Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Thoughts on War and Alienation

By John Bedell

No political event of my lifetime has ever made me angrier or sadder than the impending US attack on Iraq.  I am angry because I think it is a terrible mistake, and sad because the more I think about it the more completely divorced I feel from the majority of my countrymen.  Not only do I think it is a terrible idea, I cannot imagine why anyone thinks it is a good idea.  It would be a moral outrage, a political blunder, and a horrible precedent that will lead to a more violent, more dangerous world.  Yet my President supports it, the Congress, Democrats included, is poised to endorse it, pundits and newspaper editors speak constantly in its favor.  I feel like a character in a Twilight Zone episode, surrounded by normal-looking people who have all gone completely insane.

Why, exactly, should we fight this war?  Bush and his friends like to compare the contemporary situation to Europe in the 1920s, when France and England did nothing to prevent the re-arming of Nazi Germany.  I think they are reading the wrong history.  One of the most important positive developments of the past 60 years has been a growing consensus in the world that countries just don't attack and conquer each other.  A few centuries ago kings routinely went to war to conquer land or even just to win glory, but now almost everyone thinks such wars are wrong.  The amazing coalition that fought the first Gulf War was made possible by the international revulsion against Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait.  If we attack Iraq just because we feel threatened by Saddam, we will overthrow this consensus and bring aggressive warfare back into the diplomatic tool kit.  After all, there are countries all over the world with much better reasons to fear their neighbors than we have to fear Saddam.  We will be saying to them, "If you are strong enough, go ahead--you have a right to feel safe that over-rides all other principles of right or justice."  I cannot imagine any act that would do more to undermine our security in the long run.

What reason do we have to fear Saddam, anyway?  Secretary Rumsfeld said last week that Saddam is a much bigger threat to American security than bin Laden, but that is crazy.  Bin Laden has already killed thousands of Americans and we know he is actively planning to kill more, but we know no such thing about Saddam.  Yes, he is a vicious tyrant, but he is no more vicious than lots of other tyrants we have been friends with over the years.  (Come to think of it, we used to be friends with Saddam.)  Yes,  he is certainly working on nuclear and biological weapons.  But so are numerous other countries.  Maybe he supports terrorism, although his connections to Islamic extremists are certainly weaker than those of several other nations.  Pakistan has nuclear weapons and has long been the chief state sponsor of Islamic terrorism; why aren't we attacking them?  Iran has chemical weapons and is working on nuclear arms, and they also have much closer ties to terrorists than Iraq does; are they next?  How is Saddam a bigger threat than any of these other countries?

Let's suppose we attack  Iraq.  What happens if the Republican Guard, instead of quietly surrendering as some Washington war hawks think it will, digs into Baghdad.  Will we blast them out?  How many Iraqi civilians are we prepared to kill to save them from Saddam's tyranny?  Tens of thousands could easily be slaughtered in such a battle.  If we purposely slaughter tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, how are we any better than Sadam or bin Laden?  Because our cause is just?  What cause?  The cause of feeling secure?  How many deaths, exactly, is that worth?  And how will we know we have achieved our goal?  If our goal is perfect security, then an attack on Iraq will hardly achieve it.  We would have to attack Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and probably half a dozen other nations before we came close.  Tens of thousands more would have to die, perhaps hundreds of thousands--and in the end we might give so many people new reasons to hate us that we would more vulnerable to terrorists than when we started.

Let's suppose we actually succeed in overthrowing Sadam.  Then what?  Will we just leave, and let the place go to hell?  Or will we send in a massive army of occupation and watch it become a fat target for suicide bombers, until all Americans ever hear about the place is how many US soldiers were killed on any given day?  We tried that in Vietnam, and I think anyone who wants to repeat the experience is simply insane. Anyone who thinks it will be easy to replace Sadam is equally crazy; a democratic Iraq is the silliest idea our leaders have come up with since they proposed, with straight faces, a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo.  It won't happen.  Instead, we will have chaos, conflict, social unrest, further economic decay, and yet more reasons for Arabs to hate the US and join our real enemy, al Qaeda.  Neither Bush nor anyone close to him has said one word in public about what comes after this "regime change," and I think that pretty well proves they have no better idea what would come after their war than I do.

I am not a pacifist, but I believe that we should to go war only when there are no other options.  I supported the first Gulf War, and I supported our war in Afghanistan, because in both of those cases I thought we had no real choice.  Saddam's conquest of Kuwait was an outrage that could not be born without grave danger to the whole international system, and the Taliban's harboring of al Qaeda was something we could not tolerate.  It seems to me that with Iraq today we have a perfectly adequate alternative to war: containment.  It worked very well in the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was a vastly greater threat to the US than Sadam could ever be.  There were voices in the 1950s calling for a pre-emptive strike against Moscow, but who now thinks Curtis LeMay and his ilk were right?  Do Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld think we would be better off if the US had attacked the Soviets in 1962?  Maybe they do, but I doubt it.  That Saddam is evil is not in itself reason for a war, because war is also evil.

Americans opposed to the war seem to think that it would be mostly about oil, but I think that is wrong.  The current international oil market is working very well for us, and a war in Iraq would certainly be an economic cost, not a gain.  If the war is fought, it will be fought because Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have been captured by the fantasy that we can achieve complete security through military force. The notion of achieving security through international cooperation, or of becoming safer by acting in a way that causes fewer people to hate us, offends their manhood.  Morality seems not to enter into their calculations at all.  Cheney in particular has been scoffing at the idea that we can't attack people until they attack us first, but in my view that is the only moral way to proceed.

Neither morality nor common sense seem, though, to have any effect on what our government is doing.  I have written to my senators and congressman, and to my newspaper, but there doesn't seem to be anything else I can do to prevent my becoming an accessory to an unjust and stupid war.  So I sit and brood.  I am surrounded by American flags and patriotic slogans, but when I hear our leaders talk about this savagery, I don't feel like much of an American.

September 21, 2002


From the 
Commonplace Book

If only it were all so so simple.  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary  only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human  being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? 

 --Alexander Solzhenistyn


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