Thursday, September 28, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/28/06)


"What if they gave a war and nobody came?" This catch phrase, popular during the Vietnam War, echoed the unhappiness of Americans over the glaring inequities in the application of the Selective Service Act, better known as the draft, and the flagrantly obvious mismanagement and futility of the war. The so-called "War on Terror" now being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan with diminishing success needs a similar catch phrase. Since 1973 our army has been an all-volunteer force; the draft inequities that have plagued every war since the Civil War are not a factor in our discontent. But the mismanagement and futility of such wars are with us again--this time in spades.

What we need now is a catch phrase that embodies the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves: a nation unhappy with its government, especially its executive branch and even more unhappy with its legislative branch; a society that has grown distant from its military, and a military that has been worked nearly to the breaking point and has come to believe that nobody gives a damn about them. For those in the military, there's no end in sight, only the day-to-day reality of sudden death and the hope of one day returning to the peaceful, totally oblivious world back home. Unlike the closely reported Vietnam War that played out in grisly color on TV screens in our living rooms, this time the government did not make the same mistake. Censorship rules govern what little we see of the fighting in our $300 billion war on terror. Even photographs of flag-draped coffins are taboo.

The Victorian Era spanned most of the 19th century. During Queen Victoria's reign, a tiny country, Britain, aggressively expanded and consolidated the British Empire until maps of the world had predominant patches of red showing its far-flung colonies. Britain's crowded industrial cities provided the poor and unemployed young men who took the Queen's token shilling for enlisting and left their bones to bleach white in the mountain fastnesses of India's North West Frontier Province or the rolling hills of the South African veldt.

Similarly, America is replaying that imperial scenario. Unable to find work in anything but service industries because our heavy industry has gravitated overseas, our unemployed young men and women have responded to the blandishments and enlistment bonuses of military recruiters and signed up. Like the regiments that served Britain's imperial ambitions, their fate is now to be cut down in some foreign field in a war of doubtful legitimacy and at a horrendous cost in blood and treasure.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the phrase "war on terror" was not coined by George W. Bush. Its roots are actually in the Reagan administration, which came into office declaring that a war on terror would be the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Ronald Reagan called on all nations to band together to counter "the evil scourge of terrorism." George Schultz, his Secretary of State, called state-backed terrorism "a plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself, a return to barbarism in the modern age." Their war on terror was conducted in two areas: Central America and the Middle East. Interestingly, the very first time the Reagan administration encountered a massive act of terrorism--the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in 1982--it cut and ran. Yet the Bush administration characterizes any attempt at early withdrawal from Iraq as cowardly cutting and running.

If we are indeed engaged in a genuine war on terror, why has there been no definition of terror? A U.S. Army manual defines terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature ... through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear." The official U.S. Code, the body of laws we live by, gives another definition: "Terrorism is the use, or threat, of action which is violent, damaging or disrupting, and is intended to influence the government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause." Where can the line be drawn between international terrorism and aggression?

Paradoxically--and this may be the reason so little is said about definitions of terrorism--if either of our definitions were strictly applied to the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may be guilty of terrorism. Similarly, the official U.S. definitions of counterterrorism (also called "low-intensity conflict," "fourth generation warfare" or "counterinsurgency") have a virtual resemblance to definitions of terrorism. The Nazis in occupied Europe, for example, claimed they were defending the legitimate (read "occupied" or "puppet") governments from the resistance--partisans who received instructions, money and weapons from abroad. U.S. facilitation of the largely foreign mujahideen imported into Afghanistan during the Russian occupation is another example of the blurred line between terrorism and resistance.

The Charter of the United Nations recognizes "the right of self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right ... particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes or other forms of alien domination (i.e., foreign occupation)." What could be fairer as an example of self-determination than encouraging the Iraqi government to hold elections to allow voters to decide whether the occupation should continue? That would certainly give us a face-saving excuse for exiting Iraq with a semblance of honor.

In its infancy, this country learned just how difficult it is to know where resistance ends and terrorism begins. Only about one-third of the colonists actively backed the Revolution. King George III, of course, considered the self-denominated Patriots to be terrorists. Those who wished to preserve the status quo were called Loyalists or Tories. Persecution of Loyalists started with mob action by secret societies like the Sons of Liberty for whom tarring and feathering were the least of their punishments. It continued throughout the Revolution, and included the confiscation of Loyalist property. At first, Loyalists resisted in scattered bands, but soon enlisted by the thousands in the British Army. New York alone furnished some 15,000 troops to the redcoats and another 8,000 Loyalist militia. Other colonies furnished similar numbers. In all, there were about 50,000 Loyalists serving as soldiers, either regular or militia, who swore allegiance to the king. New York actually supplied more troops to George III than to George Washington.

President Bush is fond of saying that the world has changed since al-Qaida struck on 9/11, apparently forgetting that al-Qaida had telegraphed its intentions by striking the World Trade Center eight years before. Our world has indeed been on a downhill slide since the events of 9/11, but largely because of the President's impulsive reaction to it. Instead of treating 9/11 as a crime and enlisting the police agencies of the civilized nations to regard al-Qaida as a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down, brought before an international court and given appropriate sentences, we decided to go it alone and attacked Afghanistan, where we succeeded only in driving the Taliban into the mountains. Next we made the fatal mistake of attacking and occupying Iraq. We compounded this error by declaring Iran to be a sworn enemy. More recently we backed Israel's war against Shiites in Lebanon. Soon every unemployed Muslim or disaffected malcontent was claiming al-Qaida's successes as his inspiration. Osama bin Laden's tiny and financially strapped organization reaped its reward: an infusion of cash and a host of would-be jihadists all over the Muslim world. The rest, as the saying has it, is history--but it is a history whose final chapter has yet to be written. Sadly, it may not be written by us.


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