Eleven Turns to Twelve

The combined efforts of countless writers over the past several centuries have yielded only two ideas for the obligatory end-of-the-year column. One looks back, picking the best or worst of the past 12 months. The other looks forward, offering bold predictions the author realistically hopes will be long forgotten by the time they are proved wrong.

Neither option seems suitable to such an annus horribilis as 2011.

Looking back on such a year seems akin to Lot’s wife looking back on burning Sodom as she fled the wicked city. Lest we be turned into pillars of salt, we’ll not try to identify the worst of it. As for the best of it, we will concede it could have been worse. The new congress installed last January has not accomplished much, for instance, but we shudder to think of the craziness that likely would have been passed into law if we’d still had the old one.

Nor are we able to look hopefully toward the future, at least not the immediate future. We’re not prone to prediction-making in any case, what with our magical monkey’s paw being in the shop and the possibilities being so dauntingly limitless. The only predictions that don’t come back to mock their makers are the ones that are utterly safe or worded with such Nostradamus-like vagueness that they could be describing any possible outcome, so let us just say that we see difficulties ahead and that the reins of power in a far-off land will lie like grass on the dewy meadow.

Having exhausted our limited supply of end-of-the-year ideas, we have nothing more to offer but our best wishes to you for a Happy New Year. Let us all hope it’s a good one.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Fanny, Freddy, and the Wheels of Justice

A complaint often heard from our more liberal friends is that no one has gone to jail as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis. The same people who wax empathetic about draconian punishments and the prison-industrial complex when speaking of robbers and murderers suddenly become law-and-order hard-liners when it comes to any white-collared company man who might have violated part four, subsection C of a directive on a regulation issued pursuant to some Jacksonian-era banking law or another. Being flinty old conservatives of the lock-‘em-up school we always egg on our friends’ revenge lust, but notice that their enthusiasm flags when we suggest that the prosecutions begin with Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.

The two government-sponsored enterprises are somehow exempt from the rampant anti-corporate sentiment among liberals, despite the fact that their profits are largely privatized and their executives lavishly compensated. We suspect that’s partly because the home mortgage giants were created by the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, long hailed as shining success stories of his interventionist economic philosophy, and untainted by a pure profit motive. More urgently, attention must be averted from the key role that Fannie and Freddy and various government policies played in the current financial mess, lest it distract from the bizarre yet widely-believed theory that it was all caused by crazy free-marketeers eliminating the all-important regulation that prevented greedy bankers from trying to get filthy rich by giving loans to people who could never pay them back.

That’s why we were delighted to see the Securities and Exchange Commission has finally gotten around to taking legal action against several executives at both Fanny and Freddy for understating their holdings in subprime mortgages by many billions of dollars. It’s a lawsuit rather than a criminal proceeding, meaning it won’t result in prison or any of the hoped-for degradations that occur within, but the SEC’s news release warns they are seeking “financial penalties, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains with interest, permanent injunctive relief and officer and director bars” against the six defendants. If you’ve ever had your ill-gotten gains disgorged, with or without interest, you know how very painful that can be.

Fannie and Freddy as semi-corporate entities won’t be going to prison, either, as they have apparently signed a Non-Prosecution Agreement — the capital letters are provided by the SEC, which can presumably afford them — with the government. The agreement states that Fanny and Freddy “agreed to accept responsibility for its conduct and not dispute, contest, or contradict the contents of an agreed-upon Statement of Facts without admitting nor denying liability.” So far as we can tell, Fanny and Freddy won’t be required by the agreement to return the $150 billion in subsidies that have kept them afloat since 2008. This isn’t so satisfyingly harsh as a long stretch in prison, but semi-corporate entities can’t actually be imprisoned, and the agreement also requires that they “cooperate with the Commission’s litigation against the former executives.”

As lenient as the SEC’s actions might seem, they have already provoked outrage from Fanny’s and Freddy’s apologists. The New York Times, which enthusiastically supported the government’s efforts to lower credit standards back when the idea seemed to be working, offered a column that accused Fanny’s and Freddy’s critics of spreading “A Big Lie.”

Two of the big liars mentioned by name, Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute, promptly fired back that the aforementioned Statement of Facts show that Fanny and Freddy were even further into the subprime mortgage mess than critics had supposed. They’ve headlined their response “Why the Left is Losing the Argument Over the Financial Crisis,” and if they’re right that will be even better than seeing someone get prison time.

— Bud Norman

Iowa Stubborn

Iowa is a fine state, well deserving of the attention it will receive this week as its quadrennial caucuses kick off the presidential nominating process. After all, the Hawkeye State gave us Bix Beiderbecke, the original great white jazzman, Grant Wood, the regionalist master of “American Gothic” fame, and Iowahawk, the internet’s foremost satirist. We can also attest, having slowly thumbed our way through the state several times back in our hitchhiking days, that Iowa has the brownest dirt in any of the contiguous states.

Despite such outstanding contributions, however, we don’t see any reason why Iowa should be allowed to play such an outsized role in choosing the president. The Iowa caucuses don’t always pick the winner of the nominations, and sometimes the results are wildly out of line with the rest of the country, but they invariably eliminate several candidates and boost others before any of the other 49 states have a chance to express an opinion. This time around our early preference for the Republican nomination, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, was knocked out of the race by a mere Iowa straw poll.

No state should be granted such veto power, even one so full of good folks as Iowa, because every state has at least one special interest that is at odds with the rest of the nation. In the case of Iowa it is ethanol subsidies, a boon to the state’s famous corn growers but an expensive boondoggle for the rest of us. So long as politicians are required to support this silly policy in order to become president, we’ll be stuck with it.

Iowa also selects its convention delegates by an intricate caucus system which makes voting a laborious all-day chore, meaning that candidates with a small but fanatical base of support enjoy an advantage over those with broader appeal. In past years this has led to Republican caucus victories by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee. This year it could mean a win for Ron Paul, whose laissez faire foreign policy ideas are anathema to a majority of the Republican party but a large part of his appeal to his cult-like followers.

As with so many other things that have gone wrong over the past several decades, hippies and idealism are largely to blame for Iowa’s inordinate influence on the presidential races. After the rioting and acrimony of the 1968 Democratic convention the party embarked on a new nominating process intended to eliminate the power of old-time bosses and their proverbially smoke-filled rooms, which resulted in George McGovern parlaying a strong second-place finish in the inaugural Iowa caucuses into a string of primary victories and then his party’s nomination, followed by a 49-state loss in the general election. In 1976 an all-out Iowa campaign by the little-known Jimmy Carter enabled him to finish a distant second place behind “uncommitted,” but his victory over the other actual candidates brought him enough attention to make him competitive in the following primary states, which resulted in the Carter years but nonetheless made Iowa a power-broker to this day.

Iowa’s caucuses aren’t the only thing wrong with both parties’ nominating systems, of course. New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the other states that elbowed their way into early slots on the campaign calendar are also afforded too much influence, and by the time states such as Kansas get around to voting the races are already over. A national primary would solve that problem, but create a new one by giving too much of an advantage to the best-funded candidates. Until the ideal solution is found, we can only suggest the minor change of rotating the early slots among all the states.

Iowa is a fine state, as we noted earlier, with many things to brag about, but any place that takes a liking to Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee as well as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter cannot claim superior political judgment.

— Bud Norman

A Question of Motives

Whenever things go wrong, as they so often do, the most commonly heard explanation is that an unnamed “they” have acted out of an ingenious but malevolent self-interest. Just this past Sunday, while attending the traditional Christmas bowling party at a local alley, we listened to a soon-to-be-retired friend expound at length about how “they” had deliberately caused the financial insecurity he’s been feeling lately.

While we don’t doubt that they are a nasty bunch, whoever they are, and are certain that greed remains as deadly a sin as ever, we never dismiss the role that simple stupidity plays in human affairs. Always mindful of the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we pointed out to our friend that the hellish financial crisis that continues to bedevil the economy was caused by the government’s moronic but presumably well-intentioned efforts to provide home loans to anyone who could affix an “X” to the mortgage papers. Citing another favorite example, we noted the vast economic damage caused by an otherwise admirable desire to save the planet from destruction.

Our friend was willing to concede the argument, and seemed slightly cheered by the thought that his problems were inadvertent rather deliberate, but today we were forced to re-think our position after reading The Washington Post’s latest story about the on-going Solyndra debacle.

Those who have been following the slowly unfolding Solyndra affair, which involved a half-billion federal loan to a campaign contributor’s solar panel company that promptly went bankrupt, will likely not be shocked by the Post’s headline revelation that “Politics infused Obama energy programs.” Nor will they be surprised by anything else in the article, such as the obvious observation that “Obama’s entire $80 billion clean-technology program has begun to look like a political liability for an administration about to enter a bruising reelection campaign.”

What is surprising is that such frank analysis has found its way onto the pages of The Washington Post, which is hardly a member in good standing of our Obama-bashing club. The article contains little in the way of new information, but it is the first time that the paper has put its facts together in a way that impugns the administration’s motives as well as its results. Digging deep into their little-used sources, the reporters found a spokesman for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense to say “What’s so troubling is that politics seems to be dominant factor.” The story even goes so far as to quote a former Solyndra employee, identified as “still jobless and at risk of losing her home,” saying “It’s not about the people; it’s politics. We all feel betrayed.”

The White House was given ample opportunity to deny the charges, and summoned up the gumption to say in a prepared statement that “This administration is one that will fiercely fight to protect jobs even when it’s not the popular thing to do,” but the reporters are uncharacteristically skeptical. They state matter-of-factly, possibly because it is a matter of fact, that the many documents obtained by the paper show “Political considerations were raised repeatedly by company investors, Energy Department bureaucrats and White House officials.”

Kind-hearted as we are, and ever eager to think the best of people, we had been willing to chalk up the Solyndra loan to mere environmentalist bone-headedness. When even The Washington Post is taking time out from its usual apologetics to suggest that it was a bone-headed ploy for political gain, we must re-consider.

— Bud Norman

A New Reason to Riot

The dress code is lax here at The Central Standard Times, where presentability and practicality are the only requirements. These criteria allow our beloved Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball shoes, and do not require the latest in fashionable footwear, which turns out to be a boon to our personal safety.

In case you were too busy with last-minute shopping or other Christmas chores to follow the news, a spate of fistfights, gunfire, rioting and near-rioting occurred at shopping malls across the country on Friday when the Nike shoe company began selling a limited-edition sneaker called the Air Jordan 11 Concord. Named in honor of the celebrated hoopster Michael Jordan, the $180-a-pair shoes give new meaning to the expression “all the rage.”

Any dour old conservatives inclined to lament the decline of American culture will be hard-pressed to cite more convincing evidence than the spectacle of widespread rioting over a pair of basketball shoes. Any all-forgiving liberals looking for rationalizations will be just as hard-pressed to find one.

The longstanding argument that such bad behavior is caused by poverty and material deprivation, most pithily expressed by the juvenile delinquents of “West Side Story” when they sang “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived,” cannot be made on behalf of people eager to spend $180 on a pair of sneakers. That price will buy many years’ supply of Chuck Taylor All-Stars, so the rioters are not resorting to violence for fear of going shoeless. Nor do the shoes enable the wearer to replicate Jordan’s aerobatic slam dunks, any more than our Converse “chucks” imbue us with the awesome power of the late Chuck Taylor’s two-handed set shot. The rioters are brawling at the mall in hopes of impressing society with their notion of affluence and class.

Others will likely blame the mesmerizing marketing techniques of Nike, already reviled by bien-pensant opinion for the allegedly unpleasant conditions in its overseas factories. One news report attributed the shoe’s riot-causing appeal to consumers’ desire to “own a piece of the Jordan empire,” but the long-retired Jordan also endorses the Hanes brand of men’s undergarments, products we have purchased without resorting to firearms or fisticuffs, and it seems unlikely that the mere invocation of his admittedly impressive basketball career would reduce an otherwise civilized person to rioting. We also note that the Air Jordan advertising campaign was launched under the artful direction of filmmaker Spike Lee, admired by bien-pensant opinion as a serious intellectual and angry black man.

There’s always the crass materialism of our capitalist society to blame, a common explanation for status-seeking misbehavior, but the rioters’ fashion sense suggests they’re more influenced by a hip-hop subculture too often hailed for its oppositional stance against mainstream capitalist society. Old-fashioned middle class culture is the antidote, not the malady.

Today is Boxing Day in the stores, and let us hope that it won’t be in the pugilistic sense.

— Bud Norman

An Ink-Stained Christmas

There’s no use trying to write anything good and original about Christmas. Over the past 2,011 years or so countless scribes have already availed themselves of all the good ideas, and those ideas that remain unused do so for reasons that become obvious after one or two sentences.

The folly of the effort became apparent to us during 25 years of working at newspapers, which included at least 25 different staff meetings where reporters and editors huddled to think of some not-yet-hackneyed angle for a holiday story. The results of those caffeine-fueled brainstorming sessions were mostly forgettable, and indeed are long forgotten, while the few that we can recall are memorable only because of how very desperate they were.

One editor was inspired to send us on a Christmas Eve bus trip to Oklahoma City, with orders to write a bittersweet slice-of-life tale about the unfortunate but hopeful souls forced to resort to such proletarian transportation on that special night. The most intriguing part of the journey was an encounter with an old high school classmate, formerly a boyishly handsome fellow with a full head of enviably curly hair and an even more enviable reputation as a ladies’ man, by then a balding and burly man eager to tell us about his new boyfriend, who for some unstated reason wasn’t accompanying him on the trip home for the holidays. That bit of life was sliced from the story by our editor, who found it too bitter and insufficiently sweet for a family newspaper, but we like to think the remaining copy jerked a few tears nonetheless.

Another editor was convinced that every Christmas brought a miracle to our fair city, and assigned us to go find it. We assumed he meant something along the lines of a child’s joyful expression as he awoke to an unexpected present, or an embittered old man’s unfamiliar feeling of warmth and affection prompted by the singing of passing carolers, but he clarified that he meant a full-blown miracle of the blind seeing and the crippled walking variety. Despite our protests that such miracles are, by definition, rare, and unlikely to occur within sight of a newspaperman, the editor was so adamant and threatening that we quickly commenced an investigation. We called the local Pentecostal churches and other miracle-prone denominations, who had nothing out of the ordinary to report, and the local hospitals, where the doctors seemed to think that the paper had taken leave of its sense, and even the local zoo to check out a rumor that the animals talked on midnight of Christmas Eve, but the keepers assured us that their charges kept their opinions to themselves even on that night. The editor eventually conceded defeat, and no story was filed, but he always blamed our lack of reportorial ability rather than the absence of the annual miracle.

Over several years of working the obituary desk we had noticed a significant drop in business in the week before Christmas, then a commensurate glut of work in the week afterwards, a phenomenon that medical professionals ascribe to the very old and deathly-ill hanging on for one last celebration. Every year we would offer this as a story idea at those holiday brainstorming session, and each year it was rejected as unsuitably maudlin and macabre. Except for a few snarky reviews of the latest Christmas recordings, we usually wound up contributing little to the newspaper’s holiday fare.

It wasn’t a lack of seasonal spirit, really, but rather a long-held belief that the best Christmas tales, and the greatest of all miracles, had already been around for nearly two millennia and could not be improved by our meager talents. With implied permission from the author, we’ll reprise this snippet from the greatest Christmas story of them all:

“And the angel said unto them, Fear Not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

We have nothing to add but our wishes to you for a Merry Christmas.

— Bud Norman

Humbug Economics

Christmas is the magical time of year that brings hope, good cheer, and a Santa Claus stock market rally to gladden the hearts of man in the dead of winter. Here at The Central Standard Times we typically bring gloom and doom, and despite the season and our best intentions we must do so again.

Don’t blame us, but rather Christine Lagarde, the fearsome-looking Frenchwoman who is managing director of the International Monetary Fund. During our routine perusing of the Maldivian press we recently encountered this story about Lagarde’s stop in Lagos, Nigeria, where she told an audience of government officials that “Currently the world economy stands at a very dangerous juncture.”

Lagarde, who took over the distinguished and august IMF after its previous managing director was accused of rape by a hotel maid, is in an excellent position to know. The IMF was formed in 1945 by the world’s most prosperous economies to bail out the occasional third-world basket case done in by the insane economic policies that are sometimes pursued by the sorts of people you find in those sorts of places, but now finds itself devoting its relatively meager resources to bailing out the likes of Greece, Spain, and Italy. While Lagarde was carefully vague in commenting on that unhappy situation, saying that European leaders “have made some very strong decisions” but that “it’s going to boil down to implementation,” her agency spoke more explicitly this week when it revised its forecast for global economic growth downward.

The “strong decisions” that Lagarde mentioned have lately cheered American investors, who added more than 300 points to the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Tuesday after the latest miracle cure was announced in Europe, but those with more memory than hope will recall several similar rallies over the past months that dissipated as markets realized the big plan was boiling down in the implementation. Europe’s problem is more debt than it can create, borrow or print, and that won’t be solved until it overhauls the beloved welfare state that has amassed the debt, a process we expect will be completed right around the time rioters are burning down the last of the continent.

The Nigerian officials were no doubt unsurprised to hear Lagarde say that Europe’s pain will also be felt elsewhere. One likely sore spot will be Asia, which makes many of the things those Europeans have been borrowing to buy, and where several countries have already revised their own economic forecasts in the familiar downward direction. The jolt will only exacerbate other problems in the East, of which there are many.

When listening to the more enthusiastic admirers of China’s authoritarian one-party rule one gets the impression that its visionary efficiency is about to dominate the world so thoroughly that there is no option left for Americans but Mandarin classes and Mao jackets, but even that mighty economic engine has lately shown signs of sputtering. In addition to an American-style property bubble, much of the country still mired in cave-dwelling poverty, and painful inflation rates, China now faces the problem of watching the customers it has been selling to on credit go broke.

The irrationally optimistic and the die-hard Obama supporters, two groups that largely overlap, will insist that downturns on the two continents that matter most won’t affect events here. Happy days are here again, we’re told by giddy reporters, with unemployment nudging under 9 percent and building activity stirring anew. We take a dimmer view, noting that the unemployment rate would be worse than 11 percent if not for the large number of ex-workers who have given up the search, and the recent revelation that the bleak housing numbers of the past several years were just as wildly overstated. There’s also the matter of America’s $15 trillion or so in debt, a daunting figure when one considers that America is by far the largest contributor to Lagarde’s effort to bail the world out of debt.

Ebenezer Scrooge himself would have been hard-pressed to compose a bleaker Christmas greeting than this, and for that we apologize, but we reiterate that it’s all Christine Lagarde’s fault. We’ll be back tomorrow with something more in keeping with the season, and urge that you put all of this out of mind in the meantime.

— Bud Norman

Let There Be (Incandescent) Light

Oh, how we hate those newfangled curly light bulbs.

We were reminded of this seething hatred by a recent news report about the 1,200-page omnibus spending bill currently passing through the congressional excretory system, which apparently contains a provision prohibiting any money being spent to enforce a 2007 law which will eventually ban incandescent light bulbs. While not an outright repeal of the ban, which would be ideal, it is a temporary reprieve and a heartening development.

Although we’re not so very Luddite that we’re typing these words on our old Smith-Corona typewriter, which is kept in safe storage in case the Democrats take control of the internet, we are skeptical enough of modern technology to have noticed that the latest innovation isn’t necessarily a better one. Those newfangled curly light bulbs, which we hate, are perhaps the definitive example of this observation.

We hate that they’re expensive. We hate that the longer life that is supposed to make them less expensive is often overstated. We hate that you can’t just throw them away when they burn out. We hate that you have to don a haz-mat suit and call in the clean-up crew from Fukushima whenever they break. We hate the sickly yellow glow they cast when first turned on.

Most of all, we hate that an unholy alliance of Big Business, Big Government and Big Environmentalism is forcing these hated light bulbs on the public by banning the good old incandescent bulb that has lit American homes with nary a complaint for the past 131 years. Those who prefer the newfangled curly light bulbs should be allowed to use them, of course, and we will tolerate that choice with the same clenched-teeth forbearance we afford to fans of Lady Gaga’s music or Jim Carrey’s movies, but there is no reason they should be able to impose their peculiar preferences on others.

— Bud Norman

Fond Farewells and a Good Riddance

Having started out in the writing biz on the “dead beat,” cranking out news of the recently deceased for the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle back in the Gutenberg Era, we always have a keen eye out for an interesting obituary. The past week delivered three of them.

The first to get his last writes was the estimable polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday at the age of 62 after a long fight with esophageal cancer.

A Trotskyite when he first arrived on the rough-and-tumble journalism scene of his native England, Hitchens soon softened into a hard leftist and became a fixture of such impeccably liberal publications as Britain’s New Statesman and America’s The Nation. Witty, erudite, and an undeniably good writer, Hitchens earned a grudging respect even from conservatives who never agreed with a word he wrote.

Then came the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the man who had spent much of his career trying to get Henry Kissinger charged with war crimes suddenly found himself siding with George W. Bush in the fight against Islamism, even supporting the Iraq War through its most difficult years. In a brilliant essay announcing his departure from The Nation, a magazine which had been an apologist for a century of leftist totalitarianism, Hitchens said he could simply no longer associate himself with “those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

Conservatives gladly welcomed the support, happy to have such a formidable intellect on their side for a change, while liberals felt betrayed by his apostasy. Hitchens never seemed to care much about either reaction, and always insisted that this stand against a theocratic, misogynistic, homophobic, imperialist Islam was entirely consistent with his lifelong leftist commitment to secularism, women’s rights, gay rights and anti-imperialism. The most remarkable thing about Hitchens stand, it seems to us, is that it was so rare. Although Hitchens was also well known as a proselytizing atheist, we wish him well in whatever afterlife he encounters.

The second obituary to catch our attention was that of Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, president of Czechoslovakia, and by our estimation the one of the great men of the 20th century.

As an avant-garde artiste, bravely defiant protester of his country’s power structure, hero of a genuinely rebellious rock ‘n’ roll scene, and all around hep cat, Havel should have been the most celebrated dissident of them all, with his wryly smiling face appearing on every would-be rebel’s t-shirt, his rise from prison to power celebrated by every punk band’s music. Alas, Havel did his dissenting in Czechoslovakia, a country that was under the thumb of Soviet Union through most of his adult life, and the power he helped to bring down was the same one the leftist myth-makers were struggling to defend.

Havel didn’t fit the western left’s notion of a dissident hero, and worse yet, he made it look stupid and weak. Dissidents were supposed to revile the wicked Ronald Reagan, but Havel praised him and credited his leadership with bringing freedom to countries imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain. Reagan’s critics liked to think themselves courageous, even though they never endured anything more grueling than tenure, Academy Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, while Havel spent years in brutal prisons for his artistic expressions. Western dissidents are expected to undermine the west when given the reins of power, and always rule with a firm hand, but as president Havel carefully cultivated political, military and economic ties to the west, and allowed the Slovakians to peacefully secede from their long-imposed alliance.

The third obituary to catch our eye, conspicuously incongruent after the passing of Hitchens and Havel, was that of Kim Jong-Il, the chubby little twerp who’s been ruining the lives of a few million North Koreans for the past 17 years. The crazed dictator died on Sunday of what we hope was a very painful heart attack, and the less said about him the better.

— Bud Norman

Merry Christmas (War is Over)

The report on the radio’s hourly news break was brief and perfunctory, no longer or more emphatic than an account of the latest triple-digit stock market swing or celebrity drunk-driving arrest, but the message was notable nonetheless: Early Sunday morning the last American troops had left Iraq in a convoy to Kuwait. The Iraq War was over, at least for the United States.

Looking back over nine long years at the various kinds of shock and awe that attended the war’s beginning, and recalling the angry debate that divided the country in the war’s early years, the reaction to the war’s end seemed oddly muted. The New York Times duly noted the occasion on its web site, but underneath stories about a man’s arrest for a fatal Brooklyn elevator attack, wrangling in Congress over the payroll tax cut extension, and health-crazed residents of Loma Linda, Calif., protesting a new McDonald’s. At the other end of the internet spectrum the Drudge Report trumpeted National Football League games, chaos in Egypt, and a winter storm hitting the plains, with all mention of the war gone from the page by day’s end.

The public’s reaction was just as understated. No yellow ribbons adorned the trees along the nation’s streets, no banners welcoming home the conquering heroes were hung over big parades. Flags flew only in the usual places, and nowhere was heard the martial music of John Philip Sousa. Conversations in barrooms, churches, and living rooms were more likely to turn to football contests or the weather than to talk of the war. Much like the old soldier of General MacArthur’s farewell address, the war seemed to have never died but just faded away.

The president had marked the war’s end four days earlier with an address at Fort Bragg, N.C., but as is typical for presidential speeches nowadays the world would little note nor long remember what was said there. The oration had little of the legendarily soaring rhetoric that Obama is somehow known for, and instead was marked by the very ambivalence that seems to have quieted the entire nation’s response to the war’s end.

Obama didn’t tell the respectful audience of soldiers that their Iraq mission had been a “dumb war,” as he had said nine years earlier in a speech that made the then-obscure Illinois state senator into a national liberal hero and launched his bid for the presidency, but neither did his press secretary back away from that characterization in a later news conference. Obama did say that the last soldiers would leave Iraq “with their heads held high … Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people,” but never did he use the word “victory.” He honored the sacrifices of the half-million or so men and women who served in the country, the 30,000 who suffered injuries, and the nearly 4,500 who gave all, but he left it to the historians to say if the war had been worth the price they paid.

The historians had already made up their minds by 2006, long before the “surge” strategy succeeded in stabilizing the country, when a survey of that highly politicized profession found 82 percent of them had already decided George W. Bush was a failure. Truth-seeking scholars are no more inclined to change their minds than anyone else, so we expect the judgment of the first slew of books of war on the war will conform neatly to academia’s prejudgments. History, on the other hand, will take all the time in the world to render its verdict, which often differs markedly from the instantaneous opinions of mere historians.

Already many of the passionate arguments that were shouted in the early days of the war look very different in hindsight . The hawks who promised a “cakewalk” of a war looked prescient when Saddam Hussein’s regime was quickly toppled by a marvel of military power and precision, then foolish when the occupation bogged down in deadly sectarian violence, but may yet be vindicated in their gritty determination to slog through to some sort of victory. The claim by a famous filmmaker that the insurgents would deservedly win, and by a prominent Senator that in 2007 they had already won, now seem discredited, as do the countless conspiracy theories about “blood for oil” or permanent occupation of the Middle East, although events might yet provide the critics with some postbellum catastrophe that they’ll claim to have seen coming all along.

The passion of those arguments had largely faded away by the war’s end, of course. Most Americans don’t know anyone who died or was injured in the war, many don’t even know anyone who has served there, and as the casualties declined after the surge and the war was less often mentioned in the news, attention naturally turned to the economic troubles at home. By the 2008 election, when the big-time media’s chosen candidate had opposed the surge and was pitted against the strategy’s most prominent congressional advocate, the topic was almost completely dropped from the national discourse. Depending on what happens next in Iraq, the administration will either claim credit for leaving Iraq to the Iraqis’ wise hands or point out that it was merely following Bush’s predictably wrong Status of Forces Agreement by pulling out and letting those foolish Iraqis sow their own destruction, but at this point both sides of the political divide will likely be happy to let the war be forgotten.

History casts a jaded eye on human events, and might someday regard the Iraq War with the same disinterest as today’s public. Even from the vantage point of the present moment the war can be seen as a only a skirmish in the global war against terrorism, which in turn is just the latest battle in a centuries-old war between Islamism and the West. Each of the nearly 4,500 American lives lost during the nine years of the Iraq War was an unspeakable tragedy that must never be forgotten, but the dispassionate scales of history might weigh them against a single afternoon at Antietam or Normandy and find it a surprisingly small total.

We humans don’t live in history, however, but in the present, and at this moment we should eschew such cold calculations and regard all the nation’s warriors with a warm heart. What happens next in Iraq is up to the Iraqis, and that such a possibility exists demands a nation’s gratitude and respect for the men and women who gave them that rare and precious opportunity. We must honor the soldiers who aren’t coming back as martyrs to our nation, and welcome those who do return with praise and noisy affection. There should be parades, ribbons, banners, speeches, songs and statues. There should be more than the deafening silence of the moment.

Let us wish them all a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and a long life of hard-earned peace.

— Bud Norman