Life During (not)Wartime
These days I usually get my news in bits & pieces, such as on the radio, on the way to the preschool or the hardware store. I didn't realize it was Super Bowl day, for example, until the folks at the grocery store informed me. I did manage to view a few minutes of Aerosmith on what appeared to be the pre-game show. That fascinated me a bit. Steven Tyler put on a workmanlike performance, but the close-ups showed none of his old raunchy abandon. At one point during the classic screechy sequence of "Dream On", he slammed his hands to his ears in obvious pain. It must have been unbelievably loud, because when the song ended -- it was the final one in the set -- I saw him remove earplugs from both ears. I guess that Tyler hopes to be able to keep what's left of his hearing, perhaps, before very long, to hear his grandchildren. Alas, I missed Janet Jackson's breast, though I do confess to having a quick peek on the Web, a week later. Yup, I had to admit, that's a genuine boob. Blogger Mark Beemsterboer summed matters up admirably: "I only saw it briefly, but I found it to be well-formed, generous, rakishly decorated, and rather pert in that it needed little support -- all in all an admirable C-cup, though it lacks a certain ability to end the world as we know it."
But I digress. It's possible, sometimes, for one of these little glints of news to catch the light in such a way as to illuminate a moment in history. George W. Bush's 2004 budget request had just been made public, and the press was bugging him about the deficit. Bush's tone was petulant. Had he been William F. Buckley, he'd have said, "the facts of this matter are so patent that your very gall even to raise such a question belies your querulous partisanship." But instead, he said "we're where we are on the deficit because we've endured a recession, and we're at war."
The recession part is true enough, although this past recession was a mild one, and could not have engendered a half-trillion dollar shortfall without help from some very large tax cuts and an expensive military campaign. But: "We're at war." That little statement rang in my mind. "We're at war."
Well -- are we? We did endure a terrorist attack two years ago. And we are engaged in an ongoing military occupation of a defeated nation. But are we at war? Is the day-to-day reality we experience in the United States today that of a nation at war? One begins to suspect that if we were truly engaged in the all-encompassing tumult that the expression "at war" has always meant, it wouldn't be necessary for the President to remind us of it so often.
World War II was a unifying national experience. The Japanese openly attacked US territory; Hitler had to be stopped. The draft age climbed to the mid 40s to supply enough troops; millions of women went to work in factories; children experienced rationing and everybody bought War Bonds. Even as mundane a thing as the penny became a constant reminder: in 1943 they were made out of zinc-coated steel, to save precious copper for use in ammunition.
The Vietnam War was a very different experience, but it did generate a similar level of national fixation. It was the crucible of all the social upheavals of the 1960s. Martin Luther King was criticized, for example, for taking it upon himself to criticize the war -- but he believed he could not authentically work for civil rights without taking a stand on it. The war's "progress" (albeit heavily propagandized) was part of everyone's dinner hour: body counts on the evening news, every day, week after week after week. Vietnam veterans endured cruelty and neglect, but they were never ignored or forgotten. Tens of millions of families were divided over the war. The trauma of Vietnam touched everyone.
One further piece of evidence for that is the "Vietnam syndrome" that colored subsequent US military strategy. Whereas in the 50s a general anti-Communist domino theory was deemed sufficient cause to put US troops in harm's way, post-Vietnam polling found voters demanding a clear objective, an easy path to victory and a viable exit strategy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, military planners became more or less able to deliver such a campaign, by employing the military doctrine known as "Overwhelming Force". Now, it must've taken a boatload of razor-sharp military noodles to cook that one up, eh? The doctrine was employed with apparent success in Gulf War I. The United States rolled in to Iraq with a half million troops and vastly superior technology. People in the US experienced the war as a Scud-smashing mini-series on CNN, starring Wolf Blitzer. It wasn't the war to end all wars, but it was the beginning of the War that Isn't a War. Such a campaign must create very few casualties on our side, so few that "friendly fire" might account for a sizable portion of them. And, of course, this sort of war creates no civilian casualties at all, only a bit of "collateral damage".
Now, according to many people (such as the nearly-unanimous United States Congress, for example) the "malaise" of the "Vietnam syndrome" was conclusively put to rest after Nine-eleven. Now -- Bush has told us ad nauseum -- we face a threat as deadly and evil as Communism ever was. Now we are involved in a war on Terror, and we will be at war as long as anything remains for us to be terrified of.
But to be more specific, we are "at war" against the "terrorist network" of al Qaeda, "led" by the nefarious Osama bin Laden, who "masterminded" the Nine-eleven attacks. Or so they tell me, anyway. As I said, I don't follow the news that closely. The last I heard, anyway, was that Iraq, where vast numbers of US troops are currently quagmired, had nothing whatever to do with al Qaeda or the Nine-eleven attacks, and much more to do with another long-term objective: control over the oil reserves of the Middle East.
Are we truly at war? If we are, then who are we fighting, and why? If the United States stopped fighting, and removed its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Saudi Arabia), would anyone attack us, or our allies? George W. Bush wants us to think so. But I don't believe him. I think we are NOT at war with any foreign enemy or aggressor. If we are at war in the United States, it is with our Constitution and our democratic ideals.
Lindy Davies is the Program Director of the Henry George Institute.
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