UNTIL THE WAR begins, one must insist that it is not inevitable. The conventional wisdom is that the United States, having already deployed its massive fighting force, cannot back down from the assault against Iraq without humiliation -- and a grievous loss of ''credibility.'' But that ''wisdom'' fails to take into account the most basic fact of military strategy. ''Violence is most purposive and most successful,'' the theorist Thomas C. Schelling wrote, ''when it is threatened and not used. Successful threats are those that do not have to be carried out.'' The Bush administration seems confused about this, as if the movement from threat to action is inexorable. Why else would Washington manifest such consistent indifference to the obvious success its threats have been having with Saddam Hussein? The tyrant has steadily bent to Washington's will and shows every sign, despite his bluster, of continuing to do so.
To put the question another way, why has Washington not declared victory, explaining that this slow yielding by Iraq to a range of pressures -- inspector Hans Blix on one side, General Tommy R. Franks on the other -- is what victory looks like now? Instead of a loss of credibility, this solution short of open warfare could be said to represent the triumph of lethal threat combined with political process, a supreme example of military force used with real power.
Essential to that power is restraint. But instead of laying claim to this accomplishment and building on it, Washington seems intent on squandering its achievement and going to war -- despite the steady accumulation of good reasons not to. Why?
The horrors of war have moved to the forefront of the common mind as D-Day draws nearer. But those who would stop the war are up against more than Washington's belligerent obsession with Saddam. Below all of the Bush administration's stated reasons for the necessary movement from threat to violence, the clear inadequacy of those reasons suggests that something else must be at work. What could it be? That question requires hard thinking about the other side of war -- not its horrors, but its attractions. Could it be that an unconscious wish to be at war -- any war -- has been driving George W. Bush and his circle all along?
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great priest-scientist, served as a medic in the trenches of World War I. He saw war's horror up close. But he saw the other thing, too.
''The front cannot but attract us,'' he wrote, ''because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what you are already aware of and what is still in the process of formation. Not only do you see there things that you experience nowhere else, but you also see emerge from within yourself an underlying stream of clarity, energy, and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere else in ordinary life.''
It seems clear that Bush's sense of himself as a war president, a man of ''the front,'' is the source of ''clarity, energy, and freedom'' that would otherwise never be his. Leaders and whole nations have gone to war exactly as a way out of the ambiguities and alienations of ''ordinary life.'' They have defined their purposes in the high rhetoric of honor and glory while satisfying the basest of needs, which is to escape from mediocrity.
President Bush would not be the first leader to take his people into war for such a reason, nor would America be the first country to welcome it for such a reason. Indeed, for a time the entire nation might draw a kind of vivid sustenance from being at the ''extreme boundary'' where human performance is acute, choices heroic, ''the fog of peace'' replaced by a crystal vision of life's preciousness, made possible, ironically, by its being wasted.
As those old enough to remember Vietnam know -- those honest enough to admit it -- this extreme boundary would become the realm as much of those who hate violence as of those who indulge it. A life built around high-intensity opposition to war can also be a life rescued from the mediocrity of mundane experience.
There is a painful truth here that all must acknowledge. If this nation does indeed move, against all reason, from threat to violence, ''clarity, energy, and freedom'' will belong as much to those whose purpose is to stop the war as to those who fight it. ''This exaltation is accompanied by a certain pain,'' Teilhard observed. ''Nevertheless it is indeed an exaltation. And that's why one likes the front in spite of everything, and misses it.''
What Teilhard confesses liking here, and missing, was the place where 10 million men died and another 20 million were wounded and maimed. Yet of all the horrors of war, isn't this the most grotesque -- that human beings, even exemplary ones like Teilhard, can like it?
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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