Shoot the Moon and Forget about the Bell Curve

A way to think about 2006 with hope (of a sort)

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I have to admit that some of the responses to my recent article The White House Criminal Conspiracy (published in the Nation and posted at, in which I argued that the Bush administration should be brought to account in Congress or a court of law for defrauding the American people into war, kept me up at night. No, not the ones that questioned my sanity or sobriety. The letters that have given pause are from people who wholeheartedly agree that the Bush administration lied about the war. Yet there’s “zero chance,” these writers contend, that a completely Republican-controlled government will ever do anything about it, so it’s pointless to pursue the matter. While lying awake beside my sleeping husband with my dog staring up at me in the dark, I’ve wondered, is that true? Is it futile, or foolish, to act when there is little apparent chance of success?

It was five years ago this month that George W. Bush received his best Christmas gift ever — the presidency — from the United States Supreme Court. And around this time every year, I’ve thought about the night of December 13, 2000, when he made his formal acceptance speech. I remember it well: Bush speaking from the Texas House of Representatives about a bipartisan foreign policy and his plan to reunite the country. It’s not that I was particularly interested in the President or even the election at that point. I wasn’t. I had taken a leave of absence from my job as a federal prosecutor in San Jose and flown 3,000 miles across the country to be with my sister. So I watched the speech while sitting on a portable cot, looking at a hospital TV suspended from the ceiling — and my sister was lying in a bed next to me amidst a tangle of tubes. She was dying.

Kathy was thirty-eight, a small-town doctor with a three-year-old son, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. Her prognosis was grim. Statistically, the majority of patients with her diagnosis live for only about six months. But some patients, those represented by a tiny fraction at the far edge of the bell curve, outlived the odds, and Kathy was determined to join that group. So what did she do? Everything. She had a mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy; she vomited, lost her hair, and her eyebrows. She took drugs that threw her into menopause, steroids that made her face swell up like a balloon, and herbs that tasted like dirt. She went to acupuncture, mind-body seminars, and Reiki treatments. She endured a cell replacement procedure that kept her isolated for 30 days. In other words, she shot the moon.

By the day of Bush’s speech, Kathy’s organs were failing. Her liver was, by then, so damaged that her doctors were astounded she could even talk coherently. Not only could she talk, but she had a lot to say about Bush’s speech (mainly expressing her irritation that it preempted The West Wing.) She died three days later, six years after her initial diagnosis.

Throughout her ordeal, one of my sister’s persistent concerns was what other people would think. Would her medical colleagues consider her irrational, if not crazy, to pursue treatments that were so uncomfortable and painful, not to say unproven or improbable in terms of success? And what would her patients think? Kathy would call me regularly and ask just these questions.

In the end, though, she answered them herself. As long as there was uncertainty, the slightest possibility that she could land at the odds-defying edge of that bell curve and have a longer life, it made sense to her to do anything she could bear to do, regardless of what others thought.

I don’t know Lynn Woolsey, the Democratic congresswoman from Petaluma, California, but I think she would agree with my sister.

Representative Woolsey opposed the invasion of Iraq from the outset. She first called for a U.S. withdrawal from that country in April 2004. Since then, she has stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives 128 times to talk about the deceit that led us to war, the lies and incompetence that keep us there, and her plan for an exit. Certainly the odds have been steeply against her; she has often been speaking to an empty chamber. In January 2005, when she proposed legislation calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, she was joined by only 14 House Democrats. But by the spring of 2005, what had seemed like a thoroughly futile exercise began to look somewhat different. By June, she had garnered support from 127 other representatives in the House, including five Republicans, for a proposed amendment to the annual defense spending bill that required Bush to set a timetable for withdrawal. And now, of course, the momentum for withdrawal continues to build.

Woolsey has been able to bring people around not merely because of her courage and commitment. Equally compelling has been the evidence she cites. In April 2004, she talked about 700 American soldiers dead; by March 2005, 1,500 American troops had died and 11,000 were injured; and on October 22, 2005, she said:

“Earlier this month, I traveled to Iraq where I received extensive briefings from military commanders and toured our state-of-the-art facilities. But nothing was more informative than sitting down to meals with enlisted soldiers from California. Many of these soldiers are on their second or third tour of duty. I talked to fathers who have babies back home they have never seen. There were mothers who deployed mere months after giving birth…

“With the casualty count of U.S. military personnel in Iraq nearing 2,000 and $1 billion in tax monies spent in Iraq every week, the American people are justifiably demanding — and our troops deserve — a plan, a strategy, something more than an open-ended military commitment.

“If victory is the goal, what, exactly, defines victory?”

In short, Representative Woolsey has, against all odds and the measured opinions of her doubting or dismissive colleagues, persistently focused on reality — just the facts; and it is reality that most powerfully counteracts the mass anesthetic that the Bush administration has used to keep people from questioning the war. While masquerading as hard-headed realists, the President and war hawks from both parties have been, at best, determined illusionists. They have shrouded the war in abstractions — victory, freedom, the spread of democracy — all of which are, ultimately (to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway in his World War I novel A Farewell to Arms), obscene, especially when juxtaposed against the concrete names of soldiers killed, Iraqis bombed, towns destroyed, and children maimed.

That is why the Bush administration has tried so mightily to keep us from thinking about the funerals of the American dead and the amputees at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Administration officials went out of their way to hide the evidence of the return home of dead soldiers by prohibiting photographs of the coffins as they arrived back in the United States; while the President, Vice President, and others carefully avoided attending any of the more than 2,000 funerals. But it’s been those funerals and the amputees at Walter Reed that have convinced die-hard war supporters Walter Jones (R-N.C.), and John Murtha (D.-Pa.) to denounce the war. Murtha’s plain-spoken critique of the war was so threatening to the administration that it resorted initially to accusing him of joining forces with Michael Moore, rather than responding to his actual arguments.

The truth is that the closer you get to the reality of the war against Iraq and the lies that brought us there — and these are quite literally matters of life and death — the easier it is to know what to do: Shoot the moon and forget about the bell curve.

As Congresswoman Woolsey has known all along, the most potent antidote to the obscenity of abstraction is fact. Focus on the facts. Make sure you get them right and don’t overstate your case. Talk about the lies that sent us to Iraq. Talk about the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis slaughtered, the soldiers killed and wounded, the families they’ve left behind. Don’t play the administration’s word games about torture: talk about waterboarding, humiliation, and beatings. Write letters, demonstrate, make calls, send e-mails, wear t-shirts, campaign for candidates who oppose the war, join groups, organize groups, talk to anyone who will listen and even people who won’t. Advocate impeachment, push the Senate to analyze the administration’s use of pre-war intelligence, call for a special prosecutor — and tell Congress it’s time to bring the troops home. Don’t worry about the odds.

What good does any of this do? The answer is we don’t know — which is exactly why we have to do it.

Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for Tomdispatch. She may be contacted at

Copyright 2005 Elizabeth de la Vega

This piece first appeared, with a short introduction, at


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