Politics & Policy

Ex-Friends

Casualties of this war.

We’re already moving toward Baghdad in our war against Iraq, one I believe with all my heart is just and necessary. We don’t know how long it will last, or what the fallout will be. When the smoke clears, I am afraid that one home-front casualty will be some friendships.

We’ve seen this coming. Stephen Pollard, writing in the Times of London, says a number of his friendships have broken up because he supports war to disarm Saddam Hussein and his friends don’t.

In all my 38 years, I have never before felt such a sense of personal shock. I am shocked that so many of my friends would rather a brutal dictator remained in power — for that would be the direct consequence if their views won out — than support military action by the United States. I am ashamed that they would rather believe the words of President Saddam Hussein than those of their own Prime Minister. I am nauseated that they would rather give succor to evil than think through the implications of their gut feelings. … I have many friends with whom I disagree politically; it would be a small-minded person who could not say that. But this goes beyond mere politics. This is about fundamentals. And what makes it truly shocking is how many normal, apolitical, otherwise decent people are so deeply wrong, so stridently misguided.

I’ve not had that same sense of outrage, but that’s probably because long ago I quit talking about the war to most friends who disagree with me. It wasn’t my choice, but it was necessary if we were still to be friends. It shouldn’t be this way. I’ve tried to think through my pro-war position carefully, and if I’m wrong in my facts or analysis, I want to know. But in my (deeply unpleasant) experience, there’s simply no point in talking to most antiwar people, left and right, because they’re lost in a fever swamp of emotionalism.

If it’s not leftists obsessing about “blood for oil,” corporate plots and Iraqi children, it’s rightists going off about imperialism, Israel and Jewish conspiracies. Now, I don’t think it’s unfair to discuss the role, if any, corporate interests, Israeli government policy, the potential suffering of Iraqi civilians, or a number of other issues have in the development of U.S. policy towards Iraq. It’s just that so many people concerned with these things have given themselves over to the kind of hysteria that makes rational debate impossible. On MSNBC earlier this week, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said he’s found that about one in four Americans he’s focus-grouped are hard-core anti-war types, are much more committed to their position than Bush supporters, and are incandescently angry.

You expect this from the ideological left, for whom, as The Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet points out, “every war is Vietnam.” My conservative anti-war friends have been much more troubling to me personally, because we agree on so many fundamental principles. Some — educated, sophisticated professionals — have given their good hearts and fine minds over to anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. And I’ve also heard conservatives trash-talking this country in terms previously associated with America-hating campus radicals. It’s as if the world has been turned upside down by this war — and this was long before the fighting started.

When I blogged something about this in The Corner earlier this week, many readers from across the country wrote to say they too had been nonplussed by the inability to have a civil discussion with antiwar friends and family.

“I have lost, probably forever, at least four, and maybe more friends, including my college roommate from almost 45 years ago,” one wrote. Another reported: “I have lost a friend I have had for 30 years over the war argument. I can’t believe she can say the things she does — ‘no war for oil,’ etc. — without even thinking about making a logical argument for or against.”

Friends for over four decades. Friends for three decades. Gone, just like that. Many marriages don’t last that long.

It’s ripping up families too. “I actually hung up on my own mother yesterday after getting into a discussion about the war,” a young woman wrote. “I got angry after she asserted that our government was just as bad as Saddam’s. What do you say to a statement like that?” The woman said she and her mother agreed not to discuss the war again, for the sake of their relationship, but she fears that things may rupture between them if they’re not careful.

A Canadian reader writes to say everybody she knows except her significant other is angry at her for supporting the war. “Here we are in the wonderful world of ‘Bush Is Retarded/Michael Moore Is My Hero’ e-mail coffee klatches. I’m wearing a US/Canadian flag pin. In public. In downtown Toronto. The countdown to my ass-beating starts now.”

One New Yorker who supports the president says he’s had it with his family’s anti-war mania, which has gone so far that one relative insisted that 9/11 was merely a response to our attack on Afghanistan. It did no good for him to point out that the United States attacked Afghanistan a month after the Twin Towers were destroyed. Another New Yorker reports that the family dinner table became a battleground recently when anti-war relatives began denouncing the president as a “religious nut,” and those who back him as supporting a “crusade” that will leave blood on their hands forever. “It’s getting bad out there, and I’m not so sure the results of the campaign will change it,” The New Yorker says.

Is that true? Could the American body politic be in for years of bitterness and gall, a replay of the sharp fissure that developed in our cultural landscape during the Vietnam era?

Todd Gitlin, a leading student radical in the 1960s and today a Columbia University historian, doesn’t think so, though he does recognize that civil debate on the war is endangered by a climate of “sharp intolerance.”

“Famously and truly, families broke up over the Vietnam War,” says Gitlin. “I can’t imagine that happening this time, unless this war leads to more war. Even granted that everything speeds up because of e-mail and media, I can’t imagine that this cleavage runs so deep — unless we’re talking about years of war. But I could be naïve.”

Gitlin, who opposes war on Iraq, but has resolved not to let his war politics get in the way of friendship, says that unlike the 1960s, America is “substantially depoliticized,” and has been for a generation. “You have to remember that by the time the Vietnam War heated up, the country had been at a political boil for years,” he recounts. “The country has been in an anti-political mood in recent decades. Certainly students have been, though there are signs that that’s changing.”

One significant difference: the student left in the 1960s thought, however naively, that the Viet Cong were the good guys. Nobody can defend Saddam Hussein. This may explain why, when confronted by evidence of Saddam’s evil, some of the most vocal partisans of the antiwar side try to change the subject to the alleged wickedness of corporations, the Jews, and all manner of arcane occultic conspiracy. Once introduced into the national discourse, these things may not go away soon.

“What ought to be discussable between people of two reasonable dispositions is: ‘What do you want to do about Saddam?’ That a legit discussion,” says Gitlin. “But insofar as the other stuff gets churned up, then obviously there’s something ferocious under the surface.”

Historian Paul Fussell, also a man of the left, agrees that the level of vitriol over the war has caused some people to lose their heads. Says Fussell, “The problem is we have erected a paradox. Two things are equally true. One, that the Iraqi monster has got to be killed, exiled, punished or defeated. The other is that we execrate the means by which we see that accomplished. You can’t have both and stay fully sane.”

Fussell says this is the first time he can think of that the United Nations has proven utterly ineffective to prevent war. “My generation, and I’m almost 80 now, experienced the foundation of the U.N., and experienced some of the naïve joy that came over us at that time. We were finally going to end wars. Everybody thought that. The fact that that concept has been thoroughly shot down by events over the last months distresses people more than they can express.”

He sees a “bad road ahead,” in part because he’s hearing more and more on the left looking for material that can be used to impeach the president (it’s there on the right too). “This is very bad for us,” he laments.

The Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet is more hopeful that the incoherent rage of the antiwar left and right will burn itself out in the wake of a clear American victory in Iraq. There will always be unconvertible anti-Semites, as well as those constitutionally incapable of believing that anything good can come out of America. But they will be a marginalized minority.

“There are an awful lot of people whose politics are really nothing but attitude and fashion, as I learned very sharply in the sixties,” Magnet says. “Attitude and fashion changes with the wind. As we go in and win the war, God willing, and begin to remake Iraq in a way that makes it a freer society, an awful lot of people who have no idea what they’re saying now will find themselves saying something completely opposite, and will have no idea they’ve contradicted themselves.”

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