Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Total War (?)

"War is the continuation of politics by other means."


Frank Herbert in today's New York Times both laments the dearth of public interest and support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and suggests that such lack puts in question those wars' very reason for being. Wars? War is one of those words (like "love" perhaps) that is misleadingly applied to a vast spectrum of human activities.

Horrific tragedies for military families continue, but I would submit that Iraq and Afghanistan elicit little more than a yawn from most of the public these days because these conflicts have become too remote and too abstract for most to fully appreciate (in this respect they may be similar to global warming and health care). I think I am no Pandora in reminding that 9/11 was eight years ago; that's twice the duration of U. S. involvement in World War II. No further attacks have occurred on American soil. Unlike Germany or Japan seventy years ago, Al Qaeda simply does not pose a sufficiently concrete threat to American survival, whether directly or by distortion of the global order, to provoke an unequivocal response.

To be sure, the risk of further attacks has by no means been removed, but the "war on terror" is no more a true war than the "war on drugs" or the "war on poverty" were true wars; it is a failure of metaphor. The adversary is no state, but rather an enormously complex cultural system, and perhaps "police action," notoriously applied to the Korean War if memory serves, most accurately applies to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Herbert marvels that only one percent of the U. S. population is directly involved in the military effort to protect the country, at this point against Al Qaeda. But this ceases to be surprising if one views the work in Iraq and Afghanistan as analogous to police work. After all, the work of the police is really never done; there never is any end point at which the crime rate is reduced to zero. The idea is to reduce the risk to the public to an acceptable level. That is really all the military can hope to do at this point in Afghanistan. The police protect all of us, but only a tiny fraction of the public is actively involved in policing. Is this fair? Apparently so, inasmuch as police work is voluntary and rewarded with respect and honor, if also by substantial risk.

I wish "war" would be used only for serious conflict, that threatening the actual integrity of nation states. Some other term, "police action" if nothing else will serve, should be used for more measured responses. If we really thought that Al Qaeda posed an irrefutable risk to our national survival (by means of weapons of mass destruction presumably), would we post a few tens of thousands of soldiers in the wasteland of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border? No, we would institute a draft and flood the region with, I don't know, half a million or more soldiers, reduce the rocks there to smaller rocks, and flame out cave by hidden cave, as we did in Pacific islands on the road to Japan. The national will is not there because the perceived threat is not there.

To be sure, this could change tomorrow with an audacious new attack. But the risk of prevention in military matters, like prevention in, say, psychiatry or policing (Minority Report anyone?), is that one can make things worse in trying to make them better. I am not recommending pulling out of Afghanistan, as if I had expertise to do so, but I wish we could stop calling it a war, as if clear victory were possible. Deaths are parallel and appalling tragedies wherever they occur, but at this point the death of a soldier in Afghanistan has more in common with the death of a state trooper in the line of duty than it does with a death on the beach on D-Day.


Anonymous said...

If the brutal Russian army pulled
out after their "war" in Afghanistan that should have told our leaders something.
Sadly if Bush and Cheney had waited
a short 3 months for the then upcoming UN Mandate on Iraq,we would have not had to invade Iraq by ourselves albeit with a few other countries by our side.
France was right it wishing to wait for the UN vote.
Our then President was in a hurry
to get those never found"Weapons of Mass Destruction"
What have we gained by the cost of
lives and the cost on our treasury
from the ongoing mess since the Invasion of Iraqboth in 1993 and time present?.
"Mission accomplished",Nah!

My Brother was in the Korean war
drafted in the US Army in 1951-1953
I remember that was not a war it
was officially a "UN Police Action"
What's in a name?, everything.

Retriever said...

Good post on a subject worth more reflection in our bread and circuses distracted society. And I agree w Anon that the failure of even Russian ruthessness should have warned us. I have been listening to Jerome Kagan's wonderful Yale course on Ancient Greece (available for free on Itunes U or thru the Open Yale site. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose... Food for thought onthe relationship between war and democracy. Treachery, changing sides, alliances and greed, altruism, brave farmers and moms saying with your shield or on it. Great stuff, and helps me reflect on our current situation netter than any of our current mongrel pundits. Tho hard to bear the way women were of no account in those times!