Why Are We Still at War?
The United States began its war in Afghanistan 88 months ago. "The war on terror" has no sunset clause. As a perpetual emotion machine, it offers to avenge what can never heal and to fix grief that is irreparable.
For the crimes against humanity committed on Sept. 11, 2001, countless others are to follow, with huge conceits about technological "sophistication" and moral superiority. But if we scrape away the concrete of media truisms, we may reach substrata where some poets have dug.
W.H. Auden: "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
Stanley Kunitz: "In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking."
And from 1965, when another faraway war got its jolt of righteous escalation from Washington's certainty, Richard Farina wrote: "And death will be our darling and fear will be our name." Then as now came the lessons that taught with unfathomable violence once and for all that unauthorized violence must be crushed by superior violence.
The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan owes itself to the enduring "war on terrorism," chasing a holy grail of victory that can never be.
Early into the second year of the Afghanistan war, in November 2002, a retired U.S. Army general, William Odom, appeared on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" program and told viewers: "Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It's a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we're going to win that war. We're not going to win the war on terrorism."
But the "war on terrorism" rubric -- increasingly shortened to the even vaguer "war on terror" -- kept holding enormous promise for a warfare state of mind. Early on, the writer Joan Didion saw the blotting of the horizon and said so: "We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of Sept. 11 to justify the reconception of America's correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war."
There, in one sentence, an essayist and novelist had captured the essence of a historical moment that vast numbers of journalists had refused to recognize -- or, at least, had refused to publicly acknowledge. Didion put to shame the array of self-important and widely lauded journalists at the likes of the New York Times, the Washington Post, PBS and National Public Radio.
The new U.S. "war on terror" was rhetorically bent on dismissing the concept of peacetime as a fatuous mirage.
Now, in early 2009, we're entering what could be called Endless War 2.0, while the new president's escalation of warfare in Afghanistan makes the rounds of the media trade shows, preening the newest applications of technological might and domestic political acquiescence.
And now, although repression of open debate has greatly dissipated since the first months after 9/11, the narrow range of political discourse on Afghanistan is essential to the Obama administration's reported plan to double U.S. troop deployments in that country within a year.
"This war, if it proliferates over the next decade, could prove worse in one respect than any conflict we have yet experienced," Norman Mailer wrote in his book "Why Are We at War?" six years ago. "It is that we will never know just what we are fighting for. It is not enough to say we are against terrorism. Of course we are. In America, who is not? But terrorism compared to more conventional kinds of war is formless, and it is hard to feel righteous when in combat with a void..."
Anticipating futility and destruction that would be enormous and endless, Mailer told an interviewer in late 2002: "This war is so unbalanced in so many ways, so much power on one side, so much true hatred on the other, so much technology for us, so much potential terrorism on the other, that the damages cannot be estimated. It is bad to enter a war that offers no clear avenue to conclusion. ... There will always be someone left to act as a terrorist."
And there will always be plenty of rationales for continuing to send out the patrols and launch the missiles and drop the bombs in Afghanistan, just as there have been in Iraq, just has there were in Vietnam and Laos. Those countries, with very different histories, had the misfortune to share a singular enemy, the most powerful military force on the planet.
It may be profoundly true that we are not red states and blue states, that we are the United States of America -- but what that really means is still very much up for grabs. Even the greatest rhetoric is just that. And while the clock ticks, the deployment orders are going through channels.
For anyone who believes that the war in Afghanistan makes sense, I recommend the Jan. 30 discussion on "Bill Moyers Journal" with historian Marilyn Young and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey. A chilling antidote to illusions that fuel the war can be found in the transcript.
Now, on Capitol Hill and at the White House, convenience masquerades as realism about "the war on terror." Too big to fail. A beast too awesome and immortal not to feed.
And death will be our darling. And fear will be our name.