The intangible costs of war

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The front page of the New York Times informs us today of the President’s words — all two of them — as he prepared to publicly send the nation to war: “He gave a little shake of his fist, according to a person who saw the scene on a television monitor, turned to someone in the room and said, ‘Feel good.'” Well, there you have it. At least one of us felt good.

He had, the piece said, previously met with “the members of the team that had also been at his side through the war in Afghanistan.” And I thought, with George Lakoff’s piece about metaphors (sent out yesterday) still in my head, perhaps that was exactly the right image for this Presidential moment. A team, a sport, a game, a contest. The sort of thing you can feel good about. The final score 103-19. Not bad. (Only the other day at his news conference on the Azores, the President had wielded another game image. The French had showed their cards, he said, poker in mind.) He’s a game gamester, our leader.

And with that in mind I glanced below the Times‘ stacked front page photos — of an explosion in Baghdad and the President speaking — at a “military analysis” piece by Michael Gordon and found this image, “If the attempt to wipe out the Iraqi leadership is not successful, the United States is still preparing the knock-out punch.” Evidently, we were also in some deadly boxing ring. The lead piece of the day, though, had quite a different image: “Mr. Bush decided to act on fresh intelligence indicating an opportunity to decapitate the country’s leadership early in the war.”

An execution of the most grisly, medieval sort. The “decapitation” of a “target of opportunity” was, in fact, the image du jour on TV last night — and it clearly came straight out of Pentagon-speak. It turns out that, however “embedded” journalists are in front-line units, the Pentagon is even more embedded in our prime-time and cable “units.” Tom Brokaw spoke of “the importance of decapitating the Iraqi leadership at the start of the war,” and someone else on NBC said, “I’m intrigued by this decapitation gambit” (a mix of grisly execution and game imagery). On the other hand, General Barry McCaffrey, NBC’s military expert, commented sagely, “It’s a huge payoff if we can nail the monster himself.” (I leave that mix of imagery to you to classify.)

And so it went for the long night, while everyone waiting fruitlessly to be “shocked and awed” talked in the obviously cool as well as distinctly chilly language of the Pentagon (and perhaps its contractors). The equivalent of penis envy on American wartime TV turns out to be weapons envy. America’s latest weaponry is presented in elegant graphics. The planes and missiles pirouette slowly, elegantly, like so many dancers as commentators lovingly describe – “caress” wouldn’t be to strong a word — them. One announcer spoke of the “package” being “inserted.” (This turned out to mean the planes and missiles just then attacking Baghdad.)

Whatever this is, it’s something truly strange and unnerving — and it’s certainly a triumph for the Pentagon. No foreigners, unless they were reporters left in Baghdad after almost all the Americans pulled out, no Arabs, and certainly no war critics appeared, not while I was watching anyway, while tons of former generals who had been involved in one or another of America’s recent wars were wheeled out to commentate away. Given what’s triumphantly sweeping over us at the moment, I thought I might provide a small hint from writings picked up here and there of the kinds of deeper losses — other than sanity and our language — we may be suffering at this distinctly imperial moment. Believe me, never has opposition been more needed.

William Pfaff, a level-headed columnist for the International Herald Tribune, had a piece today in the British Guardian (see below) in which he argues that, no matter how this war turns out, we will be entering a new era not of imperial order but of “post-imperial disorder,” thanks to the centrifugal forces we ourselves have let loose (and are now blaming on the French). He reaches, as have so many of the best critical writers for some historical analogy which might make sense of all this — and cites the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. His column is another way of saying something I’ve been arguing for a while: We could win Iraq and lose the world.

Jim Lobe, in a piece in today’s Asia Times, Costs of war by far outweigh benefits agrees, though he turns to a different historical moment. His last line: “But just as when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the crossing of US troops into Iraq without a Security Council or NATO mandate now marks the point of no return.”

In another of today’s commentaries on the losses that lie within a possibly quick and victorious war in Iraq, William O. Beeman of Pacific News Service splits the historical difference by reminding us how long the Crusades lasted. He suggests that the President’s post-9/11 “crusades” reference was no slip of the tongue. Planned for years by the administration’s hawks, this war has long been cast as the beginning of a holy mission, a religious war to remake the world. His piece begins:

“In the car lot of foreign relations, Americans have been sold a lemon — a creampuff called ‘the war in Iraq.’ Just as car dealers know that luxury features can be key to selling a vehicle, the promised ‘short war’ feature appears to be the clincher in selling the war to many Americans. However, the invasion of Iraq is not a conventional war. It is a war being cast in terms of crusade and mission, and it is seen from some corners as anti-Islam. And religious wars are never over quickly.”

Paul Rogers, geopolitical analyst for, carefully considers whether this war will actually be a “cakewalk” as promised, or not, while in the Los Angeles Times, Professor Andrew Bacevitch mulls over the deeper loss that lies somewhere within Lobe’s crossing-the-Rubicon analogy. He argues that as this administration has raised force to the first principle of foreign policy, we have, as a republican nation, lost our way and are now succumbing to a new style of militarism.

Finally, of course, there are the deeper losses; not just the impossible-to-measure human ones in Iraq, here, and in the global political order, but the effects on the environment which are almost impossible to grasp, no less measure. With the first oil wells in Southern Iraq evidently alight today, the Gulf region may yet again become an environmental catastrophe area, as a piece in the Washington Post suggests. (For those of you who want to re-imagine the Iraqi “no fly zones” environmentally also take a look at the Reuters story, Migrating Birds Could Fly into War.)

The “battlefield” itself, wherever else it may be, has now become, almost by definition, a vast environmental hazard, an area over which, actual fighting aside, one would have to put a sign: This land is dangerous to human health. And then there is the cost to the earth of the fact that we don’t even have the energy left to consider the matter of global warming, no less a government willing to do so. Tom

Don’t blame the French
By William Pfaff
The Guardian
March 20, 2003

And so we go to war, the United States, Britain and Australia – alone. George W Bush and Tony Blair see this as a Churchillian moment: alone? So be it. If their troops are received in Basra by surrendering Iraqi soldiers, and by Iraqi civilians cheering their liberators, they say all the rest will be forgotten.

We shall soon know.

We can expect the war to be run with more professionalism than the diplomacy that has led up to the war.

These past two weeks have recalled Freedonia going to war in the film Duck Soup, except that the Marx Brothers meant it to be funny. The lugubrious diplomatic nadir was surely the British proposal that war might be called off if Saddam Hussein went on television to say “sorry.”

To read more Pfaff click here

On the Eve
By Paul Rogers
March 19, 2003

The war to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime is about to start. Both its aims and operation will be quite different from the 1991 conflict – because this time, the regime itself is the target.

The intensity of the first two or three days will create a very high expectation that the war will be over in a week. Will that be so?

The lessons of 1991

In 1991, a coalition of more than thirty countries was assembled to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Substantial troop deployments from Egypt and Syria joined the US, Britain, France and twenty-nine other countries to make up forces of around 600,000, almost half of them ground troops.

The coalition’s war aim was to liberate Kuwait and massively damage the Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi war aim was essentially regime survival.

To read more Rogers click here

The Nation at War
Force Has Emerged as the Preferred Instrument of American Policy
By Andrew J. Bacevich
March 20, 2003

The United States won the 20th century. It became, as the journalist Henry Luce had prophesied, “the American Century.”

By the end of the 1990s — victorious in two world wars, emerging triumphant from the long, twilight struggle with the Soviet Union — the United States had achieved a position of unrivaled strength.

As they entered the new millennium, Americans saw little reason to doubt that this era of American ascendance would continue indefinitely. They interpreted the nation’s global preeminence as evidence of a providentially ordained design, unfolding according to plan. They took it for granted that the juggernaut of democratic capitalism was destined to sweep the world. That the emerging age of globalization would be compatible with American values and interests seemed certain.

Atop this new order, the United States would preside, unchallenged, secure in the knowledge of its good intentions, its republican virtues intact.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University and is the author of “American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy” (Harvard University Press 2002).

To read more Bacevitch click here

Impending War Threatens Gulf Environment
By Eric Pianin
The Washington Post
March 19, 2003

Experts warned this week that a war in Iraq will cause “massive and possibly irreversible” environmental damage to the Persian Gulf region and significantly add to the problem of global warming.

As about 250,000 U.S. and British troops prepared to move against President Saddam Hussein’s forces, international environmental leaders said the ensuing damage to Iraq’s ecosystem and food and water supplies may eclipse the destruction to that region during the 1990-1991 Gulf war.

“I think it will be comprehensive damage and I don’t think it will be localized to the area of Iraq, regardless of how precise and surgical our bombing campaign will be,” said Ross Mirkarimi, a San Francisco-based environmental analyst who made two trips to Iraq shortly after U.S.-led forces drove the Iraqis from Kuwait. “The pollution will travel in areas that will compound the damage that still remains from the 1991 military campaign.”

To read more of this Washington Post piece click here