The United States began its war in Afghanistan
88 months ago. The "war on terror" has no sunset clause. As a perpetual
emotion machine, it offers to avenge what can never heal and to fix grief that
For the crimes against humanity committed on Sept. 11, 2001, countless others
are to follow, with huge conceits about technological "sophistication"
and moral superiority. But if we scrape away the concrete of media truisms,
we may reach substrata where some poets have dug.
W.H. Auden: "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return."
Stanley Kunitz: "In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks /
and lives by breaking."
And from 1965, when another faraway war got its jolt of righteous escalation
from Washington's certainty, Richard Farina wrote: "And death will be
our darling and fear will be our name." Then as now came the lessons that
taught with unfathomable violence once and for all that unauthorized violence
must be crushed by superior violence.
The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan owes itself to the enduring "war
on terrorism," chasing a holy grail of victory that can never be.
Early into the second year of the Afghanistan war, in November 2002, a retired
U.S. Army general, William Odom, appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal
program and told viewers: "Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated.
It's a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks
and expect we're going to win that war. We're not going to win the war on terrorism."
But the "war on terrorism" rubric – increasingly shortened to the
even vaguer "war on terror" – kept holding enormous promise for a
warfare state of mind. Early on, the writer Joan Didion saw the blotting of
the horizon and said so: "We had seen, most importantly, the insistent
use of Sept. 11 to justify the reconception of America's correct role in the
world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war."
There, in one sentence, an essayist and novelist had captured the essence
of a historical moment that vast numbers of journalists had refused to recognize
– or, at least, had refused to publicly acknowledge. Didion put to shame the
array of self-important and widely lauded journalists at the likes of the New
York Times, the Washington Post, PBS, and National Public Radio.
The new U.S. "war on terror" was rhetorically bent on dismissing
the concept of peacetime as a fatuous mirage.
Now, in early 2009, we're entering what could be called Endless War 2.0,
while the new president's escalation of warfare in Afghanistan makes the rounds
of the media trade shows, preening the newest applications of technological
might and domestic political acquiescence.
And now, although repression of open debate has greatly dissipated since
the first months after 9/11, the narrow range of political discourse on Afghanistan
is essential to the Obama administration's reported plan to double U.S. troop
deployments in that country within a year.
"This war, if it proliferates over the next decade, could prove worse
in one respect than any conflict we have yet experienced," Norman Mailer
wrote in his book Why
Are We at War? six years ago. "It is that we will never know just
what we are fighting for. It is not enough to say we are against terrorism.
Of course we are. In America, who is not? But terrorism compared to more conventional
kinds of war is formless, and it is hard to feel righteous when in combat with
Anticipating futility and destruction that would be enormous and endless,
Mailer told an interviewer in late 2002: "This war is so unbalanced in
so many ways, so much power on one side, so much true hatred on the other,
so much technology for us, so much potential terrorism on the other, that the
damages cannot be estimated. It is bad to enter a war that offers no clear
avenue to conclusion. … There will always be someone left to act as a terrorist."
And there will always be plenty of rationales for continuing to send out
the patrols and launch the missiles and drop the bombs in Afghanistan, just
as there have been in Iraq, just has there were in Vietnam and Laos. Those
countries, with very different histories, had the misfortune to share a singular
enemy, the most powerful military force on the planet.
It may be profoundly true that we are not red states and blue states, that
we are the United States of America – but what that really means is still very
much up for grabs. Even the greatest rhetoric is just that. And while the clock
ticks, the deployment orders are going through channels.
For anyone who believes that the war in Afghanistan makes sense, I recommend
the Jan. 30 discussion on Bill Moyers Journal with historian Marilyn
Young and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey. A chilling antidote to illusions
that fuel the war can be found in the
Now, on Capitol Hill and at the White House, convenience masquerades as realism
about "the war on terror." Too big to fail. A beast too awesome and
immortal not to feed.
And death will be our darling. And fear will be our name.