This is war fever full of threat
and portent and gravity.
It's the idea that "everything has changed" that time has
been cleaved in two. We are different people, and different, harsher,
uncharacteristic things are required of us.
It's my colleague's desire to confront the issue of terrorism
"by any means necessary." It's my almost-18-year-old daughter's
need to do "something, anything" rather than do her homework. ("Can
you recommend some books about war?" she asks, and I'm delighted
that I can they are among the best books, after all.) It's
my own sudden interest in reporting from Kabul or Baghdad or Islamabad.
(My father was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps stationed in Karachi
during WWII.) It's Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather quite
obviously in some anchorman heaven.
We're all onboard.
During a recent evening of war fever, Ted Koppel hosted the core
of the Reagan-Bush foreign-policy establishment (much of the new
war effort makes the interlude between Desert Storm and now
the great, delicious American boom feel like just a diverting
fantasy): Brent Scowcroft seemed wise, Lawrence Eagleburger (with
a few more rings of jowls) oracular, Ken Duberstein sagacious. It
did not seem to matter much to me, or to Ted Koppel, that when last
seen, these were among the most standard-issue of apparatchiks,
or that their present view and analysis of the coming conflict appeared
practically incoherent. (We have to "get inside these networks,"
offered Scowcroft. We have to have "a comprehensive strategy that
is not indiscriminate," said Duberstein.) It does not matter either
that if you parse the words of the various newly designated war
correspondents "It would appear that bin Laden is operating
with a high level of sophistication," said ABC's John Miller
it is strikingly clear that no one knows what they're talking about.
What matters is that the talk is of war just saying the word
war, openly and unafraid, proudly even, is enough. "A semi-declared
war," said Koppel. ("This, truly," said Geraldo, presiding over
his own, much younger war panel the next night, "will be World War
We would not only be ending states that sponsor terrorism but liberating
There are, I think, two types of war that
we're imagining might occur (to the extent that we're imagining
any shape or course or strategy). The first is a pure revenge, blood-lust
scenario, a massive retaliation. ("The full wrath," the vice-president
has said, "of America.")
This, however, is still just pro forma onslaught. After a decade
of such bombardments, this may not really satisfy our current requirements
for being at war.
If this be war, it has to be different from what we've done that
I believe we're looking for some greater accomplishment. When
we say war and think war, we're invoking it in a grander, more classic,
Greatest Generation sense that is, to occupy, subjugate,
and, ultimately, reform. That might be an expeditionary force of
300,000 or 400,000 or 700,000 troops in Kabul an endless
convoy of green jeeps entering an all but silent city (how many
troops can Kabul accommodate?) along with massive aerial
bombardments of military encampments and staging areas, followed
by the Special Forces going in and bringing out, as the vice-president
has suggested, Mr. Bin Laden's head on a platter (the fact that
the Afghans defeated the Soviets is worrisome but then again,
that was the Soviets).
In this type of war, we would not merely be punishing our enemy
but beginning the process of remaking his world. We would not merely
be ending states that sponsor terrorism but liberating them (and
so that someday we might drive Afghan cars).
You do not know if my tone here is ironic or not and neither
After all, who can doubt that the ultimate mitzvah for the Afghans
would be to free them of the Taliban? (An e-mail from an Afghan
immigrant went around last week, which rabbis and ministers instantly
took to quoting, about bin Laden being Hitler, the Taliban the Nazi
Party, and the Afghans themselves not good Germans but Jews in concentration
camps and while the argument here seemed against invasion,
it would seem to strongly justify it, too.)
Overnight, the entire mind-set and lexicon of two generations
of bad wars, of complex international sensitivities, of peace studies,
of cultural relativism, has been set aside. There has been a stampede
to the other extreme, with heretofore peacenik-ish Americans suddenly
confident that the armed forces, if unhampered by politicians and
bleeding hearts, can handily accomplish any task. People in the
military have gone from the bottom to the top of the class. (Aaron
Brown, the new CNN anchor, eager to discuss his own military service,
seemed to be flirting on air with retired general Wesley Clark.)
Ann Coulter, the Republican-blonde television personality, who
can always be counted on to articulate the most visceral conservatism,
suggested that we not only occupy and subjugate various unspecified
Islamic capitals but convert their citizens to Christianity. And
certainly she was more right than wrong in reflecting what the country
is thinking: Transform them into something that we can get along
Within our pure war fever, however, there
is a quandary. This quandary is not so much, as with other modern
wars, that we haven't defined the objectives, but that we haven't
defined the enemy.
Who are these fucking people? continues, well after the
attack, to be a frustrating as well as frightening question.
Indeed, there exists, however hard to accept, the possibility
that the fateful Tuesday was simple dumb luck the bizarre
convergence of their extraordinary plan with our monumental incompetence
and negligence and that all nineteen of our worst enemies
And yet, that logic of wild cards and loose cannons does not mean
that the next time it won't be the entire city that is annihilated.
At least for the time being, a story has been established, which,
so far, we appear to accept. It's that a comic-book figure
an ascetic hiding in the mountains, a multimillionaire who would
have long since run out of cash if he'd done all that he's accused
of doing (last week he was briefly thought to be a stock-market
manipulator) and who does not even communicate directly with his
soldiers is responsible. Dead or alive, we'll take him.
As a story, even as pure construct, bin Laden may be more true
than not there could be an evil sort of genius somewhere.
Or it may be pure distraction (in a time of war, we cannot count
on the truth).
Soon, almost surely, we'll begin to hear different, less simplified
views. Last week the inveterate researcher and occasional conspiracist
Edward J. Epstein was forwarding notes about Mohammed Atta
"possible a.k.a. Mohamed Atta, Mahmoud Abed Atta, Mahmoud El-Abed
Ahmad" and his possible connections to the Abu Nidal organization;
other reports had Atta meeting with an Iraqi intelligence official
in the months before the attack. It will become both clearer and
fuzzier a rich literature, well beyond bin Laden, of operatives
and fellow travelers and elaborate financial provisions and the
interests of competing power bases. And likely, the characters and
motivations in this drama will descend from fanaticism to some much
more basic realpolitik.
One danger, and political hot potato, of course, is that, when
revealed, the enemy may turn out to be the Gulf states (friend and
foe alike Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Iraq) unleashed
by our own Gulf War and the failures of the president's father and
many of the men now getting ready to run the present war.
It means something that even the politicians
are calling it war (for the past several generations, whenever we
have fought wars, politicians have called them something else).
But simultaneous with the president's declarations of war, there
is a different background drumbeat about the difficulties of this
new type of war (how this is different from the new type of war
of the past several generations is not entirely clear), that it
will have to be fought by unconventional means (read: by something
other than armies) and its ultimate outcome will be, at best, ambiguous.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, often considered to
be the brains of the outfit, proclaimed within hours of the attack
what seemed to be the administration's clear war-fever doctrine:
We will end states that supported terrorism.
This unambiguous doctrine stood for a few days, but was then discarded.
What we would end is the support of states that supported terrorism.
It seems too obvious not to note (without necessarily being conspiracy-minded)
that the men in charge Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz
represent, save for the Clinton years, the past quarter century
of the defense establishment.
What might not be intuitive is that they don't necessarily want
to go to war. If the military has learned anything in the era of
modern warfare, it's that there is almost never a Greatest Generation
result, and that the military always gets blamed for that failure.
The best way, then, to protect the military from inevitable blame
is to keep it from fighting much of a war.
The president's speech last week was bellicose without really
being warlike. He defined the threat of terrorism as broadly as
possible. The theater extended across 60 nations. It was a battle
of rationality against fanaticism. It was the modern world against
the foes of modernity. He gave a concise, unhappy sketch of the
fault line that exists in the world.
What was not clear is who all stood on the other side.
In some sense, what he was demanding was less a war than an accounting.
We had to get rid of the philosophical and political double booking
that let Muslim governments, religious leaders, and businessmen
side with both the modern and the anti-modern.
He was declaring war on sympathy much different from the
cathartic, Greatest Gen-type war I think we've been imagining these
past few weeks.
We will, I think, manage the incremental fight against terrorism
better now we'll have an Office of Homeland Security. We
will likely produce a bin Laden head on a platter. Almost certainly
possibly as you read this we'll be dropping a serious
payload on top of someone (or on top of some mountains). And there
will be plenty of new money for intelligence activities producing
a whole new genre of spies. And airport security will be better.
But, for better or worse, we are a long way from knowing how to
go to war.
Last Week: The Waking
Nightmare -- and the Dawn of Life in Wartime