Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

NO CONVINCING WAR AIMS

Public support for war seems to be a mile wide. But how deep is it? They should be losing a lot of sleep in the White House, worrying about that question.

The public will accept almost any level of sacrifice, if the leaders offer a clear, simple, and compelling goal a believable definition of victory. What will the world look like when the war ends? In other words, how will we know when we have won? The nation was torn apart during the Vietnam war because Lyndon Johnson had no effective answer to that question.

The Bush administration answers with three seemingly simple words: no more terrorism. But what exactly does 'terrorism" mean? Even the experts can't agree. Is it sudden violence sprung upon unsuspecting, innocent civilians? Governments have been doing that since there first were governments. They are hardly likely to stop now. Or does politically-motivated violence count as terrorism only when done by private, non-state actors? That, too, has been going on forever. A massive war will only sow new anger and resentment, the seeds of a whole new wave of violence. However you define terrorism, abolishing it is about as likely as catching the wind.

Perhaps we should pursue a more limited goal: getting new governments in the states that sponsor terrorism. But how many nations can we conquer, occupy, and control? Will we wage ground war from Afghanistan to Algeria? Must any state that fails to roust all terrorists become our enemy? What about Germany or Canada, who still can't cleanse all the terrorists from their soil? What about the U.S. itself?

The administration could follow the lead of New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman. He says that we are in a global struggle (he calls it World War III) to defend modernity. Our enemies are those who hate the global corporate capitalist system, because they have failed to cope with it. Indeed, that huge swath from Afghanistan to Algeria is the last remaining region where the rule of the multinationals is less than secure.

It would be easy to pick out the states that won't play the globalization game, declare that their crackdown on terrorists is inadequate or insincere, and train the guns on them. But how many American deaths will the public accept for the victory of neo-liberalism, when few can even say what neo-liberalism is?

A simpler version of the Friedman thesis says that we are fighting so that we (read: Exxon-Mobil, BP-Amoco, etc.) can control Middle East and Caspian Sea oil. The president's father tried that, in the run-up to the Gulf War, and it flopped at the polls. The public wanted the language of World War II: We are fighting for freedom, against the totalitarian threat.

But that language, too, will soon wear think. Those who attacked New York and Washington do not want to invade and rule us. They simply want us out of their homelands. So which of our freedoms do they threaten? How many deaths will we accept to preserve the freedom of curbside check-in at the airport? If "freedom" now means perfect protection from all forms of terrorism, we can never hope to be free.

Of course there are some war aims the administration can not even hint at. Surely the top brass in the Pentagon would love to have permanent bases in Afghanistan (like their bases in Saudi Arabia, which are the real source of Osama bin Ladin's anger). Surely the ailing weapons manufacturers are smiling at the prospect of virtually unlimited military budgets. When we go to war, so many interests want to get a piece of the action.

The nation's elite have not agreed, and will never agree, on why they want this war. War has a thousand fathers, even if you don't win. Mr. Bush's war will not work unless he picks one purpose and sticks with it, at least in his public rhetoric. But none of the war aims that he can talk about will sustain public support for very long, if red, white, and blue body bags start coming home.

The impending war will surely sow the seeds of future terrorism abroad. With no clear, achievable war aims in sight, it could easily sow the seeds of dissension here at home too. The events that brought us together so quickly may, in the end, tear us apart once again.


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