign season, he had bragged about his own family's proud history growing the very same crop: "I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I've hoed it. I've dug in it. I've sprayed it, I've chopped it, I've shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it." St. Albans had a hell of a vegetable garden, apparently.

And the other candidates at the top of the ticket also harbor their own yawning lacunae between life and rhetoric. Vinegar Joe Lieberman compares the entertainment industry to the sewer or a drug operation, then takes time out from his party's Los Angeles convention to attend industry fundraisers. His much-noted strong-on-defense posture, meanwhile, would certainly seem to have less to do with his own feelings for the actual military than with the usual political motivator. And of course George W. Bush sits on an entire redacted "youth" that was probably all about, you know, family values and a fierce belief in sacrifice for the greater good of the nation. And so what? Not every serious politician is content to run Oakland, after all, and so a certain amount of calculated narrative restructuring ends up being pretty much inevitable.

And yet, even standing among a bunch of men who long ago lost their ability to tell the narrative of their own lives from the steaming pile of artifically sweetened horse pucky that their campaign speechwriters just handed them, Cheney stands out as a special case. The press has been dutifully taking its shots, and uncovering the expected nuggets of reality: The anti-big government bloviator ran a company that raked in literally billions of dollars of federal money, and a British subsidiary did business with Iraq and Iran and Libya while the tough-on-defense chairman of the parent company conducted a careful study of the ceiling, and on and on. And, yes, Cheney is a disgusting man for all of those reasons. But there's something more there, something almost ineffable, something you either immediately see on his face or probably couldn't ever discover.



Because Dick Cheney, whose much-discussed gravitas seems to consist entirely of the helium found in PBS miniseries and Hollywood movies, who has been denounced as politely as possible by the most successful American combat commander of the past 30 years, still has plenty to say about military affairs in our own era. The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty is 30 years old, he argued Wednesday in an interview with Territory of Lies author Wolf Blitzer, "and if it can't be quickly renegotiated it ought to be abrogated ... Governor Bush has said that we should not let the ABM get in the way of a missile defense system." What about objections from other countries that have signed the ABM, all of whom either want to live in peace with us or are unable to go to war with us? "We saw that in the 1980s in Europe," Cheney avered, "and they were wrong." The war in Colombia? When Cheney was at the Pentagon, he decided that the drug problem was in fact a national security problem.

And who would dare to argue with him? This is after all a man who may someday be named among the champions of the postwar era. Cheney has the old glint in the eye, the arrogance with the lives of others, the wide-legged certainty of the ferocious old cold warrior that he is. The architect of the western excursion is exactly the kind of man who would never allow a mine shaft gap. And so the idea that the political parties have grown toward one another into a muddled center seems accurate in at least one sense: This time around, the roles of Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara have been cast for a Republican. And it's exactly the role the man was born to play.


courtesy of Ambrose Beers


pictures Terry Colon

Ambrose Beers