Today, thirteen years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America is once again girding for war. “Once again” might not be quite the right phrase to use, since it suggests that we are on the cusp of a transition from a state of peace to a state of war, yet this country has not been at peace for more than a decade.
From the perspective of this day in 2014, President George W. Bush’s speech from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California on 1 May 2003 seems like a sick joke. For those too forgetful, or too young (like many of my students) to remember, the president strode heroically across the carrier’s flight deck from a Lockheed Viking ASW bomber, clad in a Navy flight suit, with his aviator’s helmet under his arm. Under a red-white-and-blue banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the president announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” A few moments later, he added, “the war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless.”
The proof is that, since 2004 the United States has lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq and 2,300 in Afghanistan, while perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed, dislocated, their lives destroyed. And all of this since President Bush claimed that the mission was accomplished.
So here we are, more than a decade later, with President Obama wearily announcing that, despite his predecessor’s speech, despite the promised US withdrawal, this country is committing itself once again – there’s that phrase! – to war, this time against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. For now, these will be air operations, deploying America’s vast resources of aircraft, drones and cruise missiles against the jihadists who have overrun much of Iraq. It does not mean that the United States will be sending troops in any number to the region to face off against the new enemy on the ground. At least that’s the story.
Because we – Americans, Canadians, Britons, whatever – like to remember history in terms of nice, discrete packages, where great empires rise and fall, where crises come and go, where wars begin and end, it’s the kind of story that we can believe. This time, the old song goes, won’t be like the last time. Indeed the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, has faded into vague memories that flicker fitfully on movie screens to teach us moral lessons of courage, sacrifice, grief and pain.
We remember that the Second World War was the good war; the one where there was no moral messiness, where we (and, incidentally, our Soviet, French, British and Commonwealth allies) did the right thing and stood against the brutal butchers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We forget that we ended the war by incinerating hundreds of thousands of civilians in places with names like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hamburg, and Dresden. We forget how greatly Nazi expansion benefitted from the Western democracies’ benevolent indifference to the goose-stepping legions that marched through Spain, Libya, Ethiopia, the Sudetenland, and Austria.
We remember the heroic hardships the American GIs, indeed soldiers from the whole free world, endured to defend South Korea from the violent embrace of the Hermit State and the Chinese Red Army’s surge across the icy Yalu River in 1950. We forget that Douglas MacArthur wanted to use this as a pretext to bring nuclear Armageddon to China, and that the war, more than a half-century later, is still not over, but remains suspended in the tense unreality of a permanent ceasefire without peace.
We remember the spectacular victory of Panama when, over the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s a quarter century ago, American soldiers stormed from their Blackhawk helicopters to restore order and democracy and, to the pounding beat of MTV music, bought a drug-dealing caricature of a banana republic dictator to justice. We forget that Manuel Noriega had been our agent, and that he acquired the cash he invested in the Columbian cocaine cartels working for the CIA. We forget the thousands of civilians who died in Panama City’s El Chorillo neighbourhood, and others like it.
We remember the horrors of Vietnam; we remember that it was a mistake, built on a lie, enabled by paranoid Cold War fantasies; we remember that we confronted the worst of American arrogance there, and hope that we came out better. Sometimes, we even remember the bodies of women, children, and the elderly at My Lai, cut down by fresh-faced American boys ordered to “waste ’em all.” But we forget that, after the boys came home, paid their penance, and were rehabilitated as heroes, the dying went on. We forget that our arrogance and our bombs brought the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power and helped bury the uncounted millions in Cambodia’s killing fields. We forget the Vietnamese refugees who, after we washed our hands of our defeat, sailed in boats swamped to the gunwales across the South China Sea by the millions, and drowned by the tens of thousands.
Above all, we forget that, in 1964, we were going to answer the fabricated provocation of the Tonkin Gulf, and achieve our noble aims – just as we will fifty years later – with airpower alone. We were going to secure the peace by pummeling the enemy into submission with F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and B-52 Stratofortresses – America’s unbeatable advantage over the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. But 3,500 marines landed at Da Nang in the spring of 1965 to guard our bases, followed by thousands… then hundreds of thousands. Within four years, there were more than a half-million American soldiers and airmen “in country,” and the generals wanted yet more.
We remember the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that as if they are somehow separate from this time, as if all of our wars can be easily compartmentalized from all of their deaths and misery, as if this time won’t be like the last time. It will be different.
Like all of us, I have watched the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with a combination of disbelief and horror. I have wept over the thousands displaced, raped, tortured, and butchered by the faceless black legions marching like the soot behind a flame across the map of Iraq and Syria. I shuddered in disgust as I forced myself to watch the videos of the beheadings and the mass executions, so I could bear witness to the atrocities of our historical epoch.
If I believed that evil was a living thing – a dark force with a positive, material existence in history – then I would believe that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, like the Nazis, slavers, and the US Army cavalrymen grinning and posing in that old photo over the mass grave at Wounded Knee before them, were it. But I know that nothing in history is ever that simple. The Islamic State’s soldiers are in the right as they understand it, they are fighting a holy, righteous crusade in the name of God, as they understand it. Mass murder is a moral act for them, just as it was for Paul Tibbets on that clear August morning, or for Richard the Lionheart as he entered the gates of Acre.
I can well understand the visceral desire, the demand for justice; for evil to be crushed and for us, under the banner of civilization, democracy, and all that is good and moral, to be the instrument of that justice. But then I have to ask where we Americans, or “Western Civilization” broadly – the butchers of millions, the slavers, the genocidal exterminators of the First Nations of the Americas – derive the authority to act in the name of all that is good and moral. How can a mass murderer be the judge and executioner of a mass murderer?
And haven’t we all been here before? Wasn’t the War on Terror supposed to defeat terrorism? President Bush declared war thirteen years ago promising to “wage this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.” Invoking the divine, he was certain of victory: “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” What happened to that victory?
This was not to be just any war. It had specific goals, outlined in the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. One of these was to “win the war of ideas and diminish the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change that lead people to embrace, rather than shun, terrorism.” Yet here we are, a decade later, and those conditions have not been diminished, but greatly enhanced. The black legions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have clearly not shunned terrorism and – let us be honest – they would not have had this startling success had people in Iraq, Syria, and around the world, not in their despair embraced the message. By its own standards the War on Terror, which has run longer than any war in our history, has been an abject failure, a disgrace, a bloody farce.
The invasions, the occupations, the suspension of civil liberties, the militarization of American life, the “targeted killings,” the drone strikes – none of these have brought security to America and the world, and none of these have diminished “the underlying conditions that promote the despair and the destructive visions of political change.” They have created and expanded them. The monster of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is the monster created by war, and despair – our war. Here we are, thirteen years after it all began, and the President has committed us to reinforcing failure, to escalating the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. Maybe we should stop and think about this.
There is a great fallacy at work here – at the White House, in Congress, on the cable news talking-head shows, in social media, at the water-cooler – that the military option is the only option. “We have to do something,” we all piously intone, and that might well be true. But why does it seem reasonable to anyone that the escalation of a strategy that has not only failed, but has made things worse, is the only or even the best option? It’s like turning up the heat to save someone who is dying of thirst.
All consideration of what has to be done begins with dropping bombs and launching missiles, inevitably continues with “boots on the ground,” and ends – no, wait, it doesn’t end. This is the endless conflict. War is no longer our state of exception; it is our state of being.
“We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.”