Maddow’s Mount St. Helens Metaphor for the Iraq War

A lot of you pointed me toward Rachel Maddow’s segment wherein she compares the aftermath of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens with the aftermath of the Iraq War. Even if you hate politics and are sick to death of all mention of the war, watch the beginning. She did a marvelous job narrating the eruption. I tend to avoid talking heads on teevee, but Maddow is an artist as well as a kick-ass-take-names-and-pwn-them-all pundit, so she’s more than a bit of all right.

I love the way she begins the piece:

It started as a magnitude 5.1 earthquake, and a large earthquake is almost never a good thing. But when it happens one mile beneath a huge, active volcano, it can be the start of something that feels a little bit like the end of the world.

And really, it did. All of us who watched that ash cloud consume the sky and swallow the day, whether in person or on our television screens, felt that. There are few things more ominous than an eruption cloud.

Now, some of you speculated that she was getting her facts from my posts, but I can assure you she didn’t. She’d have gotten the eruption time right as 8:32 if she had! Instead, she said 8:30. I forgive her rounding off, though, because the entire thing was awesome. While footage from that day plays, she describes the unfolding events as the eruption progresses. She makes the point that the ash cloud traveled around the world, but the air eventually cleared. What happened on the ground had a lasting impact. The debris avalanche (she calls it landslide) completely filled the North Fork Toutle River valley to a depth of 150 feet. She emphasizes that 25 square miles of the valley were covered to the height of a 15 story building in less than ten minutes. Then she describes how the eruption basically stopped the Columbia River as it “flung” more than a billion cubic feet of debris and sediment into it. She informs us that the Army Corps of Engineers spent years dredging, and eventually removed enough material to build a 12 lane highway from NewYork City to San Francisco. Castle Rock was covered with mounds of dredged material. The surface level of Spirit Lake rose by 210 feet, threatening Castle Rock. The tunnel built to regulate it is now filling with sediment. The enormous consequences wrought by the eruption unfold in fact after relentless fact, and she concludes,

It killed 57 people. It changed the shape of the earth. It moved rivers, it turned a mountain into a crater. 35 years later it is still posing challenges.

One of those challenges is what to do with all that volcanic debris. She tells us that Castle Rock is selling the dredged material to various companies – turns out it’s great stuff for playgrounds, playing fields, sand traps on golf courses, and has even been used in a mountain bike park. Rachel says that’s the one nice thing that came from this disaster. And here’s where I was howling at my screen, “There’s more than one nice thing about it, Rachel!” But I know she’s making a rhetorical point. And she’s about to get to it.

She segues into America’s biggest self-imposed disaster since the Viet Nam war: our invasion of Iraq in 2003. And here’s where she compares that clusterfuck with the fallout from St. Helens.

Turns out you can sell the sand, y’know, there’s that. Was the Iraq War a disaster? Er-ahm, well, you know – Saddam’s gone.

She shrugs. It’s masterful.

She plays a segment showing the 2016 Republican presidential candidates being idiots over the Iraq question. People keeps asking them if, knowing what we know now, they would’ve invaded Iraq. They keep fumbling and bumbling their answers. And Rachel sweeps all that aside, and points out what’s actually wrong here.

If you care about the worst foreign policy disaster in a generation, and making sure that something like that does not happen again in our country, on the one hand, it’s kind of exciting to be talking Iraq… It is also at the same time very disconcerting to see the Republican party, and to a great extent the Beltway press, settling in on an explanation for what happened in Iraq that is not at all what actually happened to start the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq did not start because of an intelligence failure….

She goes on to point out the Bush administration already knew the “intelligence” was bad – or nonexistent. They wanted to go to war, and built a pretext to get us there. They leaked the info they wanted, then relied on the press reports to sell the war to the public. The Bush administration, not the CIA, got us into the war, Rachel emphasizes.

She points out that people trying to excuse the Iraq war as honest mistake “ought to be seen for what it is, right? That ought to be seen as a self-serving defense by the guilty parties to avoid taking responsibility….”

She plays the utterly infuriating yet outstanding Judith Miller clip from The Daily Show, wherein Miller shows she hasn’t learned a damned thing and Jon Stewart doesn’t let her whitewash herself. Then Rachel runs down list of liberal journalists pushing back against the “intelligence failure” lie. The mainstream media fails to get it. They see “intelligence failure” and “oh, by the way, Sadaam’s gone” as the “right” answer.

And then she delivers the coup de grace:

If the hard questions [sic] we ask ourselves about the Iraq war is whether or not there’s a more stable or less stable Anbar Province now with Sadaam gone – like, if that’s the hard question, then we are arguing about the relative merits of where to sell our volcanic ash and sand after it buried us in that disaster.

There’s not enough burn cream in the country for that, but Rachel’s not finished.

The problem of the Iraq war is not how did it work out? The problem here for us as a country – which is an almost existential moral question for us as a country – is how did we go to war on the basis of a deliberate lie?…if that’s not what we’re debating, it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

I wish the segment had ended there, because that’s some powerful stuff. Unfortunately, Dan Rather comes on and, while he’s not terrible, is pretty weak tea (and lets loose with a pathetic abelist slur) compared to Rachel. So I shall ignore most of that (except to applaud when Rachel corrects him on the number of Iraqi casualties. It’s always awesome when someone recognizes that hundreds of thousands of people died because of what we did). Let’s just concentrate on the vast majority of that segment which, from the geology to the disaster response to the human ingenuity, to the human disaster caused by deliberate lies, and the pathetic attempts of Republicans today to sell that one (debatable) good thing that came from it.

Some of you wanted to know my thoughts once I’d watched this. I’ll tell you: I thought it was a beautiful, poetic, merciless segment. Rachel’s absolutely right on what the real question is. We need to face the facts about the Iraq War as a country. I don’t think “Sadaam’s gone” is enough of a good thing. And if we focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, if we cling to that one possibly-good thing, we’ll end up wasting all those lives, destabilizing a region, squandering what goodwill we’d managed to earn with allies and others, and throwing away endless amounts of money that did nothing but enrich a few at the expense of millions, again. And again. And again, until this country can’t survive. I’m glad people like Rachel are holding feet to flames and forcing the real issues into the public discourse.

But c’mon, Rachel! Mount St. Helens’s eruption was far more ultimately beneficial than the Iraq War! There’s far more than one good thing that came of that disaster! Rachel doesn’t give it enough credit. It was an unprecedented opportunity to study a volcanic eruption from awakening to big ba-boom from start to finish, in a convenient location, at a time when we were able to bring some pretty spiffy instruments to measure the happenings. We learned enormously valuable lessons we could apply to other volcanoes, and made countless scientific discoveries. We can make gorgeous  jewelry and pottery glazes from the ash. Yakima and other agricultural regions dusted with the ash experienced bumper crops, possibly because of the extra rain the ash particles in the air caused. The volcano has been a huge boon to tourism, and is a major attraction, giving families livelihoods in a time when logging can’t support as many communities as it once did. And more!

All we can say about the Iraq War is… “Well, at least Sadaam’s gone!” It don’t even compare.


Mount St. Helens in May of 2014.
Mount St. Helens in May of 2014. The eruption was a much more valuable disaster than the Iraq War.
Maddow’s Mount St. Helens Metaphor for the Iraq War

12 thoughts on “Maddow’s Mount St. Helens Metaphor for the Iraq War

  1. rq

    I just love being constantly reminded that that there giant crater on the top of that mountain was (a) created recently and (b) created rather swiftly. That that is the result of the mountain’s top blowing off.
    Now that’s impressive.
    The Iraq war? Not so much.

  2. 2

    And, of course, the best thing of all about the Mt Saint Helens eruption is that there’s gonna be this totally awesome book about it…right, Dana?

  3. 3

    Any story about Mount St. Helens is a convenient place to post a reminder how Bobby Jindal once chuckled at “something called ‘volcano monitoring’.”

  4. 5

    “Well, at least Sadaam’s gone!”

    My father’s a historian and likes to say that you can’t even begin to write the history of a time until at least 50 years after the bodies have hit the floor. More like hundreds. I believe Mao said something similar when asked about whether the French Revolution was a good thing or a bad thing, “It’s too early to tell…”

    I fear that things in Iraq are not even close to as bad as they will get. The US appears to have chosen sides in a sectarian war that’s the muslim version of protestants versus catholics. The idea of “divide and conquer” as practiced by Rome was that you don’t get involved. You’re stupid to get involved. …

  5. 6

    Minor detail: The earthquake was a result, not a cause. The quakes in active volcanoes are rock fracturing from the internal pressure of moving magma, right?

  6. 8

    Judith “Ethics in Journalism” Miller is horribly wrong and entirely dishonest on many levels.

    An exemplar for the fact that many News company executives, editors, and reporters, yes, even at the NYT, believe that lies are a wonderful business model, even after being shown to be contributing to more than 650,000 deaths.

    It is worth pointing out that the Johns Hopkins study published in the lancet, which found 650,000 deaths in Iraq, measured excess mortality. That is, mortality above and beyond the rates of mortality suffered while Saddam Hussein was still in power.

    This shows, that in fact, what the G. W. Bush administration was unambiguously worse than what a genocidal dictator did.

    Even if they had not lied and lied, it would still be the case that yes, even removing a genocidal dictator was still wrong, because, the results were unambiguously worse.

    By the way. Here is the NYT again, on a different topic, carrying Roger Pielke who has made a many decade career of using all manner of half-truths and misrepresentations to promote inaction on fossil-fuel caused global warming – a tragedy which could end up endangering at least tens of millions, and perhaps hundreds of millions of lives.

    That is a big reason why we are still arguing over things like the causes and morality of the invasion of Iraq. Many News company executives, editors, and reporters, yes, even at the NYT, believe that lies are a wonderful business model, even after science demonstrates for decades that said lies endager tens of millions.

    The only thing that has changed – if anything has changed – is now the tiny minority of journalists who consistently try to be factual has risen a little in some quarters, and fallen in others.

  7. 10

    Many of them are. I don’t recall specifically if the quake that morning was magma movement or something to do with regional tectonics, but it really was the cause of the eruption, not the result. Magma had moved about without going boom before. That earthquake was big enough, and the cryptodome had oversteepened the flank enough, that it caused the edifice to collapse, thus releasing the pressure holding the magma in, hence BA-BOOM.

  8. 11

    Well, look into it and then tell us! Surely the actual science explaining the series of events would be far more interesting than just ‘an earthquake shook the mountain which caused the dome to fail.’ There’s a very fuzzy pic of the seismograph at USGS and I’m not qualified to analyze it – but based on how volcanoes work, magma entering the chamber under the cryptodome would be visible (audible?) to seismography, as would magma fracturing rock, though their traces look very different.

  9. 12

    “Magma had moved about without going boom before.”
    Do not attempt to apply that logic to pressure vessels in real life, your tires that are perfectly happy at 35PSI will definitely not be happy at 120PSI.

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