Iraq, Vollman and Resurrecting a Forgotten Conservative Icon

Time looks at the insurgency, New York Review reviews Vollman and conservatives bite back.

Time’s Michael Ware, the magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief, takes on an ambitious story this week, tackling the changing face of the Iraqi insurgency. He writes that “Despite White House hopes that local security forces can relieve U.S. troops, intelligence officials are not nearly so optimistic that Iraqification will bring stability…The dilemma is that the longer U.S. forces stay, the more the insurgency is sustained by new recruits, yet withdrawing now could allow al-Qaeda and Iran to consolidate their influence in Iraq, dealing a body blow to U.S. regional interests.”

A tough spot indeed, not helped by the fact that, as Ware writes, ” After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, the U.S. still can’t say for sure whom it is up against. Each week coalition forces kill hundreds of insurgents, but there is no end of replacements.”

Ware finishes off the piece by talking to several leaders of the secular insurgent movement, who are unhappy with the more religiously-based terrorists led by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. He notes that, unlike the religious zealots, the secular resistance is participating in the democratic process, albeit without laying down its arms. An important piece, and one that deserves some follow-up by other reporters in Iraq.

The New York Review of Books runs a review of two books by one of America’s great underappreciated writers, William T. Vollmann: “Europe Central” and “Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader,” (Vollmann href=””>won the National Book Award this year for fiction for the former.) Vollmann, who has for years written both fiction and reportage on morality, war, and the tension between the two, is according to reviewer Michael Wood, “both stylish and garrulous, a combination I thought impossible until I started to read him. He is also both tough and sentimental, but this is a more familiar mix: he’s seen it all but he still hasn’t lost his innocence.”

In “Europe Central,” which is a fictionalized account of real life “moral actors” living in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during WWII, Wood writes that Vollmann wants to “assemble documentable cases of life and death in these extreme empires—because they were at the center of the century, and because the century itself may become a parable if we look at it long enough and in the right light…he is deeply interested in what happens when moderately straightforward people are revealed as too complicated for their drastically simplified circumstances—when, for example, without being heroes or martyrs, they are forced to choose between their principles and their lives, or more intricately, between two different but equally imperative sets of duties.”

Coming back to the muck of our own time’s moral quandaries, we find John Nichols writing in The Nation about how Democrats can use the current ethical foibles besetting prominent Republicans — particularly the Abramoff/Scanlon scandal — to their advantage. Democrats aren’t good at this, Nichols says bluntly. “The party’s inability to exploit the Enron debacle—at least partly because some Democrats accepted Enron-linked donations—shows there’s more to hanging a scandal around your opponents’ necks than merely watching it unfold. But because of Abramoff’s long and close ties to the GOP establishment, the scandal of this particular lobbyist presents a unique opening.”

Speaking of partisan fights, the American Conservative undertakes what seems to be a popular project these days —unearthing someone who it considers a “forgotten” founding father of 20th century American conservatism. Thomas E. Woods writes that Robert Nisbet, (who died in 1996) has been largely forgotten by modern conservatives, despite the fact that he authored 17 books from his posts as professor of history and sociology at University of Arizona and Columbia University. “This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority,” Woods writes, “long considered something of a minor classic.” Nisbet’s oeuvre, Woods continues, included warnings that have “long since vanished from establishment conservatism” — “warnings about the ongoing growth in executive power, his prescient critique of American conservatism, and his skepticism and caution about the growth of the warfare state ….”

Woods, using Nisbet’s arguments, focuses on, and argues against, the “connection between war and the growth in executive power,” and declares that the forgotten Nisbet “was altogether different from the interchangeable automatons and mediocrities who pass for conservative commentators in 2005.”

Woods laments that “[a]mong the worst aspects of the collapse of traditional conservatism is that my children will grow up in a world in which vulgar and belligerent nationalism will be presented to them as the alternative to leftism.” And he maintains that were Nisbet still alive, he would remind “his fellow Americans that in the midst of the right-wing noise machine there still existed, if somewhat chastened and neglected, a humane and principled conservatism to which civilized men could repair.”

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.