“Trump might be a liar, but the U.S. military isn’t,” Bret Stephens wrote in his Saturday New York Times column. The layers of attempted deception and self-deception would have been funny if he hadn’t been trying to get people killed.
Obviously, first of all, the United States military is a habitual liar, with generations of lies behind it and more lies to come, till we beat our swords into plowshares and yoke our public-affairs officers to the plows to turn over the earth for our peace gardens. The military lied about Pat Tillman; it lied about Jessica Lynch; it lies about what its airstrikes hit on purpose and what they hit by accident. It lied last month about covering up the name of the U.S.S. John McCain to protect Donald Trump’s feelings. The Nixon administration dragged the New York Times all the way to the Supreme Court over the question of whether the Times could publish the Pentagon Papers, which documented that more or less everything the United States military had said about the Vietnam War was a lie.
And now a New York Times columnist was stating, as an axiom, that the United States military tells the truth. Stephens was trying to put several shaky claims across at once: the Navy’s claim to have video of Iranian ships de-mining one of the oil tankers damaged by explosions last week, the Trump administration’s claim that this was proof of Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf, and the claim, or wish, of war-hungry Never Trumpers like Bret Stephens that their pet project of starting armed conflict with Iran can be separated from the administration that is trying to bring it about.
The last point is the easiest to set aside: the only difference between Donald Trump pushing for war with Iran and Bret Stephens pushing for war with Iran is that Trump is a more credible and reasoned voice on the subject than Stephens is. It’s true that the president has idiotically set about making relations with Iran worse, for reasons he vaguely heard on TV and because the whole field of foreign relations bores and confuses him. But Trump’s belligerence is shaped by his old draft-dodger’s fear of getting involved in a real official war; his bloodiest military policy has been to sit back and let the armed forces and the C.I.A. ramp up Bush and Obama’s shadow wars, minus the supervision.
Bret Stephens, on the other hand, a more ruthless and repulsive kind of warmonger: the kind who supported the invasion of Iraq, denied the failure and atrocity as it unfolded, and never had to pay any price for it. A decade in, he was still praising the righteousness of the decision. His voice—its false moral clarity and false strategic certainty—is the voice of the people who broke the world last time around, and who want to do it again.
These people consider themselves very serious people, and they want truly serious things to be done, but their position is fundamentally childish. The stories they tell are fantastical: “It’s hard to believe,” Stephens wrote, “it was just a coincidence that the attacks on the ships, one of which was Japanese, coincided with the visit to Tehran by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.” Yes, who wouldn’t mark major diplomatic meetings with another country by launching badly concealed covert military attacks against that country’s shipping? But this just proved, to Stephens, that it was the work of Iranian hardliners seeking to “sabotage” diplomacy.
The wicked are confounding and deceitful; the virtuous are strong and honest. This is the story Stephens told to open his column, to describe the ease and necessity of using American force to put Iran in its place:
On April 14, 1988, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a frigate, hit an Iranian naval mine while sailing in the Persian Gulf. The explosion injured 10 of her crew and nearly sank the ship. Four days later, the U.S. Navy destroyed half the Iranian fleet in a matter of hours. Iran did not molest the Navy or international shipping for many years thereafter.
Simple enough! Here’s the part he left out: less than three months later—with that one supposedly decisive assault having failed to pacify the Persian Gulf—Iran Air Flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas, on its way to Dubai. The captain and crew of the U.S.S. Vincennes, patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, somehow decided that the civilian Airbus A300, flying its normal passenger route in its normal manner, was a hostile aircraft, and opened fire with surface-to-air missiles.
Two hundred ninety people were killed. Sixty-six of them were children. The Navy awarded the Vincennes captain the Legion of Merit for his work in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. military lied about the Flight 655 incident too, and when it wasn’t lying, it offered stories that made no sense. To talk about that, though, would be to admit that war is neither good nor easy, and that history is something more than a series of patriotic slogans and assertions. It would mean that if Bret Stephens did get the new war he wants with Iran, he’d be responsible for the people it kills.