The Russians call World War II "The Great Patriotic War." The current longest of our wars could well be called the same thing. It is a war that originated in the orgy of patriotism ("U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!") that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and has been sustained by the patriotism of those who support it ("Our soldiers are defending American freedom") and false promises of some latter-day prophets ("We are winning the war in Iraq.") It is likely to be revived by the Iranian attack that the McCainites see as their main chance of winning the election.
The president was right in his spontaneous reaction when he first heard of the attack -- "This is war!" The subtext was, "Now I'll be a wartime president and people will forget about Florida and how Antonin Scalia stole the election." The Arabs had killed 3,000 Americans; we had to kill at least that many of them.
The issue was: Which Arabs? The obvious target was Saudi Arabia. Most of the terrorists were from that country, indeed products of the religious education that the country provided for its devout young men. But the Saudi royal family has excellent relations with the American oil companies. So very early in the discussions the neo-cons in the administration began to promote the idea of attacking Iraq. The road to Jerusalem, they argued, is through Baghdad. The administration's neo-cons were (and are) very heavy thinkers. They write great memos. The days when the country was hesitating, some of them found a story about cooperation between al-Qaida and the Iraq government that seemed to legitimate an attack on Iraq. Some of their allies in the media, most notably the Wall Street Journal, insisted that this fable was true.
Much of the literature on the Longest War finds it hard to explain how the decision was made to attack Iraq. Poor Scott McClellan had it part right in his book. The administration, influenced by the memos of the neo-cons, decided that toppling Saddam Hussein would restructure the Middle East to American advantage. But that was a thesis too complicated to sell to the American people. Therefore, the desire for patriotic revenge was used in combination with fear of Iraq's (as it turns out nonexistent) weapons to launch a great patriotic war. The Republican Party continues to rely on this lethal combination to win elections.
National security means kill Arabs. We get our revenge by protecting our children. We start a patriotic war in the name of self-protection and spread patriotic gore by killing Arabs. Neat!
It is not the first patriotic/revenge war on which the country has embarked. Remember the Maine. Remember the Alamo. Remember Fort Sumter. Remember Pearl Harbor. The psychology for whipping up revenge in the name of patriotism has always worked. World War II was a just war, but the mix of patriotism and revenge made it easy for the American military to firebomb out of existence 50 Japanese cities and to destroy a couple more with atom bombs.
Are the American people guilty of a war crime because of the Iraq war? Surely the leaders who cooked up the excuses for the war are. So, too, are the national media that allowed patriotism to silence them. So, too, are those ordinary Americans who almost insisted on some kind of patriotic gore. On this weekend in which we glorify -- with good reason -- our patriotism, we might examine our conscience about what phony patriotism has caused us to do. A third of the American population supported the war and has now changed its mind. It might be wise for such folk to prepare answers to the kinds of questions God might ask about phony patriotism.