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War and Anti-War
War and Anti-War
By Hendrik Hertzberg
The New Yorker
09 September Issue
A few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush, during a visit to the still smoldering Pentagon, said that what was already calle the "war on terror" would be "a different type of war"-different, presumably, from the two World Wars, different from Korea and Vietnam, differen from the surrogate skirmishes in the Cold War's buffer zones, different from the Cold War itself, different from his father's war to expel Sadda Hussein's marauders from Kuwait. Four years later, many of Bush's (and others') expectations about the ensuing struggle have fallen by the wayside But that one has proved right.
It is a different type of war. It's different because of the predominantly stateless, decentralized nature of the enemy, whose only columns are fifth columns, and because of the nature of the battlefront, which shifts week by week, minute by minute, from New York and London and Madrid to Bali and Tel Aviv and Baghdad. It's different in terms of the arsenals used to fight it, with language skills, coordinated intelligence, and body armor more useful-and in shorter supply-than the stealth bombers, nuclear submarines, and anti-ballistic missiles of the high-tech military industries. It's also different in that, unlike the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, it is being fought not by conscript armies but by a professional standing army and, increasingly, by citizen soldiers from the state militias.
Finally, it's a war whose burdens have been borne pretty much exclusively by volunteers in military service and their families, and, to a lesser extent, by the erstwhile beneficiaries of the shrinking federal safety net. The war's political managers have made absolutely no effort to create even a simulacrum of equal sacrifice, and 9/11 did nothing to change what has been from the beginning, and remains, the Bush Administration's top priority, not excluding fighting terrorism: the use of the tax code to transfer wealth to the rich and, especially, the superrich. Next week, even as the national debt grows by another $11 billion and military recruiters scramble with ever-mounting desperation to fill their quotas, the Senate will reassemble to take up the proposal, already passed by the House, to permanently eliminate the estate tax, thereby shifting some $1.5 billion a week-about the same as the Iraq war-from the public treasury to the bank accounts of the heirs to the nation's twenty thousand biggest fortunes.
Yes, it's a different type of war. But a lot depends on what the meaning of "it" is. In the nineteen-forties and, Korea notwithstanding, the nineteen-fifties, "it"-"the war"-was the Second World War. By the end of the nineteen-sixties, "the war" meant Vietnam. But what does "the war" mean now? Sometimes it means what the Administration styles the Global War on Terror, a metaphor that has occasionally discomfited some of its own officials. (This summer, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld floated "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"-a more accurate term, and less flattering to terrorists, which was immediately shot down by the President.) Sometimes it means the war in Iraq, which is or is not part of the larger struggle, depending on how (and when) one looks at it.
This ambiguity also makes for a different type of antiwar politics. The opposition to the Vietnam War relied on the active mobilization of masses of people-first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, finally millions-and its demand was clear: Get out. Its Iraq counterpart, so far, is more rudimentary and, unlike its predecessor, almost completely without hostility to the military or illusions about the enemy. Not quite a movement, it is more a pyramid of complaint ranged along a line from dissent to discontent. At its peak, for the moment, is Camp Casey, the makeshift tent vigil, a mile or so from President Bush's Texas vacation estate, that has grown up around a woman named Cindy Sheehan, whose son, an Army enlisted man, was killed in Iraq seventeen months ago. In the middle is a congeries of left-populist Web groups, such as MoveOn.org. At the base is a large slice of the public, as measured by the crude instrument of public-opinion surveys-a silent majority, you might say. In a Newsweek poll, 61 per cent disapprove of Bush's "handling" of Iraq. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 54 per cent say that the war there was a mistake, 57 per cent that it has made us less safe, and 56 per cent that we should withdraw all (33 per cent) or some (23 per cent) of our troops.
The numbers are eerily similar to those the Vietnam debacle generated at its worst. The sentiment they reflect, however, is not the same. The movement against that war had the support of thousands of elected officials, including, toward the end, a majority of both Houses of Congress; the opposition to this one has no such thing. But the reticence of so many Democrats is rooted as much in perplexity as in timidity.
Thirty-odd years ago, it didn't require all that much perspicacity to see that the Vietnam War could not be won-or could not be won at a remotely acceptable cost in blood and treasure, which amounts to the same thing. It didn't require much more to see that defeat in Indochina would not entail defeat in the larger struggle that had been the original rationale for America's intervention. On the contrary, the end of the Vietnam War-which, again, ended the only way it could, in a Communist victory, with the suffering and oppression it did entail-set the stage for the cascade of events that led to victory in the Cold War itself. In retrospect, but not only in retrospect, the demand for immediate withdrawal was both morally and strategically sound.
In Iraq, the strategic rationales for war-terrorism and "weapons of mass destruction"-have turned out to be as phony as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. With scores of thousands of Iraqis dead, an Islamist theocracy in prospect for part, if not the whole, of the country, and the possibility of civil war growing, even the humanitarian rationale has begun to wither. And the hubristic dream of Iraq (in the words of Fouad Ajami, in an essay included in a new anthology entitled "The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq") as "a beacon from which to spread democracy and reason throughout the Arab world . . . has clearly been set aside."
Even so: this is a different type of war. The enemy in Iraq possesses nothing like the monopoly on indigenous sources of legitimacy that was the Vietnamese Communists' decisive advantage. Saddam Hussein's regime was worse than Ho Chi Minh's. Iraq-based terrorism, once a negligible threat, is now a serious one.
Last week, even as Bush was taking a break from his vacation to denounce "immediate withdrawal of our troops in Iraq or the broader Middle East" as a step that "would only embolden the terrorists," the Financial Times was reporting details of the Pentagon's plans "to pull significant numbers of troops out of Iraq in the next twelve months." The chilling truth is that no one really knows what to do. No one knows whether the consequences of withdrawal, quick or slow, would be worse or better-for Iraq and for the "war on terror" of which, willy-nilly, it has become a part-than the consequences of "staying the course." It is a matter of judgment, and the judgment that will count, more chilling still, is that of George W. Bush.