The Boys on the
July 22, 2003
recently cited an anecdote related by C.S.
Lewis, but couldnt recall which of his books Id read
it in, and I may have gotten it slightly wrong. I ran across the story again
last night in Reflections on the Psalms, so now I can quote
Lewiss own words.
He was riding a train one night
during World War II in a compartment full of young English soldiers:
Their conversation made it clear that they totally disbelieved all
that they had read in the papers about the wholesale cruelties of the Nazi
regime. They took it for granted, without argument, that this was all lies,
all propaganda put out by our own government to pep up our
troops. And the shattering thing was, that, believing this, they expressed
not the slightest anger. That our rulers should falsely attribute the worst
of crimes to some of their fellow-men in order to induce other men to
shed their blood seemed to them a matter of course. They werent
even particularly interested. They saw nothing wrong in it.
I wonder how many people really
believed all the things President Bush and Prime Minister Blair of Britain
said about Saddam Hussein in order to pep up war fever.
Werent these just the sort of charges politicians always make
when they want a war?
The current flap about whether
Bush was lying in his state of the Union speech seems to me somewhat
overblown. He said that British intelligence had learned
not suspected or believed, but
positively learned that Saddam Hussein
recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
This turns out to be untrue. Bush
says he regrets having said it, but passed the buck to his intelligence
agencies. Ari Fleischer, his departing press secretary, sought to minimize
its significance by noting, The president has moved on. And, I think,
frankly, much of the country has moved on as well.
Well, the British public isnt moving on. Theyre
steamed. Blair may be forced to resign, especially since the incident has
now resulted in the apparent suicide of a top government scientist.
The American media are steamed
too. So are the Democrats. They are raising sharp questions about
Bushs veracity and judgment, and about whether he exerted
pressure on those intelligence agencies to twist their data to make
Saddam appear even worse, and more menacing, than he really was. Were
we bamboozled into another needless war?
But Fleischer is right. The
country has moved on. It was never really interested in whether Saddam
had all those weapons of mass destruction, including nukes.
Nobody thought he would dare to attack this country even if he had them.
So it hardly matters now that he never did have them.
Bush got his war, and he won it.
Thats why much of the country still supports him and would do so
even if it were proved that he lied brazenly. Hes perceived as a
strong president. Many people simply like strong rulers.
Millions of Russians still have a positive opinion of Joe Stalin for the
But lets look for the
silver lining. Much as I despised Bill Clinton, I thought he performed an
invaluable service by lying so relentlessly: he increased distrust and
suspicion of government. He undermined the overblown prestige of the
Bush, though less obviously
mendacious, is continuing this service. Of course his enemies will accuse
him of lying. What is more important is that from now on, even his friends
will never be quite sure they can believe him. He has permanently devalued
his own words. The next time he tries to tell us that Iran or North Korea
poses a serious threat to us, even his most ardent supporters will
hesitate to express agreement, for fear of sounding like his dupes or
Even Bush may be wary of
sounding like Bush. I doubt that he will want to repeat such slogans as
axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction,
liberation, and even democracy to justify
future military action. Some people who cheered this time may be hooting
He will at least need a fresh
verbal arsenal of propaganda. And if Tony Blair pays the ultimate political
price for going along with him, he will also need to find a new