My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side.
We find ourselves this weekend at a crucial point in the evolution of the post-World War II international system, with many concepts and institutions long taken for granted now appearing nearly obsolete. Unbelievable things have happened over the last year and half. On the day it all started - September 11, 2001 - I was ensconced at the Manila Elks Club drinking Jack Daniels and watching CNN (horrified) as the story unfolded (see Apocalypse on September 11th).
I am similarly horrified now, with a digitally randomized Dylan soundtrack flashing me back three decades and fueling free associations and anxieties about an increasingly chaotic world that seems to be spinning out of control.
What's the heck is going on here anyway?
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side...
According to Webster, war is "a state of open and declared armed hostile conflict between political units (as states or nations)". But that's the definition of an international judge or legal specialist. The OED definition opens it up a bit by defining war as "any active hostility or struggle between living beings; a conflict between opposing forces or principles," allowing for metaphorical or non-violent clashes. But formal definitions don't help much in understanding today's GWOT (global war on terrorism), a vague and ambiguous animal that doesn't fit very well into neat definitional boxes.
The Prussian theorist Karl von Clausewitz defined war as a "continuation of political intercourse by other means". But that was in the days of limited war, an era when states used carefully crafted statesmanship and regularly faced off in a minuet of controlled violence. For several decades after the defeat of Napoleon, relations among European states were characterized by a delicate calculus of war-under-control. Bismarck, the most renowned practitioner, engaged in small imperial wars, occasionally dealing out brief but crushing defeats to the Austrians or French just to teach 'em a lesson. The British, of course, dispatched a few gunboats now and then to protect the Empire. War was rational and finite, a rather unpleasant but ultimately safe tool of statecraft.
That system was swept away by World War I (rightly referred to as the Great War). For the first time, nations arrayed themselves against one another with the single-minded objective of wiping each other off the map. Total war. The remainder of the 20th century saw war and carnage of a magnitude never before imagined. And the 21st century seems destined to bring more of the same.
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.
Allow me to call on my tired old neurons to recollect a few ideas from the dustbin of an aborted academic career as political scientist. Being terminally ABD (all but dissertation) gives me an excuse to dabble, not to mention access to just enough residual knowledge to make me dangerous.
Anyway, not to ask too difficult a question, but: Why are we humans always killing one another?
Many theorists have emphasized biology, with the main theme being that man (emphasis on the male of the species) is naturally aggressive, traceable back to the cave and the fact that early hominids had to kill to survive. Not to mention that our ancestors were often at the mercy of predators and that the necessity and joy of the primal hunt shaped our early collective consciousness. Good hunters were admired, and those who died in the hunt were commemorated.
Death in that context represented an ultimate sacrifice, and the killing of prey brought with it deliverance. Violence became a sacred act, simultaneously conquest, defense, and blood sacrifice. Later, when the beasts were conquered, men turned their aggressive instincts on one another, leading to a world of brutal conflict and cultures of warrior elites, as epitomized in literary sagas from the Iliad to the Sands of Iwo Jima.
Other writers have emphasized the role of cultural factors and social institutions. In ancient states, war was a community endeavor, and in many traditional societies wars were highly ritualized. They were also tightly constrained, with the violence played out according to a culturally defined script. When two tribes had a grievance, they often designated warriors who would sling a few arrows at one another; one might even have to be killed. But when it was over it was over. Everybody knew when the wrong was righted, and life went on.
And you can't deny the role played by culture in creating warlike and aggressive values in a particular society. Americans have internalized myths about the frontier, many with a subtheme of conquering the continent: Daniel Boone crossing the Cumberland Gap with his long gun slung over his shoulder or the frontiersmen and gunslingers marching resolutely westward towards the Pacific, doing whatever necessary to ensure manifest destiny. If the original inhabitants had to be eliminated by whatever means necessary so be it; after all, God was on our side.
Then there are psychological explanations, starting perhaps with Plato's statement that "wars and revolutions and battles are due simply and solely to the body and its desires." Freud traced the origins of war to the death instinct, and Dosoevsky wrote in Brothers Karamazov that "In every man, of course, a beast lies hidden-the beast of rage, the beast of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the beast of lawlessness let off the chain."
Gee, is there any hope for us?
War had its day
And the Civil War too
Was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes
I's made to memorize
With guns in their hands
And God on their side.
The current GWOT and the apparently inevitable American invasion of Iraq, with or without UN support, can also be seen in terms of long-established American myths about war-images handed down from the American revolution and the Civil War (it was, after all, General Sherman who said that "war is hell").
Note that I am not being unpatriotic here - I may have that old leftist bent, but I did spend four years helping Uncle Sam fight evil in the world (defined at the time as the Vietnamese as puppets of the Reds) and I treasure fundamental American values (especially those related to free speech and the right to oppose misguided policies by particular administrations) (see Fear and Loathing in Manila for an example of free speech at work).
I am, however, concerned that those values and freedoms are being eroded, and at an increasingly rapid pace. The original American wars were fought for great and noble causes - the Revolution created freedom and democracy as we know it, and the Civil War (a holocaust in which more Americans wearing both blue and gray were killed than in all other US wars combined) dismantled the horrible institution of slavery and led to a unified and powerful America.
The Spanish American War, a less noble conflict, also looms prominently in this mythology. In less than half a year, we destroyed the last vestiges of the decrepit Spanish empire, liberated Cuba (picture Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill) and freed the Philippines from the feudal Spaniards, bestowing upon them the wonders of modern hygiene, the English language, and democracy. We also brutally suppressed the Filipino opposition and civilized the natives with our Krags, but that's another story.
World War II was the archetypal good war. From the moment those bombs fell on Pearl Harbor on a quiet Sunday morning (the day that lives in infamy), there was no question what had to be done. Evil incarnate, in the form of the Japanese (soon joined by the Nazis), had to be dealt with in an intense crusade against tyranny, fascism, and oppression. That War remains the central reference point for the way many Americans view international relations. Thus, it's not surprising that the ready parallels drawn between Pearl Harbor and 9-11 have carried so much emotional weight.
American Presidents have a long history of using the metaphor of the war during peacetime as well. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his inaugural speech, pledged the nation 'to wage a war against the emergency' of the Great Depression. The Cold War was fought against the Red Menace and LBJ declared war on poverty.
Now George W. Bush has declared war on terrorism. How it will play out and how the Iraq invasion will impact the entire world remains an unanswered question.
All through my whole life
If another war starts
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side.
The Bush administration's messianic approach hasn't helped much. In addition to alienating virtually the entire world outside America, the administration simply refuses to recognize the reality that many aspects of international relations fall into gray areas. In the Dubya worldview, good and evil are clearly defined and everything - and that means everything - falls into one end of the continuum or the other. Just watch Fox News Network to see just how black-and-white this whole thing has become. Good Americans favor war. If you're against the war you're unpatriotic at best and a traitor at worse.
That's hard to accept for a commentator like me who's real big on gray areas and believes that complex issues have to be grappled with analytically, intellectually, and humanely.
A related subtext is the pervasive belief that America now possesses such overwhelming power that wars can be fought and won at minimal cost in human lives. At least American lives - (in the Gulf War, about 100,000 Iraqis perished, as compared to 148 Americans). That sense of invulnerability was reinforced by the relative cakewalk in Afghanistan.
World War II is now a historical memory for all but the oldest American citizens, and the flickering images on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite showing American boys being killed in 'Nam are distant memories. When Americans think of war today, their reference points are sterile CNN images of blinking jet plane consoles, aerial images of radar sites down below, smart bombs zooming into smokestacks, Tommy Franks giving a briefing with a flipchart, and fighter planes screaming down onto the decks of massive aircraft carriers.
Just like a video game.
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.
Real wars are not video games, as evident in examples such as:
- Genghis Khan's warriors entering a small town and forcing the residents to line up on both sides of the street so his horsemen could gallop down the street in formation lopping off their heads.
- The Battle of the Somme, at which the British suffered 60,000 dead the first day, and the Battle of Verdun, where nearly a million men perished.
- American GIs fighting their away across Saipan in 1944, at the cost of 14,000 casualities (with the Japanese suffering even heavier losses).
- The instantaneous incineration of over 200,000 human souls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- In Vietnam, Bouncing Betties cut men in half, cluster bomb units ripped bodies to pieces, and napalm burned the skin off children (I had a number of friends whose names are among the 58,691 inscribed on the Wall)
It's altogether possible that Rumsfeld's rosy prognostications will hold true that that it will take just a few days to remove Saddam and occupy Baghdad. But even in that best case scenario, thousands of innocent Iraqis, including women and children, are almost certain to be slaughtered.
It's also possible that terrible things will happen. What if Saddam manages to land a couple of payloads of chemical and biological weapons? What happens if one of his loyalists infects himself with smallpox and starts an epidemic in Paris? What if one of Iraq's scuds manages to slip through the defenses and hits Tel Aviv with biological weapons and the Israelis reciprocate with nukes? What if several simultaneous terrorists attacks are unleashed stateside? What if the entire Mideast explodes in one way or the other?
None of those hypotheticals can be ruled out, which in my opinion makes this whole campaign one of the great crapshoots in human history, with the highest stakes ever placed on the table. And even if we are fortunate enough to have Dubya roll a natural and collect the short-term chips, the precedent being set does not bode well for rolling back mankind's violent history of mass destruction in search of political goals.
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.
[Credit: With God on Our Side, written by Bob Dylan ©Special Rider Music (SESAC), 1963, renewed 1991.]