Saturday, June 18, 2005


Conceding Afghanistan

I get easily frustrated by critiques of the war in Iraq that begin by using the war in Afghanistan as a foil. Such critiques first concede that the latter was unquestionably just, and then use the presumptive legitimacy of invading Afghanistan as a way to question the invasion of Iraq. Here's an example:
The war in Afghanistan was a necessary result of the 9/11 attack on America. We had to eradicate the nest of devils who were using that country to plan and launch and coordinate the downfall of our nation.

The same can't be said of the war in Iraq. As evil as Saddam was, he posed no imminent threat to us, and he was essentially incapable of aiming more than rhetoric at his neighbors.
As I've said before, I'm always uncomfortable with descriptions of war that use words like "necessary" and "result." War is always a chosen response, not an inevitable effect. Saying we "had to" invade Afghanistan because of September 11 immediately forecloses any discussion of more imaginative and ultimately productive responses to terrorism. By giving the war in Afghanistan the virtue of necessity, you shield it from criticism. And if it's pointed out that the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan has not been solved by war, or that the human costs of decades of war on the civilian population of Afghanistan are almost unimaginable, the ready response is that the war was a "necessary result," an event without agency whose effects are therefore without responsibility.

Even more troubling is the way that talking about the war in Afghanistan so often serves as a loophole for critics of the war in Iraq who still want to vent some dehumanizing rage about terrorists. Our faceless enemies in the warrens of Afghan mountains become a "nest of devils," our war against them nothing more than a big can of Raid. That's precisely the kind of rhetoric that underwrites the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive war; we "eradicate" terrorists where they are so that we will not have to fight them here. So if you disagree with that doctrine, you should also refrain from framing war as a kind of pest control. That perception of our enemies as demonic anthropods is probably a large part of the reason why the war in Iraq, no less than the war in Afghanistan, can be accepted by so many Americans as a necessary, rather than a willful, act. Who needs a reason for stepping on a cockroach or blowing up a gopher hole?

Collective Improvisation:

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