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A War That Cannot Be Won

Tags Big GovernmentGlobal EconomyU.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyWorld History

05/20/2005N. Joseph Potts

After years of grueling war, victory must be close at hand. America's fighting men and women have defended the flag and advanced freedom's cause on battlefields across the globe in their hundreds of thousands, and of these, thousands have rendered their last, full measure of devotion. Congress has placed the economy on a war footing with annual appropriations in the tens of billions of dollars, even while authorizing the steadily mounting national debt. American arms have triumphed over those of their enemies wherever the two have met.

Soon, ticker tape will cascade on the ranks of our victorious warriors as they march home down Wall Street and Main Street. Flags will snap in the American breeze as orators proclaim a nation's gratitude for the hard-won peace that once again will grace the nation's plains and mountains, because if September 11, 2001 had been Pearl Harbor, as many at the time said it was, V-J (Victory over Japan) Day would be May 20, 2005. Photos of sailors kissing nurses in Times Square will become famous for capturing the mood of joy and relief after 1,347 days of war. Perhaps even another baby boom will ensue.

Don't hold your breath. Do you remember the day Iraq surrendered? Afghanistan? Well, neither do I, and from what I hear of conditions on the ground for American occupiers, it is often very much as though there had been no surrender at all. Like FDR, George Bush got his war, but he went his Democratic predecessor one better—a big one better. Bush's war is against an "enemy" that never will—indeed, never can—surrender: Terror itself. And unlike the metaphorical wars on Drugs and Poverty launched by intervening presidents, this war is a real one, involving tanks and bombers, soldiers and sailors, and enormous expenditures on war materiel, and just as unwinnable.

And here, for the person truly concerned with the welfare of humankind, American and non-American alike, may be the first lesson of bogus wars: never enlist in a war against something or someone that can't surrender. Such a war can never lead to a victory, which is its primary virtue in the value schemes of those fomenting it: it just goes on and on and on generating power for the state and those who support it, exactly the way former President (and General) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his famous 1961 farewell speech on the "military-industrial complex."

The term "the home front" is far more apt than its creators intended. Its meaning, of course, was a reference to the vital role in the conduct of hostilities played by those who worked in factories producing munitions and the means to deliver them to the enemy. Eventually, the term expanded to encompass virtually anyone participating in any activity deemed productive by those fashioning the war culture, from teachers indoctrinating the next generation of soldiers to farmers growing beans and other comestibles suitable for packaging as rations.

But the term has another meaning that not only cuts far closer to the literal meaning of the phrase, but is of far greater importance. This is, that to every person at home who favors the prosecution of the war, those others at home who do not favor it perforce become another incarnation of the enemy, deep in the bosom of the hinterlands. Along with "coward" and "traitor" have come into use more-sophisticated and specialized terms such as "fifth column" and "fellow traveler."

But that's just the name-calling. It stands to reason that proponents of the use of violence against foreigners who displease them will also have ready recourse to the same methods against their own countrymen who oppose their project. Some of those opposed to war may stand and be cut down like sheaves of wheat before the scythes of their opponents, while others will choose, in the desperation of self-preservation, to employ the very methods they deplore. If not long before, it is here where war degerates for all to see into senseless killing of innocents along with the guilty.

If the country is prosecuting a war, that war, like charity, begins and ends at home. It is fought, usually metaphorically, but all too often with real weapons, in the byways and hallways of every place where two people of opposite view might find themselves together—and it can be quite as lethal as the bombing and shooting that may be half a world away. Comity with one's neighbors is, with truth, the first casualty of war.

The title of Randolph Bourne's unfinished essay, "War Is the Health of the State" says it all so succinctly that one can overlook the more-important point of the sentence regarding the ill health, even death, that war visits upon virtually everything else of value, including security, leisure, learning, prosperity, and progress of any sort other than the advancement of destructive technologies and organizational methods.


So, on May 20, you may reflect upon the euphoria that swept the United States and many other countries, even the vanquished in a very real sense, and resign yourself to the fact that "terror" will not surrender on that day, nor on any day no matter how much blood and treasure are squandered in misbegotten crusades to "defeat" it. Or, you might train yourself to believe the endlessly repeated lie about the perpetual war that ran through George Orwell's 1984: "We have always been at war with . . . [the current enemy]."



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N. Joseph Potts studies economics at his home in South Florida. Send him mail.

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