Tuesday, August 31, 2004


On war

As usual recently, I'm not sure whether to laugh, scream, or weep at the latest headlines. The most recent cause for my emotional confusion comes from President Bush's conflicting claims that the war on terror is not winnable in a conventional sense, but that we will win it anyway. This is an matter of emphasis or a reversal, depending on your point of view.

I'm inclined to agree with Josh Marshall that although "the president deserves every whack he gets for changing his position twice in three days on the issue he has made the centerpiece of his campaign[,] ... folks should also start using his bobbling to make the point that the issue is less whether the president thinks the 'terror war' is winnable than the fact that he doesn't even have any clear idea of how to fight it."

But I'm also inclined to argue that the issue goes even deeper than this. Bush's argument, by trying to distinguish between "conventional" wars and "other" wars, obscures what all wars have in common--raw military force, untold amounts of bloodshed, and catastrophic social and political effects. Saying this is a "different" kind of war rhetorically (if only implicitly) suggests that this war may not have to include those things. Since this war is unconventional, it can spread liberty. It can be taken to the enemy "over there" and not involve us at all "here at home." It can create democracies instead of gangrenous resentment. It can actually end all evil, instead of eroding a person's moral inhibitions against killing other human beings. This is a "different" kind of war, after all. You know, the good kind.

Other times, of course, it serves President Bush's purpose to argue that this war is unique because it is exceptionally bad. It is an "unconventional" war, with the danger of "unconventional" weapons, so you can forget about a "conventional" peace or "conventional" ways of winning. It has to be fought on different terms. The ordinary (Geneva?) conventions do not apply with the force of command. Abiding by them is beneficent and supererogatory, because this is not a conventional war.

Following these tangled webs makes it hard for me to suppress my own doubt that there is such a thing as a "conventional" war. War is by definition the suspension of conventions. Here I tend to agree with the standard Hobbesian line that the state of war is the absence of society. Good luck trying to govern war, when war is the putative chaos that exists when government breaks down. Besides, even if we could agree in the abstract that wars have conventions, who could possibly devise a generalization that would cover even most of the cases? The "rules" of war are only defined by their exceptions, and I would be willing to bet that every war that was ever fought has been deemed in some sense exceptional by those who fought it.

The convention being cited by Bush at the moment is that "in this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table." But the "peace table" is a romantic and red-herring image for the termination of wars. The Civil War was over before Appomattox, and Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans after the War of 1812 already was over. In reality, sitting down at a "peace table" is not proof that there is a conventional understanding about how to end all wars. Rather, a treaty is proof that one side has sufficient power to define (for its own purposes) how this particular war should end.

But I'm hard-pressed to say which is more dismaying--what President Bush has said, or the fact that John Kerry has fired back that he certainly does know what this war is about, and he can win it. And is raising the cry of "flip-flopping" the best that we can do in response to President Bush's grab-bag of platitudes on war? Can't we do better than beating Bush with his own stick? Can't we actually interrogate our contradictory and ultimately misleading assumptions about war, instead of simply shouting back and forth about who can fight better and longer and with more courage?

This is asking too much of our national debate, you might say. Tell that to Abraham Lincoln. Since Rudy Giuliani and David Brooks have lately taken to linking Bush and other Republicans to Lincoln, maybe, just maybe, the Republicans will listen to him.

I doubt that you would find a resuscitated Lincoln today making arcane distinctions about conventional and unconventional wars--even as a wartime president, his view of combat was too full of tragic irony to make room for pedantic discriminations between what is an ordinary war and what is not. How different are President Bush's formulaic statements that war is hard and must go on, from the deeply moving and ironic realization in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address that the "mighty scourge" of the Civil War had no end in sight.

Perhaps the Republicans would also do well to remember that Lincoln came to his "wartime" presidency with a reputation as an "anti-war" politician. His first claim to political fame on the national scene came from his steadfast opposition to the Mexican War in 1848. A speech he gave on the war seems eerily appropriate today.

Representative Lincoln vehemently criticized President James Polk (who talked a lot about how wars spread liberty) for not having a clear justification for war with Mexico, and for not having a consistent plan for its termination. He especially ridiculed Polk's argument that even after American armies had pushed Mexico out of Texas, the United States needed to conquer more of Mexico as an "indemnity" for the nation's military expenses. Lincoln pointed out that this would involve taking all of Mexico, since every inch of territorial acquisition intended to pay back America's expenses would inevitably involve more expenses, which would then have to be repaid with more territory. That's right--Polk was saying that this was not a conventional war, which meant that it would not end in a conventional way. Lincoln saw that by Polk's logic, the war could not end at all. But I'll let Lincoln speak for himself, with excerpts from his Selected Speeches and Writings:
How like the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream, is the whole war part of [the President's] late message! At one time telling us that Mexico has nothing whatever, that we can get, but territory; at another, showing us how we can support the war, by levying contributions on Mexico. At one time, urging the national honor, the security of the future, the prevention of foreign interference, and even, the good of Mexico herself, as among the objects of the war; at another, telling us, that "to reject indemnity, by refusing to accept a cession of territory, would be to abandon all our just demands, and to wage the war, bearing all it's [sic] expenses, without a purpose or definite object." So then, the national honor, security of the future, and every thing but territorial indemnity, may be considered the no-purposes, and indefinite, objects of the war!
As to the mode of terminating the war, and securing peace, the President is equally wandering and indefinite. First, it is to be done by a more vigorous prosecution of the war in the vital parts of the enemies [sic] country; and, after apparently, talking himself tired, on this point, the President drops down into a half despairing tone, and tells us that "with a people distracted and divided by contending factions, and a government subject to constant changes, by successive revolutions, the continued success of our arms may fail to secure a satisfactory peace." Then he suggests the propriety of wheedling the Mexican people to desert the counsels of their own leaders, and trusting in our protection, to set up a government from which we can secure a satisfactory peace; telling us, that "this may become the only mode of obtaining such a peace." But soon he falls into doubt of this too; and then drops back on to the already half abandoned ground of "more vigorous prossecution."
Hm ... "More vigorous prossecution" of the war is the only way to peace. Don't ask tough questions about when peace will have actually arrived. Sound familiar? If not, how about this ...
All this shows that the President is, in no wise, satisfied with his own positions. First he takes up one, and in attempting to argue us into it, he argues himself out of it; then seizes another, and goes through the same process; and then, confused at being able to think of nothing new, he snatches up the old one again, which he has some time before cast off. His mind, tasked beyond it's [sic] power, is running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease. ... As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant that he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscience, more painful than all his mental perplexity!
Should I laugh or cry?

UPDATE: The attempt to claim Lincoln's mantle for Bush continued in Tuesday night's speeches, both by Laura Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I also read in this morning's paper (use BugMeNot to get past the registration) that earlier in the day, Mrs. Bush and her daughters tested the teleprompter and microphone by reading the first line of the Gettysburg Address, perhaps for the benefit of reporters present?

UPDATE: Charles Sheehan-Miles, a veteran of the first Gulf War, makes some of my points in this post better than I ever could. Please read this.

Collective Improvisation:

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