I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

James Taranto's tough-guy mockery of Max Cleland is depressingly revealing

Max Cleland is voluntarily seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder related to his combat experience in Vietnam. Cleland cited as symptoms that he is "depressed, has developed a sense of hyper-vigilance about his security and has difficulty sleeping."

Cleland, who has become one of many war veterans who are critical of the Iraq war, says that he has been "engrossed" by the war but that the endless violence there has likely contributed to his mental stress by bringing back his own traumatizing combat memories from Vietnam:

"I realize my symptoms are avoidance, not wanting to connect with anything dealing with the (Iraq) war, tremendous sadness over the casualties that are taken, a real identification with that. ... I've tried to disconnect and disassociate from the media. I don't watch it as much. I'm not engrossed in it like I was," Cleland said in an interview with WSB-TV in Atlanta.

Tough guy warrior James Taranto mocks and exploits Cleland's condition in a way that he thinks is really cute and clever. In a post titled "Ignorance on Parade," Taranto says (emphasis added):

How credible is Cleland as "a vocal critic of the Iraq war" when by his own admission his approach to it is "avoidance, not wanting to connect with anything dealing with" it, and trying "to disconnect and disassociate" from sources of information about it?

Taranto's attempt to demean Cleland's credibility as a war opponent relies upon a complete distortion of the facts. Contrary to Taranto's insinuation, Cleland hasn't been avoiding news in Iraq. To the contrary, he's been (to use Cleland's word) "engrossed" by it -- as anyone who follows the news knows -- and only now feels himself, after 3 1/2 years of this war, wanting to avoid the grim news from Iraq because it's understandably causing him to re-live his own experiences in Vietnam. To try to distort that to mean that Cleland is unaware of what is going on in Iraq, and therefore isn't a credible war critic, is dishonest to the core.

But distorting Cleland's comments is the least of Taranto's sins here. There are a lot of people who have actually fought in wars for whom the brutality and slaughter in wars are real. Even for wars that are justifiable, a sane and mentally healthy person would feel substantial emotional distress as a result of the mass slaughter of innocent lives and mammoth destruction which a war entails. The ones who are mentally unhealthy are the ones who, never having been in or even near a war, indulge the vapid luxury of blithely ignoring the human costs of wars because they never pay -- or see or smell or hear -- any of those costs.

To chest-beating warriors like Taranto who so endlessly impress themselves by cheering on wars from afar, the slaughter and brutality of wars is purely abstract -- akin to losing (or gaining) points in a video game that they play while slumped safely on their couch or in front of their computer. Only weak, whiny, spineless, freakish losers like Cleland suffer effete emotional disturbances as a result of the endless bloodbath in Iraq. It's the tough and resolute guys like James Taranto who can call for more and more killing and bombing and invasions and slaughter while sleeping perfectly well at night.

Taranto thinks that it is a sign of his mental health and tough resolve that he can read every day about the death and destruction from the war he advocates without batting an eye, even urging more and more of it without any of the teary-eyed trauma that plagues weirdos like Cleland. Conversely, he thinks that Cleland's inability to be endlessly subjected to the slaughter from this war without being emotionally impaired is a sign of mental illness, something that disqualifies him from being a "credible war critic." But on both counts, the opposite is true. Cleland reacts the way he does to the war precisely because he knows and faces the reality of it, while it is Taranto who disassociates himself from the war and its effects so that he can easily cheer it on and crave more of it -- a self-indulgent luxury in which he, unlike Cleland, can wallow because he has never been near a war.

Wars are very easy -- way too easy -- to advocate when you can disassociate yourself from its effects. Doing so is not a sign of bravery or mental health. Quite the contrary, it is mentally imbalanced, arguably sociopathic, to view wars as some abstract game and to call for more and more of them while being wholly impervious to the tragic destruction they impose on countless human beings. Wars are sometimes necessary and justifiable, but they are always horrendous and tragic, and it is a truly disturbing syndrome that so many people can advocate them so blithely and even happily because they are able to remain immune from the consequences.

For people like Cleland who have actually fought in wars, it is quite common to have the type of reactions Cleland has:

Cleland is receiving treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, Duga said. He said Cleland acknowledged his condition to encourage other veterans to seek help if they feel sick.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general reported last year that the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases has increased dramatically in recent years, from 120,265 in 1999 to 215,871 in 2004.

Cleland lost three limbs in military service on behalf of the United States, and now he speaks publicly about his mental struggles with war in order to make it easier for other veterans who could benefit from treatment to seek that treatment. But to Taranto, it's Cleland whose views on war we should ignore because after being "engrossed" by the war for three years, he has finally become so emotionally affected by the endless killings that he finds it difficult to read about it every day.

But Taranto has no such difficulties. He can read about war and slaughter and bombings and never get enough. He has no emotional difficulties thinking about all of that. Therefore, it is Taranto who has credibility on war matters, not Cleland.

Our country has, of course, been guided for the last five years by the pseudo-tough-guys like James Taranto while ignoring (except to mock) the Max Clelands. That's how Jack Murtha is a coward, Wesley Clark is an appeaser, Max Cleland is a weakling -- while George Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol and the Jonah Goldberg/Rich Lowry gang at National Review's Corner are the crusading warriors who are the only ones with enough fortitude, spine and foreign policy seriousness to lead America in its epic war challenges. Max Cleland is emotionally disturbed by war - what an emotionally disturbed loser he is. Who would ever listen to what he has to say?

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