View from the center


by Lynn McKeown


Words of war


Theodore Roosevelt once said that it was wise to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” America possesses a “big stick” of military power in contemporary times, but we may need to have a soft-spoken, reasoned discussion (if that is possible in the current political climate) of how it should be used. When discussing important matters such as war and peace, we need to look at the words we use and how they are understood – and misunderstood.

Metaphors and symbols are commonplace in the political world, as elsewhere. The "War on Terror," as author Gore Vidal and perhaps others have noted, is a metaphorical war. Oh, but it has the violence and injuries and death of war, some will say. It's interesting how both right and left, proponents of current Iraq policy and opponents, frame their arguments in terms of war, pro-war and anti-war. 

We use metaphors – figurative language – of war and violence quite often. There is the "war against cancer," the "war against drugs," the "fight for" this or that social cause. It seems that, in order to mobilize action on a social problem, we need to frame it in terms of aggression. 

The "War on Terror" came from neoconservative theorists, especially a group of intellectuals associated with the Pentagon, and was supported by some "conservative" publications such as the Weekly Standard and even some liberal publications such as the New Republic. After 9/11 that theory was adopted by the Bush administration, especially two key members, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, who in turn greatly influenced President Bush. This policy was spelled out quite plainly in a White House document soon after 9/11.

Neoconservative intellectuals insist that the correct term for their policy is "War on Terror," not "War on Terrorists" because it is broader than just a way of dealing with terrorists. The War on Terror was to have two parts. One part was, indeed, a policy of combating terrorists. But there was also another part, dealing with "rogue nations," or, to preserve the alliteration, "tyrants," as well as "terrorists." 

Thus, after invading Afghanistan, both a “rogue nation” and a training ground for terrorists, the Bush administration went on to invade Iraq, home of Saddam Hussein, the dangerous (in their view) rogue nation ruled by a tyrant. It was all part of an overall new-conservative plan. Congress, for the most part, went along with the plan – perhaps from lack of nerve, as some say, perhaps because they too bought into the neoconservative theory. (Ex-president Clinton seemed to approve the theory at the time, though, Madeleine Albright, formerly Secretary of State in his administration, did not.)

In the early years of the War on Terror, the Bush administration used the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe what they viewed as the primary foreign threats to America: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The phrase seemed to deliberately call up memories of the “Axis” powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – our enemies in World War II. The phrase “Axis of Evil” seems to have been dropped for the most part in recent years, as it became obvious that there were more differences than similarities between the WW II “Axis” and the “Axis of Evil.”

Later, in a now  embarrassing event on an aircraft carrier, President Bush announced success in the invasion of Iraq, with a banner proclaiming ”Mission Accomplished” in the background. The phrase was accurate if the “mission” was defeating the army of Saddam Hussein, but it turned out to be inaccurate if the “mission” was to create a stable, democratic Iraq.

Some people, especially liberal democrats, often say this is a “war about oil.” It is impossible to prove it is not, though I would argue that this is, at best, an oversimplification. I would argue, rather, that the Bush administration wanted to create a more stable, democratic Middle East, partly to ensure our continued access to the oil of the region. Their plan to accomplish these ends, however, turned out to be badly flawed

Now we’re having some political discussion about another factor in the Iraq situation – the “surge.” Some take that term to mean simply the increase in troop strength. The improved, more peaceful state of parts of Iraq in recent months is attributable, in their view, to our military overcoming the “insurgents.” Others point out that various social factors, such as political negotiations with former hostile elements, have been part of the surge’s success.

And then there is that term “enemy.” There seems to have been many factions involved in the violence in Iraq. There is al Quaeda, the radical  Islamic faction, but also ethic factions, Sunni and Shi’ites, committing violence against each other. We, the U.S., are involved in a “war on terror” against Islamic extremists, but we have also been in the middle of what appears to be a civil war between two ethnic factions in Iraq.  And the American presence in Iraq has, according to our own intelligence agencies, contributed to radical Islamic recruiting.

It sometimes seems, at least judging from many letters to the editor in this and other publications, that there are some people who believe that the events of 9/11 must result in the U.S. making war in a literal sense, using weapons to kill  or defeat people – or we will be guilty of fatal weakness or cowardice. And then there are also those who believe that using methods of war or violence are almost always wrong, and that using weapons of war are inevitably immoral.

To have a discussion of the morality of war in general and whether it is consistent with our Judeo-Christian religious principles is a bit beyond the scope of this  essay, though I would say it is not a completely simple question. (Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but he also threw the moneychangers out of the temple.) But I’ll make a few suggestions toward a hopefully more intelligent discussion of “war” in the modern context.

The U.S. invaded Iraq – went to war against the army of Saddam Hussein. That “war” was over quickly, with U.S. forces (and a too-limited international co-operation, it now appears) successful very quickly. Soon, however, our forces became an occupying army contending with Islamic radicals and insurgents with various motives, while finding ourselves in the middle of a near-civil-war between Sunni and Shi’ite ethnic-religious groups. Now the question is how to remove our troops from this predicament, without leaving Iraq as a chaotic, “failed” state.

The contemporary U.S. is the most militarily powerful nation that exists – now or ever – in the world. The events of 9/11 were dramatic and deadly – and yet they didn’t do any serious damage to our military capability. Subsequently, there have been no more attacks on U.S. soil, and the terrorist attacks in other countries have been tragic but relatively minor. A part of the success against Islamic radicals has come from international police efforts, as well as military action in Afghanistan.

The Islamic radicals are very nasty but by no means superhuman or super-intelligent. And they are a small minority of the world Muslim population who have so-far been mostly ineffective in gaining a wider following in the  Muslim world. And we should keep in mind that our “war on terror” may be more effectively waged by other than military means in many cases. We need to be smart as well as tough.

Now we are engaged to some extent in a discussion of the wisdom – or lack of same – involved in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This is relevant to  the extent that it reflects on the judgment of the presidential candidates, with Obama having spoken against it and McCain supporting it. But at  this point, the U.S. is in Iraq as an occupying military force, and the important  question now is how to proceed – how best to disengage from the situation which is costing much in blood and treasure.

Presidential candidates, as well as others in this election season, should be discussing what it means to have a “war on terror” and how best to deal with Islamic extremists and with rogue nations. We need to think wisely about when and where to use military force and when to use other means. The U.S. is the world’s superpower. We need to “speak softly,” and think intelligently, as well as carrying a “big stick” – to be used only when absolutely necessary.