What We Mean When We Say ‘War’

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 III.”)

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.”)

We would not only be ending states that sponsor terrorism but liberating them.

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 wasn’t war.

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 do I.

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 with.

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 are dead.

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.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

What We Mean When We Say ‘War’