A war fought in the subjunctive

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In yesterday’s New York Times, the lead story by Eric Schmitt and Elisabeth Bumiller, “U.S. General Sees Plan to Shock Iraq Into Surrendering,” reported in its opening paragraphs that “the plan calls for unleashing 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours of the campaign.” Other accounts have spoken of 800 cruise missiles landing in those same hours. Many of these undoubtedly will be targeted on Baghdad and its vicinity, a metropolis of many millions of people. My question is: when can we start to talk about this as a crime of war?

I live in New York, after all, where just two planes, hijacked by fanatics with box cutters, crashed into just two buildings, large though they were. Researchers claim that many New Yorkers have lived with some version of post-traumatic stress syndrome ever since. I certainly know New Yorkers (and visitors to New York) who won’t, for instance, take the subway for fear of a vial of who knows what being released. The attack on the World Trade Center, with its almost 3,000 dead, was clearly a crime against humanity for which the perpetrators deserve to be hunted down relentlessly and put away for life. But if that act was a horror capable of rallying the world (until, of course, the Bush administration un-rallied them), then how will we categorize “shock and awe” over Baghdad (or Basra or wherever else), an event which I fear is coming all too soon? As Barry Commoner once said of nuclear power — this is a paraphrase — it’s like trying to ring a doorbell with a battering ram. At least Dresden and Hiroshima were firsts of a sort. Now, we know. We’ve had almost sixty plus years to consider the nature of any decision to devastate a major urban area from the air.

By the way, if ever I were to give a course in how to read the American elite press, here would be my first piece of advice. Try starting each article from the final paragraphs. It’s in those paragraphs, often the liveliest and most fascinating — deep in the paper and far away, meant only for news junkies –where a reporter at a place like the New York Times or the Washington Post is finally free to slip in the news that for whatever complex reasons doesn’t quite qualify as consensus news.

Take that
New York Times piece
on the war plan yesterday. Here are the final paragraphs:

“‘If your template is Desert Storm, you have to imagine something much, much, much different,’ General Myers said, issuing a warning to journalists who plan to cover any war from Baghdad. ‘I would just be very, very careful about how you do your business.’ In 1991, allied aircraft conducted a 39-day bombing campaign before ground troops moved into Kuwait. Commanders this time plan a nearly simultaneous attack by land, air and sea.

“General Myers said that throughout the campaign, the American military would go to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to avoid civilian casualties.

“‘But we can’t forget that war is inherently violent,’ he said. ‘People are going to die. As hard as we try to limit civilian casualties, it will occur. We need to condition people that that is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it’s not going to be.'”

“General Myers said that throughout the campaign, the American military would go to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to avoid civilian casualties.

“‘But we can’t forget that war is inherently violent,’ he said. ‘People are going to die. As hard as we try to limit civilian casualties, it will occur. We need to condition people that that is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it’s not going to be.'”

So in those final paragraphs the good general managed, as a start, to issue a potentially news-chilling warning to the press — especially assumedly to the hostile press like the Arab TV network al-Jazeera — about covering the war from the other side. It’s the sort of thing you don’t highlight in the polite society of the front page of the Times. But it’s also a fascinating little window into the Pentagon’s attitude toward war coverage. If the press for this war can’t be embedded, it’s going to be tossed out of bed fast.

To put his “warning” into context, here’s a paragraph from a recent Ian Urbina piece in the Asia Times, The other air war over Iraq:

“The Bush administration has also not been among al-Jazeera’s fans. After the World Trade Center attacks, the State Department called the station ‘inflammatory’ for airing a 1998 interview with bin Laden. In November 2001, US forces bombed its Kabul office. The Pentagon said it was an accident, but some at al-Jazeera were not so convinced. But as Brian Whitaker has reported for the Guardian of London, this time the station is not taking chances. ‘We’re giving the Americans the coordinates of our office in Baghdad and also the code of our signal to the satellite transponder,’ an al-Jazeera correspondent remarked. ‘We will try to give the Americans the whole information about where we are in Baghdad, so there will be no excuse for bombing us. But we are worried.’ “

Then, of course, there are the general’s final comments on casualties, now on the record in the Times, should anyone ask. It’s obvious that you can’t dump vast numbers of powerful weapons into major urban areas and not have all sorts of casualties — but, of course, the greatest casualty will be to Iraqi society itself, to its basic infrastructure of electricity, water, sewers and the like. Not “antiseptic” will hardly cover the matter, even in the paper of record.

Here, by the way, are final paragraphs from the other two articles that just happened to be on the same inside page where the general’s comments made it into print. Both were on the Turkish vote:

“‘Military to military, they speak the same language, they work out their scenarios,’ said the Turkish official. ‘But ultimately it’s the political authority that must take responsibility. The administration could have done a better job understanding that fact. They were told again and again this would not be an easy thing to do.’

“But within the Bush administration the mood has been one of frustration and puzzlement. ‘No question there was serious disappointment,’ said a State Department official. ‘There is still a desire to see what might be possible.’ But officials say they are not confident of success.”

(“Powell Says U.S. Can Wage War on Iraq Without Turks” by Steven R. Weisman)

“‘For 40 years, the U.S. got whatever it asked for here,’ [Mr. Zapsu, an aide to Mr. Edogan] said. ‘But Tayyip Erdogan is not that way. He really believes in democracy.'”

(In Defeat of U.S. Plan, Turks See a Victory for Democracy by Dexter Filkins )

As the final paragraphs of the Weisman piece indicate, American foreign policy today is largely run out of the Pentagon and its emphasis is invariably “military to military,” which means, of course, that you’re likely to miss a few details — giant demonstrations, massive turns in public opinion, rogue parliamentarians and the like. What follows are three pieces on what the new, fully militarized, triumphalist American foreign policy looks like, and looks like it’s about to do. First, from Jack Beatty of the Atlantic, comes a striking summary of the urge in Washington to launch an aggressive war, a piece not to be missed; then, Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times yesterday reminding us that our Secretary of Defense gets off on Genghis Khan (the Mongols’ fire and brimstone approach to war being a possible model for what’s going to happen — after all, they burned Baghdad to the ground in 1268); and finally the pastor of a Protestant church in the Washington area discusses George Bush’s religious triumphalism in the Washington Post. (Is the President, in fact, a fundamentalist heretic in espousing “the myth of redemptive violence, which posits a war between good and evil, with God on the side of good and Satan on the side of evil and the battle lines pretty clearly drawn”?) Mix together the Pentagon, the oil hawks, the Likudniks, and the fundamentalist elements and you’ve got a potent combination — the ideological equivalent of a dirty bomb loosed on the world. Tom

In the Name of God
By Jack Beatty
The Atlantic
March 5, 2003

Unless a coup topples Saddam Hussein or he goes into exile, the U.S. will soon mount the first unprovoked war in its history, the first fought in pursuance of a doctrine under which we claim the right to attack nations that have not attacked us but who might, who could, who would if we do not strike first–a war fought in the subjunctive, based on a string of “ifs.” If Saddam possesses usable weapons of mass destruction and if, to take a scenario George W. Bush takes seriously, he builds a fleet of pilotless drones and if he somehow gets them out of Iraq and if he builds or hires ships and launches his drones from them and if he has found a way to make the drones spread weapons of mass destruction and if it is not a windy day.

To read more of Beatty click here

What Would Genghis Do?
By Maureen Dowd
The New York Times
March 5, 2003

WASHINGTON It’s easy to picture Rummy in a big metal breastplate, a skirt and lace-up gladiator sandals.

Rummius Maximus Pompeius.

During the innocent summer before 9/11, the defense secretary’s office sponsored a study of ancient empires – Macedonia, Rome, the Mongols – to figure out how they maintained dominance.

What tips could Rummy glean from Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan?

Mr. Rumsfeld would be impressed, after all, if he knew that Genghis Khan had invented the first crude MIRV (a missile that spews out multiple warheads to their predetermined targets). As David Morgan writes in “The Mongols,” when the bloodthirsty chieftain began his subjugation of the Chinese empire in 1211, he had to figure out a way to take China’s walled cities:

To read more of Dowd click here

Of God, and Man, in the Oval Office
By Fritz Ritsch
The Washington Post
March 2, 2003

The National Council of Churches (NCC), together with a number of peace organizations, recently ran an ad on CNN and Fox in which a bishop of the United Methodist Church, to which President Bush belongs, criticized the Bush administration’s relentless war rhetoric. Going to war with Iraq “violates God’s law and the teachings of Jesus Christ,” said the bishop.

It may confound people that some mainline Protestant churches continue to resist the president’s call to arms. After all, it is couched in theological language: The term “axis of evil” was coined to give the war on terrorism a religious edge; President Bush speaks of giving the people of Iraq not democracy, but freedom, harkening back to both the biblical Exodus and the Civil War.

The Rev. Fritz Ritsch is pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company

To read more of Rev. Ritsch click here