Remember the “Vietnam Syndrome”? If the term sounds to a later generation like some sort of disease, it’s because wanting to attack much smaller countries is now viewed in far too many quarters as normal, and reluctance to attack is instead considered some sort of pathology.
And so, we now see the palpable frustration of various chicken hawks and wanna-be warriors on the evening news and in the op-ed pages, chafing at the bit as the Bush administration considers which country to impale next. The Philippines? Saudi Arabia? North Korea? It’s a world of possibilities.
But somehow, the debate keeps coming back to Iraq. It’s not that Iraq, as stage two in the nearly forgotten goal of “eradicating terror,” had any even alleged links to the attacks of Sept. 11, or that Washington has produced any actual evidence of Iraqi development of future weapons of mass destruction—let alone their present existence, let alone that they threaten any neighbor, let alone that they threaten the U.S., let alone that their use is at all likely.
Meanwhile, we’re happily sucking up to the oil-rich Saudis—whose country produced most of Sept. 11’s hijackers—and we toast Pakistan, whose militants opened fire on India’s Parliament building. The guy who tried to blow up an airplane with his footwear came from London. But we didn’t bombard London, just as we didn’t flatten Buffalo when Timothy McVeigh was caught.
The present indefinite war isn’t aimed at terrorists; it’s aimed at whomever the U.S. government dislikes, abroad or at home. And nobody among America’s mandarin classes likes Saddam Hussein.
But what of Iraq’s 23 million people? They aren’t mentioned at all in what passes for “debate”on a prospective invasion among political and media elites . That debate has centered almost entirely on logistics, not whether—as our generals and diplomats alike worry—it’s a good idea, and certainly not on whether we have the moral or legal right to invade another country simply because we dislike its leader. Or whether war is itself a crime against humanity. Or what right our unelected leader has to wage a handy pre-November war against their unelected leader, putting both countries’ people at risk.
Far from being “unfinished business,” as Bush and his spin doctors would have you conceive of things, an ongoing war against Iraq—not its leader—has meant 11 long years of privation and disease for its people, mingled with occasional bombings. Well over 1 million civilian Iraqis, mostly children, have died due to anti-Iraq (not anti-Saddam) economic sanctions. If the United States was genuinely engaged in a “War on Terrorism,” this would matter to decision makers, because terrorism doesn’t need state sponsorship—in fact, seems to work better without it—and U.S. strategy should reflect that reality. The goal would then be to change people, not governments, and it would matter what the people affected by U.S. actions and others around the world thought of those actions.
The Achilles heel of American imperialism is our peculiar belief that the people we conquer are better off for it and love us for enslaving them. The British and Mongols and Romans never dreamed of such a conceit, but America has justified its atrocities thusly from the Indian wars to the present. Hence, it’s assumed that because Saddam Hussein is hated and feared by ordinary Iraqis, Americans marching into Baghdad will be welcomed and cheered—even after we’ve killed thousands more, even after the region has witnessed a century of Western intervention with humiliation after disaster after bloodbath, rarely leading to anything good. Furthermore, this belief persists despite the fact that the Bush administration has escalated every single factor cited by experts on Islam as having inspired last year’s horrific attacks, and in the process inflamed so much anti-American hatred that literally hundreds of thousands have dedicated their lives to replicating what 19 people did last September.
All of this history, even the recent history, doesn’t figure in American policy makers’ calculations. But it does accumulate. As we approach the only anniversary among them all that we’ll notice, it is this history that the Bush administration now carries the banner for. If the War on Terrorism is understood instead as a “War on History,” it’s clear that the U.S. will lose its war. In most of the world, persuading people to ignore history never works.
But it’s not just a War on History, of course; the War on Terrorism, like all wars, is a war on people. George Bush’s one-sided massacres, dignified as “war,” are no different. The people underneath the bombs are somehow always the least enthusiastic about war, and the Saddam Husseins and George Bushs of the world are somehow always, always among the last to suffer.