Thinks About War
I would wish this war to be fought for the liberation of the people
I would wish that America had the will to fight and win this war
to free ourselves and others in the world from the threat of weapons
of mass destruction and to spread the gifts of liberty and equality
I would wish we had the strength to embrace the global empire that
we have become and to rise with wisdom and courage to the challenges
of leadership as the world’s standard-bearer and guarantor of those
I would wish we had the will to accept the costs of that leadership.
Yet reality is not made from my wishes, and the reality is that we
are pursuing the war on Iraq to maintain the economic status quo
in America, while mouthing ideals to mollify our conscience and to
preserve the fiction that we can live forever like kings of the earth
yet never pay the price.
It’s a damned difficult
thing to think about war. One reason is that in war by definition
the usual rules don’t apply. Death, not life, is the goal of war.
Destruction and not progress is its goal. Thank God we don’t have
much experience making decisions in such a state. And yet our lack
of familiarity with war leaves us unprepared to think through the
situation well when the time comes to make such a decision. And
such a time is now.
There isn’t a tougher
moment for a global citizen than the one where you must sit down
and decide on war – whether to go to war personally or through
the support you give as a citizen to the government’s war effort.
In normal life, a
global citizen cultivates the ability to see connections between
her daily life and the lives of others who live across the oceans
and around the world. Even subtle clues speak of a grand interconnection
to a global citizen, and these clues pull her towards uncovering
what possibilities and responsibilities these connections may imply.
The simple stitching in a pair of shoes made in Malaysia, or the
tang in tea leaves picked in Sri Lanka, or the lilt of an Irish
accent overheard at the grocery store checkout line, all of these
speak to a global citizen of the interconnectedness of today’s
War offers a sudden
stark illumination of the usually hidden global connections that
underpin our daily lives. In fact, war or its imminent possibility
offers so violent an exposure of these underlying realities that
many people, understandably, choose to shield their eyes and turn
of such human connections – of the responsibilities they imply
and of the possibility that they might suddenly be destroyed –
may be so painful that the task is deferred or denied. In the present
case, despite the heightened awareness of our nation’s dependence
on Middle Eastern oil, it would be amazing if more than a small
fraction of the country’s 16 million owners of gas-guzzling SUVs
took the lesson seriously enough to cut back on their driving,
much less sell their cars. An even harder task is to imagine, in
sufficient detail that it changes behavior, how innocent people
will die when U.S. bombs accidentally, yet inevitably, stray into
residential areas in Baghdad, or when close fighting erupts in
There are four basic
perspectives on this possible war. Two of them are held by supporters
of the U.S. president’s efforts to forcibly oust Saddam, and two
are held by those who are opposed to his plans.
The war’s supporters
define the goal of the war as:
liberate the Iraqi people from tyrannical rule in order to establish
a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Middle East;
B. To ensure the long-term stability of the global economy
in order to protect the long-term prospects of the U.S. economy;
The war’s detractors meanwhile define its purpose as:
C. Foreign adventurism in the affairs of a brutal regime
which nevertheless controls only a small portion of the world’s oil and poses
no immediate threat to U.S. national interests;
D. An imperial land grab orchestrated by a handful of
scheming oligarchs and fat cats whose goal is to preserve their grip on power,
boost their oil company stocks, and protect their lavish lifestyles.
The (A) crowd -- the liberal hawks -- is the most interesting group
because it counts among its members many who forged their politics
in opposition to the Vietnam War. Now these former draft card burners
are cheering Bush’s plan to blast Saddam out of existence. They see
the possible bombardment of Iraq as the latest in a series of wars
and revolutions that have expanded liberal democracy around the world.
The former Democratic Senator Bob Kerry, Dissent magazine editor
Mitchell Cohen, and American Prospect editor Richard Just are other
liberals who favor forcibly removing Saddam.
Those in the (B) camp, meanwhile, see the war’s main purpose as maintaining
global stability by eradicating Saddam as an agent of global terror.
The bible to this group is “The Threatening Storm” by Kenneth Pollack,
a former CIA analyst in the George H.W. Bush administration, who
offers extensive documentation of Saddam’s long efforts to acquire
nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam had the
bomb, Pollack argues, he would almost certainly use it to seize Saudi
Arabian and Kuwaiti oil fields, or to destroy them while trying.
The only real disagreement in this camp is over how much time the
U.S. should spend to develop domestic and international support for
the war and to work with Iraqi opposition groups before sending in
Two camps favor answer (C) – libertarians, always wary of foreign
entanglements, and geopolitical thinkers who see Saddam as a brutal
yet eminently rational and self-protective man who is, therefore,
deterrable. To these folks, the likelihood of Saddam using weapons
of mass destruction will actually increase if the U.S. strikes now,
perhaps by activating sleeper terrorist cells in the United States, or by launching
chemical or biological weapons against Israel once a war starts.
Those who chose answer C also chide the administration for justifying
its war plans with principles it would be impossible to follow consistently,
such as neutralizing every possible nuclear power and deposing every
nasty dictator in the world.
The partisans of answer (D) are a passionate assemblage of unreconstructed
leftists, progressives, idealists, and politicized artists and writers
who paint the perpetrators of the possible war in cartoonish grotesques.
America is the new global empire and a bloody capitalist crusader;
George W. Bush is a reckless cowboy, a malleable dunce, the pet of
a Texas oil cabal; Rumsfeld is the devil incarnate; Powell is a noble
man sadly corrupted; and etc. These are caricatures, yes, but they
are not for that reason necessarily wrong.
Who can doubt that George W. Bush, who slurs his words to sound like
a swaggering Texas Ranger, in some part of his soul is itching to
avenge the man who tried to kill his pa? “Saddam’s misfortune is
to sit on the second biggest oilfield in the world, and Bush wants
it,” writes the British spy novelist turned global citizen, John
le Carre. “If Saddam didn’t have the oil, he could torture his citizens
to his heart’s content. Other leaders do it every day – think Saudi
Arabia, think Pakistan, think Turkey, think Syria, think Egypt.” More
nuanced liberal critiques, such as Michael Walzer’s, actually favor
a forcible ejection of Saddam, but one that is mounted by the UN
to enforce its inspections, as opposed to a police action to further
the American ruling elite’s “aggrandizement of their wealth and power.”
Says Walzer: “There can’t be any disengagement from the war against
privilege and corruption, both of which are embodied in our current
Where does the U.S. administration fall among these choices? By my
lights it is pursuing the war to maintain global economic stability
(B), which for former oil company executives George W. Bush and his
top advisers is tantamount to self-aggrandizement (D), while publicly
justifying the aggression in terms of traditional American ideals
(A). The most frequently implied of those ideals is that of the U.S.
as the righteous redeemer of an evil world. Of course, rhetoric aside,
no one believes that Gulf War II won’t be just as much about preserving
U.S. access to oil supplies as Gulf War I was. In that earlier desert
excursion, you’ll recall that the U.S. government’s first explanation
of the war’s rousing purpose –“to save democracy in Kuwait” – was
quickly dropped when the U.S. public realized no such thing existed.
Between his candidacy and his presidency, George Bush changed his
vision of America’s role in the world completely. As a candidate
he was isolationist, while as President he is aggressively internationalist
under the banner of the war on terror. This complete reversal of
position undermines the credibility of U.S. international actions,
because it draws into question whether the we have the will to follow
up military action with long-term support that builds friendships
and creates new democracies.
Also, there is something in Bush’s manner, and I am not the only
one, that makes me doubt the sincerity of his podium rhetoric. His
dropped g’s, his fondness for cowboy metaphors, and his sly schoolboy
demeanor, as if he were always about to towel-snap somebody, puts
me off. He doesn’t possess the personal gravitas to speak convincingly
of great political ideals. To me the isolationism of candidate Bush
sounded more genuine, more ardent, more convincing. Especially when
compared to his privileged upbringing, during which he never showed
much interest in foreign travel or exploring the world, his newfound
passion for “helping others” rings hollow in the ear.
I believe that a person and a nation must be ready to fight and die
for ultimate principles; and I believe that unless we generously
share the gifts of freedom and equality with others, we will lose
So my dilemma is not that ousting Saddam by force is a bad idea.
It’s a good idea and it’s the right idea. It’s just being carried
out by the wrong person.
It’s wrong because Bush’s actions don’t reflect his words. Wrong
because he’s a Yale graduate with a fake Texas accent. Wrong because
he lacks the humility that’s a necessary adjunct to strength. Wrong
because when it comes to a guiding vision of the world, he promised
us one thing and now he is delivering another. How can you trust
A chance encounter with an old friend last weekend helped me to formulate
where I stand on the U.S. military effort to oust Saddam. My friend
is a retired physician who spends his summers in Minnesota and winters
in sunny Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s got a beautiful
big house in each place; he dresses in spiffy tailored suits and
silk ties; and he drives a nice car which I assume is nearly new.
We met at a swanky Indian restaurant next to the Phoenix Arts Center where, after we had
downed our three-course meal of chicken tikka, shrimp biryani, vegetable
dishes and imported beer, we attended a concert of the Emerson Quartet.
In other words, we enjoyed an evening the likes of which 99 percent
of the earth’s inhabitants could never dream of having.
My friend is resolutely against the war to oust Saddam. “Bush just
wants to kill the guy who tried to kill his father!”
he said. “And for this petty reason he wants to drag the entire country
into an incredibly dangerous and costly war that no other nation
in the world will support!”
My rebuttal to my friend was this: “You’re right up to a point. But
don’t you realize that you and I are living in the newest global
empire, and all that’s happening now is that one cost of citizenship
in the empire is coming due?”
From the flight deck of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln, which is heading
now from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf region, a U.S. Air Force pilot
told a TV journalist recently: “Our job
is power projection. We have guys flying hundreds of miles off this
ship to do the nation's business." The pilot’s
voice was untinged by the reticent or embarrassed tones that characterized
U.S. military pronouncements for three decades after the Vietnam
War. It was the pure, unconflicted, pitch-perfect voice of the world’s
newest global empire.
America maintains five global military commands posted on four continents;
its economy pumps life-giving capital into scores of developing countries;
its consumer goods and movies and music are universally admired and
accepted; its language is the international language; its currency
is a safe haven; and for all the resentment our global presence engenders,
just ask the people where it really counts – e.g., South Korea, Israel,
Bosnia, or Kosovo – whether they approve of America’s global prowess
and military might.
Our cushy lives so rich in material pleasures, educational possibility,
health care, and leisure, are all supported by commercial tendrils
of empire that efficiently suck low-priced goods from developing
countries, while also inexorably attracting the smartest and most
ambitious natives of other countries to our shores. Compared to our
next-door-neighbors here in the U.S., we may feel we don’t own enough or make enough money and thus we may
want more. But compared to the rest of the world, we already have
everything. We have everything because we as individuals have an
empire – a commercial, cultural, and military global power – supporting
We are a military global
power, and if we were not we would not enjoy the commercial
and cultural advantages that we do.
The key questions that citizens of America’s global empire must therefore ask themselves are: Do I believe in the
motivating ideals of this empire? Am I willing to accept the costs
– in taxes and other forms of treasure – that it takes to maintain
the empire and the lavish life that I am able to live because I am
the citizen of the empire? Do we have the stomach to face the reality
that we have much of what we have because of our brute military power,
and not because we are smarter or better than everyone else?
Will we be able as a society
to develop into the first global empire that is also liberal, democratic,
humble, and wise? We will be able to develop the needed leadership
skills to engender in the rest of the world an attitude of respect
and fondness and gratitude towards us, instead of the anger and bitterness
and resentment of our arrogance that is now so common? In other words,
will we learn what we need to become the first global empire in world
history that actually survives to a ripe old age?
The early signs are discouraging. The U.S. military blew into Afghanistan,
did its urgent business and vowed eternal support of the long-oppressed
Afghan people, but now has basically flown the coop. Why should we
believe that our government will do any more to support a stable
democratic government in a post-Saddam Iraq? Where are the Bush government’s
efforts right now to build a national consensus around the need to
rebuild postwar Iraq into a democracy, just as we helped Germany
and Japan to become democracies after World War II?
Why are we not working right now to develop the good will of Iraqi
people prior to our bombing the daylights out of them? Vastly more
democratic radio broadcasts, U.S. propaganda leaflet drops, and covert
operations with opposition groups inside Iraq would help reverse
the mistrust of ordinary Iraqis for the U.S., built up from more
than a decade of disastrous economic sanctions.
Where is the U.S. government’s leadership in helping to educate Americans
about Arab culture and society? We may soon send an occupying imperial
force into the Middle East, there to stay for many years. The occupation
will not succeed unless the occupying force shows the Iraqi people
some respect, some knowledge of their culture, and even over time
perhaps some affection.
The first rule of international travel -- for soldiers, diplomats,
journalists, businessmen, and tourists -- is that a nation’s government
is not its people. Despite the despots who too often lead them, the
ordinary people of the world, across all cultures, are in large percentage
hospitable, generous, and kind. No military occupation leading to
democracy will work in Iraq without making a real connection with
its people at this basic human level.
Learning how to speak their language, recite their poems, read their
books, play with their children, and sing their songs would help.
When we march into Baghdad, we’ll need to make friends with the people
we almost killed.
Fevered worries on the dawn of a new war rise up now like shrieking
demons. We remember the hurt and the pain of the Vietnam War, not
just the hell of the war itself with the 58,178 dead but also the
lingering wounds of war that scarred the decades that followed --
the returning veterans who were shamed for killing for their country;
and all the young men with PTSD, of whom some now still cry uncontrollably
at a pin drop and suffer flashbacks and night sweats; and then all
the broken marriages, the flip-outs, the drug addictions; and the
tragic stories like that of Lewis B. Puller, the decorated Marine
who survived multiple amputations and depression and alcoholism,
only to succumb, finally, to suicide.
Are we ready again for another war so soon? Will the cost be equally
as terrible? Will it be worse? Can we survive such wounds? Are we
doing the right thing?
On what grounds are we willing to risk our lives and our souls once
again in a military venture that is sure to kill many innocents?
Could we in the United States ever imagine the lives of foreign people
with such detail and empathy that we would be compelled to act as
morally towards them as we do towards our own friends, families,
Could we ever find a way to believe that the innocent citizens of
Iraq are truly our neighbors and thus are deserving of every respect,
including the courtesy that we not blow them up? As G.K. Chesterton
said, “We make our friends. We make our enemies. God makes our neighbors.”
Can we find a way to really love our global neighbors?
Moral philosophers offer possible answers to such questions, which
lie at the heart of global citizenship. The Greek philosopher Diogenes
declared himself to be not a patriot who owed allegiance to any particular
city-state, but rather to be “a citizen of the world.” The Roman
Stoics said that all human beings should enjoy the privileges of
citizenship because they shared the unifying trait of rationality.
In an Enlightenment treatise that’s rising rapidly in popularity, Perpetual
Peace, Immanuel Kant echoed the Stoic line with a twist, i.e.,
that governments should respect the human rights not only of citizens
but of foreigners, an idea later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
So are we making progress after all? Without a doubt. The United
States is itself the greatest example of that progress, because here
all people are owed government protection of their basic human rights
regardless of race, religion, color, sex, age, caste, or station
of birth. Persecuted refugees from the world over have flocked to
the United States for decades because of this.
But a global war of which Iraq may only become the third (after 9/11
and Afghanistan) major battlefield threatens to reverse this progress.
The erosion of human rights of both U.S. citizens and immigrants,
which is already underway in this country, is one sign of that. So
are the possible deaths – i.e., the loss of the right to life – of
innocents in Iraq. I am not saying that any amount of backsliding
on human rights is indefensible; if the threat to global society
is big enough, surely some amount of loss is acceptable. But if those
rights are being eroded anywhere, as they are now, it should be very
carefully observed and monitored, like a persistent low grade fever.
To extend the metaphor, such a fever should only be tolerated for
a transitional period of time, after which the patient recovers and
goes on to gain new heights of health. When will the present period
of global rights retraction be over? Have we set time limits and
goals? If not, why not?
If the war happens it will be tragic and God-damned, because innocents
will surely die. But if it happens, its explicit goal should be not
simply the eradication of Saddam as a potential nuclear threat, which
is spurious because we all understand that Saddam is deterrable,
as he has been for thirty years. Rather, it should be done for the
express purpose of the liberation of the people of Iraq; and it should
be done without gloating or breast-beating; and only after longer
deliberation and with a genuine commitment to long-term support of
liberal democracy in the Middle East.
And if the war does happen, as seems certain, once the bombs start
to fall there will be only one question, which is, what can we do
What can a global citizen do?
We might ask our boss for a leave of absence and fly to Iraq to help
with humanitarian aid. We could send money for that aid too, of course.
We could also make an effort to find the Iraqi citizens who live
in our area, and reach out to them to talk and share ideas. There
are about 90,000 Iraqis living in the United States, according to
the 2,000 U.S. Census. Find them by asking around at work, at church,
or networking through friends. I did this recently and in southeastern
Minnesota I found a couple of Iraqi-Americans in Rochester, and another
couple of them at a restaurant in Minneapolis. At the restaurant,
I chatted with the owner, and he introduced me to an Iraqi friend
visiting from London, who had a brother who was executed by Saddam.
This man had every reason to hate Saddam, and he does. But he’s also
opposed to Bush’s plan to oust him with bombs.
The reason? “This is something for Iraqis to do for themselves, because
they don’t trust the United States, and it will be a disaster.” He
quoted an old Arab saying to me: “Me and my brother against my cousin;
me and my cousin against the foreigner.” “In Iraq, the U.S. is the
foreigner,” the man told me. “They simply are not welcome by the
Iraqis, but the U.S. doesn’t understand this.” If you ask around,
you’ll surely find Iraqi-Americans with strongly different opinions,
but that’s just part of the process of learning about the messy,
conflicted reality we face as we enter Iraq.
Whatever your profession, you could probably also find some Iraq
angle to research and pursue. If a teacher, what is education like
in Iraq? If a doctor, what humanitarian medical efforts are underway to relieve
the disastrous health effects of the economic embargo of the past
decade? As a journalist, you could find local Iraqis to interview
for the local newspaper. And so on.
The point would be to listen, mainly. Which is just what we haven’t
done much of, either as a government or as a people, before we launched
ourselves into this likely war with Iraq.
We haven’t listened because we’ve been too busy enjoying life, eating
at fancy Indian restaurants, and drinking fine imported beers, and
paying $1.50 a gallon for gasoline and calling it an outrage, and
living like absolute kings.
It’s been fun, but it’s a risky way to live. Just consult your history
books on Rome’s Julius Caesar, France’s Louis XIV, and England’s
George III. The moral: kings that don’t listen always pay the price
in the end.
Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report