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Sherman Yellen Headshot

War of the Words

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When I was a boy in the nineteen-forties, my friends and I played a street game called "war," while the real WWII was waged in faraway Europe by fathers and older brothers. In this game, a large chalk circle was drawn on the street, divided into as many segments as players, each segment marked with the name of a different country: Germany, France, England, Japan, China, Italy -- the main players in the world's war and ours. A "spaldeen" -- a small hard pink rubber ball -- was placed in the center of the circle. Each of the players put a foot on one of the countries, representing a piece of the known world. When the designated caller shouted "I declare war on France" the kid with his sneaker on France raced for the rubber ball as all other countries fled. As soon as France, grabbed that ball he shouted "freeze" stopping the other players in their tracks. I dimly recall that the next move was about throwing that ball at one of the frozen players, and if hit, someone would lose points or face or a turn. The arcane rules of the game elude me sixty-five years later, but one thing remains perfectly clear. War was about countries -- not concepts. Every child alive knew that. Countries at war could defeat other countries, draw up peace treaties, pay reparations, there were losers and winners, but no sane adult or wise child would believe that you could declare war on an idea or a social problem.

Who in that simpler time would possibly think of declaring war on crime? Or imagine the current and forever war on terrorism. Criminal acts by small groups were distinguished from martial ones by countries, the criminal to be pursued by law enforcement -- for which we boys had the FBI, Captain America and Superman. The word "war" meant that one had to fight another country to safeguard one's very own existence and the territorial integrity of one's country. Anything else was labeled a crime to be pursued by intrepid crime fighters but without exaggerated rhetoric.

Many of the horrors of the twentieth century occurred when a criminal act was taken for an act of war. When an Austrian Archduke was murdered by a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo in 1914, the major European powers had a choice. They could treat this as the criminal act it was, exchange diplomatic protests and apologies, while pursuing those who might have collaborated with the assassin, or, as happened, they could unleash all the forces then in play; European xenophobia, competition for colonial territories, possession of the Balkan oil fields, and allow this to lead them into history's bloodiest war; one that took more military and civilian lives than any conflict that preceded or followed it. Nothing was too vile for this war: poison gas, aerial bombing, machine-guns and grenades. Just as the murder of that hapless Archduke provided an excuse for WWI, the mass murder of 9/11 allowed our sleeping leader to create a war instead of the police action that was clearly required. It cannot be repeated too often, 9/11 was an act of mass murder -- but it was murder -- requiring police action to find the surviving culprits and bring them to justice. It did not have to be treated as an act of war.

Some wars must be fought. WWII was unavoidable once the Axis powers began their genocidal march through Europe and Asia. As much as one might call it a war against fascism, it was, in fact, a war against distinct totalitarian powers, national entities: Germany, Italy, and Japan, nations that could be defeated in battle and brought back to a peaceful world. Even today, there are real wars waiting to be fought against real powers in the genocide in Africa. But Bush's White House has never met a humanitarian reason it liked enough to act upon. Whatever one might think of Clinton's compromised presidency, at the end of the day he helped put a stop to the genocide in Yugoslavia -- fighting it as a police action in concert with other nations -- not as a war. When Lincoln was assassinated we did not summon up a new Union Army to invade the South once again, we called it a crime and we pursued and punished the guilty. When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols the right-wing zealots and discontents behind the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building committed their heinous act, we sent in the FBI to find the conspirators, not an army of Commandos to fight all the white separatists and right-wing nuts living in our hills. Until George Bush, we were very good at distinguishing between a crime and an act of war and excellent at protecting ourselves from foreign and domestic enemies.

'After all the warnings were received by the FBI and the State Department that terrorists were planning to fly airplanes into our tallest building, and these warnings were ignored by the Bush Administration -- preoccupied as it was by cutting taxes for the very rich and the surgical removal of the New Deal -- the administration went into its war mode, ignoring all other options. President Bush faced by the enormity of 9/11 and the need to do something, anything, after his inescapable negligence, his having fallen asleep on guard duty, sent our forces into Afghanistan. That action was designed to vanquish the Taliban and arrest or kill bin Laden and those responsible for the murder of three thousand innocents in the World Trade Center. It was more a police action than a war -- supported by the rest of the democratic world, and for that reason, something of a success. This action seemed clear, necessary and somewhat effective. A wobbly new government was established, the Taliban retreated into their mountain strongholds chastened but undefeated, ancient statues were no longer defiled, the opium beds flourished once again, and bin Laden, protected as he was by our allies in Pakistan and his own Afghan friends crept out of sight only to reappear in those "Where's Waldo?" commercials for al-Qaeda. But for Bush and company, failure to find bin Laden meant it was time for switch and bait. If the elusive Osama was too hard to locate, there was the very conspicuous figure of the evil Saddam in Iraq, quite gettable. In the White House there was the need to declare war on someone, somewhere, the sooner the better, and where better than a country like Iraq, ruled by that loathsome dictator.

If war was the answer to avenging 9/11 and protecting America, logic and justice would have led to our invasion of Saudi Arabia whose support of extremist religious sects spurred on the terrorists most of whom came from that kingdom. But the Saudis being our providers of oil were protected by their greasy shield of petroleum, and their long-term amorous relations with the Bush family. Who can forget that hand-holding of the President and the Saudi Prince as they tiptoed through Texas? It was our Brokeback Mideast policy. And so this administration, fearing and failing to deal with the guilty Saudis, and feeling that it needed a war to assuage our national pride -- a war to justify the deaths of those 9/11 innocents -- gave us a war in Iraq to protect and control the price of oil of the Middle East, while claiming to bring democracy to that benighted country. In the words of that cynical 19th century diplomat, Prince Metternich, it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. And that mistake has led to thousands dead in Iraq, and an America that is fractured and disheartened.

Fighting a war, as opposed to pursuing criminals in a police action is more than a choice of words. War allows our government to suspend the very civil liberties that we are allegedly fighting to protect, it allows the administration to break the rules of a civil society, violate the Constitution, and in this case sets open-ended goals that cannot be reached -- the elimination of terrorism -- which can only prolong human suffering and the power of this President. Bush has given us a dreadful legacy -- a permanent state of war, one with no end in sight, when a police action, vigorously pursued, could have devoted its resources to finding and bringing to justice those very men who had caused 9/11. One of the causes of this may be the President's deaf ear to the nuances of language. A war and a police action may mean the same to him. We need to understand the meaning of words to speak truth. And worse for him, and for us, like a schoolyard cheat, Bush keeps moving the finish line and changing the rules of the game as he goes along.

We can no longer rationalize the behavior of our government and seek good reasons for bad decisions. We are governed by demagogic fear-mongers and corrupt power brokers who call their most egregious failures successes, and trumpet their terror-mongering from Maine to the cornfields of Kansas, all this while Mr. Cheney's Halliburton pockets millions from this war. Never in our history have such a pack of rascals and profiteers been abusing such power without the checks and balances in place to stop them. We have a President who still claims to believe that he has done the right thing invading Iraq, absent W.M.D and any true sign of a connection between Iraq and bin Laden. He can still turn to the American public and describe the dreadful consequences of the rising Civil War in Iraq as a challenge, but one we will overcome if we stay the course. That staying the course means the death of someone else's son or daughter -- deaths that appear to mean so little to this man. At last, the country seems to have caught on to his game. If one of the kids who played "war" in my street game had taken that "spaldeen" and hurled it at a passerby whose looks he didn't much care for, instead of one of the "designated" player-countries, there would have been a general outcry of "Are you nuts, get out and go home!" Alas, we can't shout "Are you nuts, get out, go home!" at Mr. Bush and hope for that to happen, but we can speak out clear and loud and focus our attention on his cohorts in Congress in the coming election. With the elections of '06 we can hope to restore the balance of power and through that the rule of law in this country, and if luck is with us, perhaps learn from the hard lessons of the last five years and the common wisdom of childhood. Tell the truth and play fair.


Cross-posted on Sherman's Blog.