Saturday, January 15, 2005


Are wars necessary or chosen?

Two things have become clear about our war against Iraq. First, since weapons of mass destruction have not been found and are no longer being sought out, it is hard to resist the following impression: We chose this war not because we were sure that the enemy possessed the weapons we most fear, but precisely because we were not sure that it did.

President Bush was right from the very beginning when he said that we claim the power to fight our wars at the times and places of our choosing. This has been the aspiration of our defense policy for half a century -- not permanent peace, but the permanent ability to choose only those wars we believe we can win. Our definition of securing the homeland is to so arm ourselves with overweening might that every conceivable war can be won.

Yet if it is increasingly clear that we chose to fight the war against Iraq because we judged it to be our most vincible enemy, it is ironically also becoming clear that we cannot even win the war we judged to be the easiest.

Americans often forget that the United States resisted entering World War II as long as possible, because we were not sure that we could win. It has only been since the end of that conflict that we have been possessed with the illusion that we can create, by the force of our own military hegemony, conditions in which there is no war that cannot be won. But it is only since this illusion gripped us -- that we are or can be invincible -- that we have been defeated in war. That is the perpetual irony of our national security calculus: we want to arrange things so that victory is assured, but so far this has proven to assure our only defeats. We entered this war because its success was determined to be the most probable, yet even it will not give us the satisfaction of complete success.

So why choose to fight wars at all? Because wars have been declared upon us: that is the most common response. Our deaths have been caused by our enemies, so we must cause our enemies' deaths. But is war the only response to declarations of war, which come in the form of murderous and infamous acts against our loved ones and compatriots?

In other words: Is causing death the necessary response to caused deaths?

The answer to that last question is clearly negative. Our reaction to the recent deaths of more than 150,000 South Asians is proof that we are capable of responding to death with charity and peaceable goodwill toward the living. It even demonstrates that we can respond charitably and peaceably by using the very same resources -- planes, helicopters, aircraft carriers -- that we call upon to deliver destruction and death.

Why has our response to these undeserved deaths been different from our response to the far fewer undeserved deaths of September 11, 2001? The answer, of course, seems obvious; the question ridiculous even to ask. Against what enemy would we wage a war to avenge the lost lives in Banda Aceh? Would we beat against wind and tide? What can we obliterate in response to this obliteration?

Our reaction to deaths caused by natural disasters suggests that the same calculus which governs our choices about war guides our decisions about when to declare war impossible, and charity thus the only response. For in the case of the Indian Ocean, we have run up against a force of mass destruction that we cannot ourselves destroy. We cannot kill this enemy; the asymmetry of its power to ours is overwhelmingly in its favor. So of course we respond to the death it causes not by causing death, but by nurturing life.

All wars are finally chosen only because they can be waged against beings that can die. When compared to the absurd idea of winning a war against the brute forces of nature -- tsunamis, mudslides, lightning bolts -- all wars against human beings seem relatively capable of being won. We choose war in general for the same reasons that we chose the Iraq war in particular: because victory against any human enemy appears more probable than victory against the cosmos itself. That is an opposing force whose hegemony we cannot even approach.

But here is where this line of thinking leaves us: Our politicians construed this war against Iraq as necessary, when in fact it becomes clear that it was a war caused not by necessity, but by the accidental truth that it was deemed capable of being won.

The same is true, however, of war itself. We construe war as the necessary response to caused deaths, when in fact war is chosen in light of the accidental fact that there is something to defeat, which is to say someone whose death we also can cause.

If Iraq was chosen as our battleground because we could not win against North Korea, for instance, then war itself is chosen only because we cannot win against things we cannot kill. When these things kill us, we have no choice but to respond in peace. But that proves that in all other circumstances, we actually do have choice -- either to wage war or to wage peace. We convince ourselves that war is ineluctable, but then the world itself reminds us how to define ineluctability, and shows us that war is completely avoidable by comparison.

Being able to respond to deaths with charity and goodwill thus requires being able to see that the murders of innocents by tsunamis are no different than murders caused by terrorists. While the difference between these kinds of death seems essential, they are in fact only contingently different -- made so not by an absolute difference in the grief suffered or the loss sustained, but by the accidental fact that one kind of death is caused by a being also vulnerable to grief and loss. We fight wars at the time and place of our own choosing.

Collective Improvisation:
You've crystallized here something which I've been talking about in looser terms for some time now in regard to both Iraq, Israel/Palestine and North Korea. It is conceivable (not by policy types, but by us amateurs) that a better response than force (or threat of force, or sublimated force as in sanctions) to hostility clearly born of fear and want would be cooperative generousity. Usually when I bring up that option it is seen as "rewarding bad behavior" but since there's a great deal of blame to go around in these situations, I prefer to see it as "interrupting the cycle of violence." 

Posted by Jonathan Dresner

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/16/2005 09:32:00 PM : Permalink  

Jonathan, they can say that I'm a dreamer, but it's good to know I'm not the only one.

In some ways, these discussions do have to take place outside the realm of policy debates, because policies can only be formulated within a certain range of "thinkable" possibilities. If people snort at the idea of "interrupting the cycle of violence" as a bad policy, they are making a category mistake. What we're doing is not so much proposing a specific policy to solve problems like the ones you name, as we are trying to provoke people to look at these problems themselves in a totally different way.

Before we can even propose a policy of "cooperative generosity" (I like that phrase), we have to be able to conceive of there being an alternative to war. That's what's difficult, I think, for most people (including myself) to do, and it's a difficulty caused less by lack of expertise than by lack of imagination.

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/17/2005 08:36:00 AM : Permalink  

I need to write a paper on Wars in school. Can someone help please? I need more info. on Bush, and when the war started. Why the war started, and didnt we have two wars?! one stopped, and we found another reason to go to war again? 

Posted by lily

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/13/2005 06:46:00 PM : Permalink  

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