War of the Quailhawks

How Cheney's hunting mishap puts the Iraq invasion in a new light

| Tue Feb. 21, 2006 4:00 AM EST

Over a week ago, Vice President Cheney managed to put a couple of hundred pellets of birdshot into his 78 year-old friend and Texas Republican Party builder, Harry Whittington. As the event turned into a national joke, edged with anger, and a late night spectacle, it was natural that the subject of Iraq would arise. After all, given the sorry state of affairs in that country, the thought that the Bush administration (like the Vice President in Texas) shot first and looked only later came quite naturally to mind; but there are other ways in which Dick Cheney's strange encounter of a quail kind on the 50,000 acre Armstrong ranch in Texas might help put the invasion of Iraq in a new light.

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Let's start with the quail on what the New York Times calls that "game rich property." (How could it be otherwise when so much of the "game" is raised and released there?) Fragile looking little birds, usually with ET-like plumes dangling off their tiny heads, they hang out in flocks -- coveys, to be exact -- and, unlike the Republicans who bag them at the Armstrong ranch, aren't high fliers. Now, hunting is generally a highly ritualized activity, no small part of which should be consumed with finding your prey or waiting (sometimes fruitlessly) for it to appear -- but this doesn't apply to the fair-weather version of fowl hunting the Vice President tends to practice, as he did to a storm of criticism in December 2003 at a private game club in Pennsylvania. There, "more than 500 farm-raised ring-necked pheasants were released for the vice-president and companions. Cheney shot 70 of the birds, plus some mallard ducks and had them plucked and vacuum-packed before returning to work in Washington." A companion that day, Texas Senator John Cornyn described it as more "Tyson's" than hunt -- that is, a slaughter.

Due to the accident at the Armstrong ranch, a mecca for top Republicans including the President ("rivaling Hyannisport, Kennebunkport, and the Hamptons as a setting where important relationships [among the corporate and power elite] have been nurtured"), we know a good deal about what this kind of hunting entails. The ritual seems to be that you spend your time with high-toned, well-connected friends (in Cheney's case, Party-builder Whittington, ranch owner and lobbyist Katherine Armstrong, a Bush-Cheney "Pioneer," which means she raised $100,000 for the last presidential campaign, and ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein Pamela Pitzer Willeford, old Bush family friend and a somewhat more modest contributor to Republican campaigns); you're served a catered lunch (sweetbreads, "charbroiled nilgai, an Asian antelope... raised and shot on the Armstrong spread," and jicama salad); you kick back with a beer or two, "freshen up" back at the ranch house, climb into a jeep or SUV, drive across the fields to the spot where you already know the birds will be located -- and you know because you're on a ranch that raises just these birds for you to kill and has two groups of "outriders on horseback" and "about a dozen American pointers and Labrador retrievers" already locating them for you. Some of the hunters remain in the vehicles; others step out for the "hunt." Eventually, the dogs flush the quail. They panic and fly -- not very high or very far -- and you blast away with your fancy gun (in Cheney's case, an Italian 28-gauge Perazzi shotgun). In fishing terms, imagine that someone put a bluefish on your hook just before you dropped your line over the side.

The Cheney threesome had already bagged some 40 of the 45 quail allowed by 5:30. They were following their final covey when the accident occurred. Normally, according to Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times, hired crews would then be "paid to clean the dead birds and pack them in dry ice for the flight back to Washington." This experience, we're told, gives the Vice President his major release in life. In hunting terms, if you don't happen to shoot your friend instead of a quail, you might even think about calling this experience a "cakewalk" -- the term that some neocons used when describing what an invasion of Iraq might be like.

Let's also remember that among the earliest images to come out of George Bush's mouth after the 9/11 attacks -- along with his Wild West, vigilante-style, Osama "wanted, dead or alive" pronouncement -- were those of the hunt. He said repeatedly that we would "hunt down" the terrorists, that we were going to "smoke them out." And soon enough, the Vice President himself was out there (along with other top officials), vigorously and repeatedly connecting Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 killers, while pumping up his imminent threat to America, and next thing you know, in March 2003, the "hunt" switched to Iraq -- and, of course, we invaded.

Fighting a War against Sheep, Turkey, Fish, and Deer

Here's the thing: Don't imagine for a second that there's anything idle or far-fetched about connecting the shooting at the Armstrong ranch to the invasion of Iraq: Militarily speaking, top Bush administration officials considered a war against Saddam's Iraq the equivalent of the sort of farm-raised "hunt" that Cheney (and, among others, Vice-Presidential pal and "cabal" partner Donald Rumsfeld) have engaged in for years.

Let's recall the basics here. In 1991, after Saddam had sent his army into Kuwait (possibly believing that the U.S. had given him the green light to do so), George H.W. Bush formed a large coalition of nations and launched Operation Desert Storm against Saddam's forces at a time when they were assumed to be reasonably formidable. In the brief conflict that followed, however, the American military (with its coalition of largely paying, rather than fighting, allies in tow) proved that assessment blindingly wrong by obliterating significant portions of the Iraqi military, while losing hardly a soldier in battle.

Desert Storm was, in truth, less a war than a mass execution (as, historically, colonial wars often were). If Vietnam was America's first "living-room war," this was the first screen war at the front. Cameras shooting through the night-vision gun sights of Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, for instance, caught graphic scenes of confused and helpless Iraqi soldiers being blown to bits by unseen attackers. "The Iraqi soldiers looked like ghostly sheep flushed from a pen -- bewildered and terrified, jarred from sleep and fleeing their bunkers under a hellish fire," wrote the Los Angeles Times' John Balzar, who viewed the film with officers of the 18th Airborne Corps at a briefing tent on the Saudi border. Most of the killing took place this way, from the air or long distance (with the exception of a moment when American troops in bulldozers ploughed-in Iraqi trenches at the Kuwaiti border, burying Iraqi conscripts alive).

The final act of this "war" involved an out-and-out slaughter of Iraqi troops (and the wholesale destruction of their vehicles) as they fled Kuwait City on what came to be known as "the highway of death." American pilots over that highway famously referred to the battle as "a turkey shoot" or as "shooting fish in a barrel," though (had they been rich enough) they might, even then, have said, "Like quail at the Armstrong ranch." Later, Desert Storm Commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf would complain that the President had cut off the "turkey shoot" and ended the war too quickly.

The comparisons of Iraqi enemies to various prey animals certainly indicated that the military had its share of hunters and fishermen, but these were also classic denigrating images of battle in which the enemy loses his humanity altogether, becoming in flight nothing more than a hunted animal. (This language remains a commonplace of American-style war. Just the other day, Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter, laying out the dicey security situation in the Iraqi city of Samarra, described the aftermath of an ambush of an American patrol by Iraqi guerrillas, two of whom were killed, this way: "Five other soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division scrambled down [from their Humvee], pulled two of the insurgents' bodies from the reeds and dragged them through the mud. 'Strap those motherf-----s to the hood like a deer,' said Staff Sgt. James Robinson, 25, of Hughes, Ark. The soldiers heaved the two bodies onto the hood… and tied them down with a cord. The dead insurgents' legs and arms flapped in the air as the Humvee rumbled along. Iraqi families stood in front of the surrounding houses. They watched the corpses ride by and glared at the American soldiers.")

The Easiest Mark

Back in 1991, Saddam held some of his best units out of battle -- he would use them later to put down a Shiite uprising -- and the Bush administration of that moment, less hubristically inclined, decided to stop well short of taking Baghdad, leaving the dictator in power. Between February 1991 and March 2003, it was hardly a secret, however, that the state of Iraq's military health had declined further. By 2002, in fact, the top officials of the younger Bush's administration and key neocons, who had for years been promoting a war to destroy Saddam's Iraq, knew perfectly well that the country was in dreadful shape.

Iraq was undoubtedly targeted for a number of reasons: The administration had energy on the brain. Cheney, among others, was looking at the globe and its energy flows in the largest of geopolitical ways. Access to and use of bases in "holy" Saudi Arabia was already in question, and Iraq, with untold, untapped oil reserves, was an obvious alternate basing spot, sitting as it did right in the heart of what the neocons were then calling the planet's "arc of instability." (Think: oil lands). There was also a Bush-family grudge match with Saddam to attend to. But perhaps most important of all, Saddam's Iraq looked like such an easy mark.

It was the most obvious regime-change target of convenience in a region administration officials were eager to dominate and it had just the sort of cruel ruler you loved to hate. (Hardly less hated Axis of Evil member Iran was far more formidable. Sclerotic Syria, trapped between a future American Iraq and Israel, would be easy prey once Saddam was gone and his country occupied.) And let's not forget that the neocons were already in full dreaming mode when it came to rolling up the Middle East and refashioning it in our image -- the image of (as in those heady days they and their supporters in the press never failed to remind us) a global Pax Americana. No vast coalition of forces would be required for Iraq; nor, they believed, would any sizeable commitment of American troops be necessary -- a distinct benefit, given Donald Rumsfeld's ever more high-tech, ever more stripped-down and Halliburtonized forces.

Saddam's Iraq, they were quite sure, would go down like any punch-drunk pug put in the ring with the world's heavyweight champ. It would take no time at all. With a little luck, the first "shock and awe" display might even "decapitate" the regime and do the trick. So, off they headed across the desert in their imperial SUV. Iraq would be but the first stop on a long day's safari into night. They would roll the Iraqi military up. They would bag some Iraqi quail and leave the rest of the game-rich ranch to Ahmed Chalabi, their Scheherazade who had already told them 1001 Arabian tales. In fact, one of their first acts, while the invasion was still underway, was to fly Chalabi and hundreds of his lightly armed supporters ("vanguard elements of what a high-ranking Pentagon officer said would form the basis of a new Iraqi army") to a camp on the outskirts of Nasiriyah ahead of any other Iraqi exiles or American occupation authorities.

They were fully prepared to enjoy the flower-strewn path that grateful (Shiite) natives would ready for them. Then they would begin to build those preplanned military bases and quickly turn their attention elsewhere in a cowed neighborhood. It would be, if no one minds mixing a few metaphors, a "slam dunk."

A Cakewalk Invasion

Richard Serrano of the LA Times reports that our Vice President likes to say: "I take my hunting seriously, in part because I think [my wife] Lynne expects me to bring dinner home once in a while." This is part of the fiction of the eat-African-antelope and blow-‘em-away crowd. Cheney also likes to speak of the birds shot down at places like the Armstrong ranch as "wild quail."

In a similar fashion, he and other administration officials built up the "threat" of Saddam Hussein in 2002 -- and that was no easy task. By then, Saddam had a fifth-rate military, hopelessly out of the league of the globe's sole "hyperpower." This was why it became so crucial for the dictator's nonexistent nuclear program -- and nobody believed then that he had a serious one underway, no less a bomb in the offing -- to gain such attention; for Condoleezza Rice to put mushroom clouds over American cities; for the President, Vice President, and CIA Director George Tenet to claim that (nonexistent) Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles might actually be capable of spraying chemical and biological weapons over our East coast; for those devilish sixteen words on African yellowcake to creep into the President's 2003 State of the Union Address, for al-Qaeda (which had struck hard at the U.S. in a way Saddam couldn't) to be closely tied to the Iraqi regime; and for the Vice President and pals to lean so heavily on the CIA to keep its mouth shut, while they cherry-picked what tidbits of mis- and disinformation were useful to them.

After all, the Bush administration needed a genuine hunt, if not a war, worthy of the name. No tame quail allowed. Okay, there was one real danger. Who knew if the dictator still had some degraded, left-over chemical weapons in his possession? Nonetheless, they expected their second war against Saddam to be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. After all, like the rest of the Iraqi infrastructure, under the pressure of a decade of sanctions and years of low-level U.S. and British air attacks (officially referred to as "defending the no-fly zones"), Saddam's 1990-style air defenses had largely been destroyed; his military, its weaponry old, was thoroughly degraded; and much of his air force still sat on Iranian runways (where he had flown the planes as American Gulf War I approached). If 1991 was a "turkey shoot," 2003 was going to be the quail shoot of all times, though the term popularized for it was actually "cakewalk."

Early in 2002, Kenneth Adelman, a Washington mover and shaker, who had worked in the Reagan administration, had been active in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), and was a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, popularized that term in an op-ed in the Washington Post (Cakewalk in Iraq) in which he dubbed Saddam "the number one threat against American security and civilization" and publicly called for the President to take him down, something PNAC had been lobbying for since the 1990s. He couldn't have been blunter about the thinking of those who then held such influence in the Bush administration (and the Iraqi exiles who were reassuring them that they would be the liberators of all time). He wrote:

"I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps… Saddam's army is one-third its size then, in both manpower and number of divisions. It still relies on obsolete Soviet tanks, which military analyst Eliot Cohen calls ‘death traps.' The Iraqi air force, never much, is half its former size. Iraqi forces have received scant spare parts and no weapons upgrades. They have undertaken little operational training since Desert Storm. Meanwhile, American power is much fiercer."

So, cakewalk reentered the modern lexicon, thanks to Adelman, and it was a curious but oddly appropriate image to have chosen. After all, the original cakewalk was a slave dance that came off the plantations and is described in The Reader's Companion to American History this way: "In its characteristic high-kneed strut walk, it was meant to parody the solemn decorum of the white masters as they promenaded, two by two, in the formal marches that opened their balls." It later became part of minstrelsy and then an all-American dance craze. And how appropriate the image was. After all, our second war in the Gulf was to be as highly choreographed as Cheney's "wild" hunt on the game-rich Armstrong ranch -- in other words, it was to be a high-stepping parody of a war.

Comedy Central

The military largely agreed with this assessment of Iraqi military power. When General Eric Shinseki famously testified before Congress, what worried him wasn't the invasion-to-come, but the occupation to follow. That was why he emphasized that "several hundred thousand" troops that would be needed -- not to take Iraq, but to hold it. The neocons, Rumsfeld, and the Vice President, in a way that's so completely human, had come to believe some of their own fictions meant to manipulate others (or those of the Iraqi exiles who had their ear) and so were convinced that Shinseki was a fool and that no such force levels would be needed.

Their priorities were clear indeed. Send in troops to guard the oil ministry in Baghdad as well as the oilfields; dole out an open-ended contract to Halliburton to protect those fields in case Saddam's men set them alight (as they had in 1991), and then let -- as our Secretary of Defense so famously put it -- stuff happen.

So they shocked and awed Baghdad, blasted Iraq, let its cities (and cultural patrimony) be looted, let the Iraqi military dissolve (and good riddance), handed out contracts to their corporate pals, sent the dismantlers in, set Halliburton's KBR to building bases, and looked elsewhere for some more of that game-rich action.

And let's remember as well that, at the time, it wasn't Dave Letterman or Jay Leno making all the jokes; it was, not surprisingly, top officials of this administration. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld in his post-invasion press conferences gained a certain renown as the Pentagon's equivalent of a stand-up comic. Like our warrior President, he was clearly having the time of his life. He had the press in stitches for months. Even when things started to go wrong, when, for instance, no one could find Saddam's threatening weapons of mass destruction and his unmanned aerial vehicles turned out to be constructed of toothpicks, the President's response as late as March 2004 was a comedy routine. He gave it at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner, to much laughter and applause from the assembled journalists and media execs. Photos were shown of the President looking under Oval Office furniture for the missing WMD while he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."

Of course, all of this turned out to be the administration's collective version of shooting Harry Whittington in the face. If the Vice President's recent quail hunt has been farce (though not, obviously to Whittington), in Iraq the equivalent was pure tragedy. Here in the U.S., Cheney's story proved to be -- as all Bush administration stories are -- riddled with ludicrous holes and anomalies (including that beer -- imported for sure -- that suddenly popped up to replace the Dr. Peppers in the initial descriptions of lunch that day). In Iraq, of course, you had the vast list of lies, manipulations, false stories, discrepancies, and disinformation that made up the American side of the ongoing war.

Here, you had the unexpected, farcical uprising of a long-frustrated and sidelined Washington press corps not over secret prisons, or torture, or NSA spying, or the most recent revelations that the Vice President and others had cooked the books before the invasion of Iraq, but over the fact that they were not informed about the shooting of Whittington. In Iraq, there was nothing farcical about the unexpected, largely Sunni insurgency that has bedeviled this administration since soon after major combat operations supposedly ended in early May 2003.

George, Dick, and the rest of them are remarkably consistent in their modus operandi. Whether on a quail farm, in the White House, or in Iraq, they pump themselves up as hunters or warriors, while the catering goes on and the "outriders" flush the birds for them. They create fictional worlds, impose them on the rest of us, and, at least to some degree, come to believe in them themselves – and they take ultimate responsibility for nothing whatsoever. They are, in short, the quailhawks and, in the larger drama, we, I fear, are Whittington.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt

This piece appeared first at Tomdispatch.com.

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