Tuesday, December 12, 2006

We Are Not At War

Now that England has openly admitted it, I feel a little less alone in speaking the unspeakable out loud:

We are not at war.

It's a hard thing to say. This is the dirty little secret that every American, from the most flag-waving right-winger to the most hand-wringing left-winger, carries around in the deepest chambers of their hearts, afraid to even think it, much less say it out loud. We spend all day in public spaces discussing the ramifications of our current war, how to resolve the war, why we went to war, and so forth. But when we're alone, in the quiet spaces of our mind, that fleeting thought lurks at the corners of our perception: this is not a war after all. And we know it to be true.

But, we think, what about the terrorists? If we don't wage war with them, then won't they get us? Won't they blow us up? The answer to that is, perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps they'll blow us up anyways. But starting wars in other countries won't stop them from doing whatever they plan to do. Starting real wars with real armies and real guns in order to stop those who use espionage methods against us is sort of like trying to kill bacteria with a baseball bat: not only won't it work at all, but you'll probably smash up a lot of your apartment trying.

Terrorists are stopped by police. Terrorists are stopped by intelligence agencies. Terrorists are stopped by the international cooperation that comes from an unwavering commitment to real diplomacy. Read any Tom Clancy or John LeCarre novel if you don't believe me. Nobody ever caught a terrorist by throwing an army at them.

The terrorists want us to think this is a war. In their minds, they are soldiers in a legitimate confrontation. 9/11 was a provocative act. It was specifically intended to provoke us into thinking we were at war. But that doesn't make it so. By buying into their claim that this is a war, by following their lead, we have lent legitimacy to their narrative. We support the story that they sell to their recruits. We prop them up even as we assail them. It doesn't matter how many terrorists we kill when in so doing we breed them at a greater rate. But there's no scoreboard, no number of dead terrorists after which we get to say we won. In order to stop terrorism, we have to stop the flow of terrorists. We have to defeat their narrative that this confrontation is valid. We have to stop fighting them on their own terms, in an arena of their choosing. Because if this is not a war, then they are not soldiers. If this is not a war, then they are nothing more than criminals, mere murderers.

This is not a war.

Congress did not declare war. In fact, it's been so long ago that Congress actually passed a declaration of war, and we've thrown armies into open-ended conflicts so often, that to speak of war hardly makes sense any more. The President declared it to be so, and shouts it to us often. He wants to be a "wartime president." In fact, he desperately needs to be a "wartime president" in order to make any kind of sense out of his own actions. But the Constitution quite explicitly states otherwise. A real war requires a hard, deliberative choice made by us, not by the President, nor by those who would pick a fight with us in order to magnify their own sense of importance. We decide. They don't decide for us. Besides, the President said it himself, long ago: "Major combat operations have ceased."

We are not at war. In fact, we never were.

This truth is the principal source of unease in our gut. It's the shaky feeling of vertigo we get as some part of us becomes aware that this overriding issue, this single framework that rules over every single aspect of our politics today - has no legs. It makes us uneasy when our leaders speak of "victory," when we don't know what "victory" means. What would it look like? Will one of our generals sit down at a table with the grand poobah of all terrorist groups and make him sign a declaration of surrender? Will the CIA prove that the last terrorist has now been caught or killed? If so, how could they prove such a thing? Will there be a tickertape parade and we'll get all our freedoms back?

How do we win a war that doesn't exist?

It's OK, America. We are not at war. Really, it's OK. Everything can be OK. We don't have to fight any more. We can do our best to stop terrorist plots and catch terrorists without having to send our children to fight and die halfway across the world in the wrong country. We can begin to secure our ports and our transportation systems and our water supplies, like we always should have. We can work with other countries instead of against them, to help convince their people that we really don't want to kill them, and to help actually catch anyone who tries to kill us. We don't have to fight anyone. They can't make us. And it's not too late to stop fighing. It's never too late.

We are not at war. This is not a war.

It's just a mistake.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are so right that the terrorists want us to think that we are at war. boy oh boy do Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Baker, Bush Sr. and the rest of their terrorist network want us to be at war and think we are at war - a long war!

December 12, 2006 at 12:23:00 PM PST  

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