As the Obama family heads to their annual summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, perhaps the president should take along a copy of “Catch-22” for some beach reading. Joseph Heller’s classic, satirical antiwar novel, published in 1961 and based on his experiences as a bombardier in the second world war, is sadly relevant today, as Obama’s wars, in Afghanistan and beyond, drag on.
Heller’s title refers to a fictional military rule that said you could get out of military duty if you were crazy, but if you requested relief from military duty, you were clearly sane, so must serve. He wrote:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr [a pilot in the novel] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Barack Obama ran as the antiwar alternative when he was a primary challenger to Hillary Clinton, whose nomination as Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 was widely held to be inevitable. It was his October 2, 2002, speech in Chicago where he declared his opposition to the imminent invasion of Iraq, calling it “a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” As a U.S. senator, he pledged to filibuster any bill that granted retroactive immunity to large telecommunication corporations that co-operated with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens. And on his first day in office, you might recall, he vowed to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay.
Has Obama ended the war in Iraq? Certainly not for the Iraqis. July was one of the bloodiest months there since the height of the insurgency against the U.S.-imposed Iraqi government. So far this year, more than 4,000 Iraqis have been killed, mostly by bomb blasts that targeted civilians, and close to 10,000 have been injured, in attacks by Sunnis against Shias or vice versa.
On July 22, a military assault was launched against the Abu Ghraib prison, made notorious 10 years ago by the shocking photos of abuse of prisoners at the hands of their US captors. Five hundred prisoners were freed in the course of the attack, including, reportedly, many senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Transparency International has ranked Iraq the seventh-most corrupt government on the planet, narrowly edging out Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. Thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in July, including Specialist Caryn Nouv, a 29-year-old mother of two.
Obama’s embrace of the surveillance state is now well-known, following revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. It was in December 2007 when Obama’s Senate office issued a press release stating:
“Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies and has co-sponsored Senator Dodd’s efforts to remove that provision from the FISA bill. Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same.”
Months later, not only did he not filibuster the bill, he voted for it. Now, President Obama is refusing to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Russia next month, since Putin granted Snowden temporary asylum there.
Then there’s Guantánamo. The hunger strike among up to 100 prisoners there, out of the total of 166, has just passed the six-month mark. The Pentagon is force-feeding many of them. Eighty-six have been cleared for release. A majority of the 166 have never been charged, with some held that way for more than 11 years. Despair is said to be rampant among them, so much so that they would rather starve themselves to death than endure more.
“I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said in April. So he has them violently force-fed to keep them alive, uncharged, with no end in sight. Even if the Obama administration releases two prisoners, a plan press secretary Jay Carney revealed last Friday, there will still be 164 prisoners languishing there.
Before heading on vacation, Commander-in-Chief Obama gave a rousing speech to Marines at Camp Pendleton, California. Elsewhere, Pfc Bradley Manning sat for another day of his sentencing hearing.
Heller’s protagonist in Catch-22, Captain Yossarian, holds a wounded comrade – named Snowden, coincidentally – who dies in his arms. The experience cements Yossarian’s opposition to war. Bradley Manning, too, went to war, and hated what he saw. He took action, leaking documents to spark a national debate.
Heller’s depiction of war – grim and stark – was fiction, though based on his own experience. Obama’s wars, his drone strikes, his war on whistleblowers, are all too real.
• Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column