As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, The Forever War. The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting. Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.
For the United States today, something similar is true. Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war. Our military leaders have bought into it as well. The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies. One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan. The next it’s Al Qaeda. The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS. Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past. One thing is constant: war.
On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated. In a word, calamity. The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.
In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow. We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled). We like to think that airpower is uniquely American. We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.
To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche. That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.” They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.
I was reading the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin and came across the following commentary by her:
“A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media … War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win.”
This passage is copyrighted 2012, and surely Le Guin is commenting in part on the American political and war scene, even if these comments came as an afterword to her novel A Wizard of Earthsea.
The stories we tell ourselves – our driving narratives and metaphors – are very powerful. I learned this almost three decades ago from one of my professors at Johns Hopkins. We were talking about the scientific revolution, the label applied after the fact by historians to the era of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. Did that era truly deserve the label of a “revolution” in thought? On one level, yes. A heliocentric vision replaced a geocentric one. Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian metaphysics. But on another level, the label was misleading. If you view this era only through a “revolutionary” lens, everything gets magnified and refracted through it. You’re always looking for evidence of the “revolution” that you know is there. The revolutionary narrative/metaphor, in other words, restricts and distorts your vision. It also tends to answer questions before they’re even asked. Certain historical figures get labeled as “revolutionaries,” others as “reactionaries,” some as winners, others as losers, almost without having to think about it.
Perhaps there should be a “new rule” on the American military scene: When the B-52s are called out (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), it means America has well and truly lost.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, since April of this year, B-52s flying out of “Al Udeid airbase in Qatar … have conducted more than 325 strikes in almost 270 sorties, using over 1,300 weapons” against ISIS and now in Afghanistan, notes Paul Rogers at Open Democracy.
For those of you unfamiliar with B-52s, they are huge long-range bombers, originally deployed in the 1950s to carry nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were called upon to carry conventional bomb loads during the Vietnam War. Their enormous bomb tonnages did not serve to win that war, however, nor has the subsequent use of B-52s in places like Iraq and Afghanistan served to win those wars. They have become a sort of stop-gap weapon system, their ordnance called upon to stem the tide of American military reversals even as their presence is supposed to demonstrate American resolve.