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Let the Bands March Into Baghdad

A State Department bulletin recently reported that “there are substantially more people employed as musicians in [Department of] Defense bands than in the entire foreign service,” meaning the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development.

My hunch is the State Department did not intend that factoid as a boast. Rather, it meant to complain about our nation’s peculiar priorities. But upon reflection, I think the complaint is without merit. In fact, I am troubled by what I see as a dearth of Defense Department musicians.

Yes, I know that we not infrequently hear (thanks to Groucho Marx) that “military justice is to justice as military music is to music,” which hardly prompts one to press for enlarging the number of musicians in the military. But a considered pause prompts a very different view.

The precise numbers of men and women in all the military bands are hard to come by, but they apparently number at least 8,000 and perhaps many thousands more. That number can be compared and contrasted not only to the piddly number of American diplomats — 4,000 at State, 2,000 more at USAid — but also to the number of American troops in Iraq, something over 150,000.

Now just imagine that instead of 150,000 combat and support troops in Iraq we had 150,000 tooters — trumpeters, fifists, drummers (both snare and bass), tubards, flautists, euphoniumists and such other players as the bands require, and drum majors, too. One of three results would follow:

One: Little and not-so-little children would skip along in the wake of the many parades such numbers could provide, for who does not love a parade? Instead of hiding all day under their beds and spending all night planting IEDs, they’d thrill to the American presence, whistle “As the Caissons Go Rolling Along” on their way to school, generate throughout the country a riot of smiles and good feeling. The insurgents would be flummoxed, so out of synch would they be with the prevailing euphoria.

Two: Like Jericho of old, the (metaphoric) walls would come tumbling down, for nothing soothes the savage heart so effectively as music. Shi’ite and Sunni would hold hands, both would embrace Kurds, a new day would dawn.

Three: More likely than either of these two, the evil-doers would gladly surrender rather than prolong the agonizing cacophony (or the cacophonic agony).

I bother to make this point not because I think President Bush and his people will rush to accept it, but because it illustrates the profound lack of imagination with which the Iraqi adventure has been managed. The president is obviously set in his lonely and murderous way and has a very different view of how we ought to proceed to victory.

He tells us, again and again, that we must give his little surge time, that it is too early to judge how effective it is, that our withdrawal from Iraq would bring in its wake unimaginable calamity. (Sometimes he adds that our persistence until victory in Iraq will bring about indescribable good, but that is just a spoonful of Sweet ’n Low to help the medicine go down.)

And the fact is, he may be right. Calamity may well follow our withdrawal before Iraq is stabilized, if ever it is. The slogging work of taming the sectarian divide and of defeating Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia may, the naysayers notwithstanding, be successful.

The belated idea of a surge may, in short, work. And all that may be so, even if the original decision to invade Iraq was (as indeed it was) misbegotten.

The problem, however, is that there is no particular reason to suppose that this time, Bush has got it right. His track record is so sodden, his mendacity so blatant, that he deservedly has no credibility. More than that: His stubbornness on the war suggests that he is seized of an idea that cannot be dislodged by facts.

The president doubtless has more information than any of us. But his information, as we have already learned over and over again, is processed through a filter so dense that by the time it reaches his mind it is wholly unreliable.

A normal person, having stumbled into the kind of disaster that Bush has wrought, would frantically search for a face-saving way to disengage. President Johnson lied to us about Vietnam, but the record shows that he knew very well that he was lying. And then he had the good sense and decency to quit the office.

There is no convincing reason to believe that Bush has anything like that level of awareness. That is how it is with fanatics. Johnson, in the end, was a tragic figure; Bush, though he has compared himself to Truman and to Lincoln, casts far too small a shadow ever to be viewed as truly tragic.

There is, of course, one more consideration: Iraq is already a calamity. Whether the calamity would become still bloodier in the aftermath of a “precipitous” withdrawal — “precipitous” here in quotes because this war has gone on far too long for our withdrawal, even were it to begin tomorrow morning, to be regarded as precipitous — we cannot know nor reliably predict.

And more than that: The prospect of America’s word being rendered worthless if we do not tough it out until victory is, alas, not particularly upsetting, America’s word having been so miserably cheapened by the specious arguments and the inflated claims that have marked the shameful adventure.

So why not send in the bands? Don’t bother with clowns; they’re already here.

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