The word “war” is used for convenience, the motive being to attach the highest order of gravity to a military engagement, actual or prospective. It is encouraged on its rhetorical mission by the solemn exercises that often accompany it. These are most notably a formal request by the president of the United States to the United States Senate to declare that a state of war exists. Not many need to be reminded that that constitutional choreography is not widely practiced. We didn’t do it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq I, Vietnam, or Korea.
Why then do we tolerate the word? There isn’t any way to tame word usage to appropriate and sensible limits, so that we will continue to have “wars” against obesity and acne, but when the same word is used to describe an ongoing military situation we are entitled to ask for its bona fides.
The events of September 11, 2001, were as much a declaration of war as the events of December 7, 1941. And although the Japanese enemy was far more formidable than the forces of Osama bin Laden, the execution of his strike against us was brilliant, inventive, and humiliating. When you dwell on the incapacity of the Grand Armies of Japan, Germany, and Italy to drop a single bomb on the United States mainland in four years, you get some sense of the magnitude of Osama’s operation.
So it was always clear that we would strike back at Osama, and we did. The next thing we did was identify the land or vessel from which the killer instruments sprang forth, and now technology began to cool conventional analysis. The deadly instruments were made in America and were launched from such humdrum sites as Boston and Newark airports. This was the high point of the art of hijacking. Unarmed American planes killed 3,100 people.
The President of the United States sprang into action and declared war on his own authority. In so doing he was spared the obligation of naming geographic or ethnic or religious entities against whom we were warring. Having all but subdued Afghanistan, we moved on to Iraq for reasons that did not bear directly on the transgressions of 9/11. The pilots had been Saudis, for the most part, the financing was done by al-Qaeda, supervised by bin Laden. The administration has urged the public to view Afghanistan and Iraq as a common place, fit for retaliatory war before they get around to launching another 9/11.
But we conquered Afghanistan and caught Saddam Hussein, who presumably will eventually be hanged, but nothing much has happened to lower the intensity of our rhetoric — we have become warriors through and through. The only thing that makes this plausible is that a fight rages on in Iraq. Although we conquered Baghdad, we have not quelled the anti-Americans. On top of which, we came to lose sight of just what it is that has provoked them to anti-Americanism. Starting in, we took it for granted that that part of the world was an al-Qaeda world inflamed by Islamic radicalism. This helped a bit, because if it was radical Islamism that we were to contend with, that at least gave us a goal post. But the line of sight between our cannon and their goal post was never for one instant clear. There was no equivalent of Hitler’s bunker or Tojo’s headquarters.
Many reporters on the scene tell us that the suicide fighters are motivated not so much to kill one more infidel as to drive one more infidel away from their sacred land. Some Muslim of prominence intoned a while ago that he looked forward to a world ruled by an Islamic caliphate. That reminds some of us exactly of Admiral Yamamoto announcing soon after Pearl Harbor that he looked forward to dictating the terms of the peace in the White House.
We should all be ready to go to war to defend Christian individualism and the separation of church and state, but who-all is pressing this point beyond western endurance? Herbert Agar defined in the late thirties what he called “the anarchic passion to smash.” That fever accounts for much that has been going on in the world, the bloodletting in Indonesia and in the Philippines (unrelated movements), and in Ireland and Libya. We are lucky we didn’t swoop down on them as qualified targets for our current war. Israel knows it can count on us if it gets into deep trouble, and Iran poses a problem sui generis, along with North Korea, with which it is related not at all.
Is it that we are, simply, at war with the anarchic passion to smash; here and there; now and in the future; to be quelled, but without gentrifying the engagement into a real war?