The Attic

2020 in One Place

One year's worth of Off the Top of My Head, when we have something to show, like a month's worth of work..


From the Archives

I spent a lot of time thinking and opining in he early 2000s about Iraq and why things were working the way they were. Seems kind of futile now. This first column (from February 2005) I think is one of my better pieces.
So why don't I keep doing this? Seems kind of futile. It seems more right for this age to just yell at people, or talk about cats on Roombas. Yes, that's still a thing.

Symbiotic Relationship: Why the Prez needed Saddam to have weapons of mass destruction

A long time ago, I took a course in classical Greek and Roman rhetoric. It was so long ago, Aristotle was still alive (insert rim shot here). One of the things the professor talked about was what the Greeks considered the available means of persuasion, and how they worked. Essentially, there were three:

  • logos, or a rational appeal (to the mind). This appeals to our sense of logic. It is (supposedly) scientific and verifiable, and is built on facts.
  • pathos, or an emotional appeal (to the heart). This appeals to our feelings.
  • ethos, or an appeal to the speaker. We know the speaker is a good person, and we do what the speaker suggests. If you know someone who can get away with "Because I said so," you've seen someone who can make an ethical appeal.

We're very familiar with the first two kinds of appeals. Advertising works them quite well. If you think of tire ads, a rational appeal will show you the scientist planning the best tread pattern and the tire pushing 300 gallons per square inch of rainwater out of the way. An ad based on pathos or making an emotional appeal will put a baby in a tire.

We don't see quite as many ads based on ethos, because it is slippery. In the tire world, I suppose an ethical appeal would be a noted NASCAR driver saying, I drive Daytona on MichieGoodStone tires.; We say, Well, heck, if MichieGoodStones are good enough for Jim Bob, I should get me a set of 'em!

I think one of the reasons ethical appeals are less used is we don't have an associated body part to go with them (either that, or we don't trust anybody any more). We know that a logical appeal targets our rational faculties, associated with the brain. Emotional appeals are associated with the heart. But ethical appeals have become detached from their associated body part. The best choice is the stomach, but there are problems with that.

It didn't always used to be that way. We talk about someone gutting it out or not having the stomach to follow through.; But we like to think of ourselves as being logical and rational. In this way of defining the world, people who act on emotion or intuition are suspect. If it's not centered in the head, or the further away from the head we picture it, the less the rationale for action is trusted, and it is regarded as primitive or primal.

We want rational, dispassionate leaders. You remember what happened to Barry Goldwater, with the slogan In your heart, you know he's right? If I recall correctly, the reply was, But in your head, you know he's very, very wrong. And if the heart is suspect, you can imagine how suspect the gut is.

So this is the problem that George W. Bush faced in his efforts to persuade the American people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In our gut, we knew Saddam had to go. Our hearts went out to the Kurds and Iraqis whose family members had been gassed, or had been tortured in Iraqi jails. But as disturbing as this was, it wasn't enough for the President to press the case for regime change. No, he needed a rational reason to disturb the Middle Eastern universe.

So Weapons of Mass Destruction became the cause. There is a clear, quantifiable danger. We can assign dates, names and quantities to the threat. Iraqi scientists were developing nuclear capabilities, just as they had developed weapons grade anthrax, sarin, and other biological and chemical weapons. It was only a matter of a (very little) time before Saddam would use them against us and our allies.

We know now that there were no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. We have indeed fallen back on emotional and ethical appeals with vague warm fuzzies (the world is safer, the Iraqi people can pursue democracy). And that's O.K., because we knew all along, in our heart of hearts, that Saddam had to go. It feels right. Our gut is telling us so.

So Why Did Saddam Lie About His Weapons of Mass Destruction?

January 2003. Sometimes we can use personal experience to understand a bigger picture.

One Saturday morning back in 1990 or so, I was stopped by a Tennessee state trooper outside of Memphis in what I was supposed to think was a routine traffic stop. After a few moments, though, it became evident the officer was interested in something other than my going 47 in a posted-40 construction zone. In addition to a friendly warning, the officer handed a piece of paper through the window that would allow him to search the car without the formality of a warrant. If you've got nothing to hide, you may as well sign, he said.

I was reminded of this incident in the runup to the most recent Iraq war. Intelligence reports indicated that Saddam Hussein had massive quantities of weapons of mass destruction-tons of nerve gas and biological weapons, all ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. We had proof Iraq was developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Saddam's actions reinforced this sure knowledge. In forcing out the UN inspectors in 1998, and in actively blocking inspections in 2002 and 2003, he was acting like someone who had something to hide. If he was clean, why did he demand UN inspectors leave the first time? Why not cooperate with the UN inspectors when they returned? If there was nothing to hide, why not allow the inspectors to go where they wanted? Why risk invasion, war, destruction and death if there were no WMD? His actions seemed to provide additional support for American and British claims.

I signed the cop's piece of paper. There may have been things in the trunk that I'd rather he didn't see, but there was nothing illegal in there (I think he was looking for drugs), and I didn't want to spend the rest of the weekend in Memphis (he explained it would be an awful long time before the sniffing dogs showed up). Using the same rationale as the trooper did, Saddam would have let the weapons inspectors search his trunk if he didn't have something to hide.

I think Saddam had something to hide, but it was what was not there, rather than what was.


We know that before 1991, Iraq had WMD. We know Iraq had chemical weapons because we sold them some of them to Saddam. We knew he would use them because he had - in the Iran-Iraq war and on the Kurds in northern Iraq.

But in 1991, the United States led a coalition of forces to free Kuwait. Saddam did not expect that. He did not expect economic sanctions. He did not expect seven years of United Nations weapons inspectors going through every corner of every building that may have been able or once used to produce and store chemical or biological weapons.

And the UN team did get some results. Their last report in 1998 describes finding an agent that "degraded" VX, and finding Iraqi documents that showed they had disposed of the VX gas themselves.

So why, if Saddam's supplies of chemical and biological weapons were exhausted and he had no way of replenishing those weapons, did he persist in pretending he had WMD? I believe he had to, to protect his own backside.

Saddam was not loved by his neighbors. He had used the WMD against the Kurds and the Iranians, and there was little doubt among world leaders, at least those in the Pentagon and the White House, that he would use them again if pressed. If these enemies knew how vulnerable he truly was, that his offensive capabilities had been destroyed, he and his regime would have been long gone before June 2003. More than an effigy would have been swinging from a lamppost in Teheran. He needed something to keep them at bay, and that something was WMD--and the threat to use them.

We fell for the bluff, too. The initial wave of American and British forces wore protective clothing and gear and had antidotes to use in case of bio-chem attack. Saddam had these weapons, he had them at the ready, and he would use them.

But he did not. Because, as we now know, e was bluffing. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Only a high-stakes game that Saddam lost. And we lost, too. We may have won the war, but we lost the game.

Why We Attacked Iraq (Again)

From December 2003. Someday maybe I'll be able to put this in deep archive and run a tribute to the young men and women who defend us instead. Update: I guess It's finally someday for acknowledging our troops and the sacrifices they make, including their lives. I just wish I could thank them all in person–here, and that they were no longer making that sacrifice.

It's time for a multiple choice quiz!

We attacked Iraq because:

  1. Iraq was supporting Al-Qaeda
  2. W. wanted to rescue George Sr.'s manhood
  3. We needed a reliable source of oil
  4. Iraq was directly and immediately threatening the security of the United States with weapons of mass destruction
  5. We didn't want to mess with North Korea or Iran

The correct answer is none of the above. A, B, and C are incorrect because the Bush Administration told us those were not the reasons. D was given as a reason, but as of this writing, we have captured Saddam Hussein but still have not discovered any weapons of mass destruction. There may be some truth to E, but I doubt if the President is going to go on TV and say we're attacking Iraq because Iran and North Korea might give us a real fight.

The correct answer is, I think, the President's advisors.

I will grant you that may be a Well, duh kind of statement. But I believe we went to war with Iraq because these guys are old.

I don't mean old chronologically, but in thought patterns. Chaney, Rumsfield, and a number of other Presidential advisors began their political careers during the 1970's in the Nixon and Ford administrations. They grew up thinking about battling a monolithic enemy of equal or greater size and equivalent forces.

But then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were not far behind, and we were living in a new world. We tried transferring all that animosity (and firepower) onto a new target, but it just wasn't the same. You can't hate small, poor countries like Cuba in quite the same way, and amassing half the countries on the planet to liberate Kuwait isn't quite the same thing, either. Somalia and Serbia, although we were involved, were not and are still not our fights.

Then came 9/11, and we were living in a new age. We now have an opponent, an honest-to-goodness enemy who hates us. Send the bombers! Osama dead or alive! We're going to make al Qaeda pay!

As soon as we can find it--or them. The problem is, we are not psychically or militarily prepared to fight this war. A 2001 Wired magazine article by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt Fighting The Network War, discusses this. There are no targets like we usually know. There won't be tank wars in the desert, no bombing of fuel dumps. We can attack some caves, and blow up a couple of training camps, but nothing familiar, or for which we've trained and prepared and planned.

We may not catch bin Laden, and even if we do, that does not guarantee we have won or even ended the war. Some people have suggested that bin Laden is now a minor player, even in al Qaeda. He may no longer calling the shots.

But we're in a war where we don't know and can't find the enemy, with an opponent who taunts us with video tapes, continues to attack targets all over the world, and causes expensive, disruptive threat alert escalations with chatter. It's a cheap way to wage a war. On our side, we may not know when or if we've won, and even if we know, there sure won't be any fabulous photo ops.

This is not the American way. Like in sports, we need a clear winner and loser, a defined playing field, a known end to the game. The war against terror is more like fighting acne. It is annoying, worrying, and maybe even emasculating.

So what do we do? We decide we should fight a good-old-days war, like the ones we knew when our opponents were a known and visible quantity-like the Soviet Union. But our old friend the Soviet Union is gone. To make up for this loss, we've just declared an axis of evil, and so we have three good candidates that we can beat.

Saddam and Iraq it is. Saddam is running a ruthless dictatorship, he has weapons of mass destruction, his sons are nasty, and he keeps posing for pictures shooting off guns. We fought (and defeated) him before. Best of all, he has a real country with real targets and a real army with uniforms and equipment. In short, he presents a definable-and beatable-adversary. We get our photo ops–statues being toppled, the former Terror of Baghdad being dragged out of a hole, burning equipment and bases.

And we will be able to say the war is done, and we won. Or maybe Mission Accomplished. Or maybe not.

Someday. Maybe.

Second Story

The second story.

TomatoPlanet!! is a random collection of writing, cartoons, and things that strike my fancy. © 2003-2020, John McCarthy

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