Which of the Values for Which We Fight Will Survive the Conflict?

News Abroad

Mr. Benjamin, PhD University of Pennsylvania, is a retired professor of history (Foreign Policy and International Relations). He is the author of A Student's Guide to History.

It is very difficult to justify a war on the basis of values that the war undermines. The Bush administration wished to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His advisors considered Saddam as some vague combination of a threat to the U.S. and an opportunity to assure U.S. preeminence in the Middle East. Republics do not fight wars for preeminence. Thus evidence was collected to demonstrate to the people and Congress that the war would eliminate an imminent and serious threat. Indeed, the threat disclosed was dire, especially those elements of it that did not exist.

Wars, whether necessary or not, are brutal affairs. Their brutality is more shocking when the aggressor believes that its actions serve the best interests of those who die in the process. Despite the massive power of the aggressor and the great portion of its wealth that it is willing to spend to prevail, the enemy has trapped us. To retain support at home, the Bush administration has now added to the cost of its crusade money to shield the bodies (and more recently the minds) of its soldiers. It promises them the higher education that otherwise exceeds their financial resources. In the meantime, these soldiers must grapple with an enemy that dies in great numbers but will not offer a dignified avenue of escape.

Over the years, this enemy has been given a variety of names. This flux of terms indicates our uncertainty as to whom we are fighting. Nevertheless, the administration must rally the nation around a particular, recognizable enemy; hence its reticence to give up on a proven negative for an untested one. For professional reasons, the news media is nevertheless in need of a more subtle terminology to demonstrate that they actually understand the nature of the conflict. After a while, the public loses track of the changing face of the enemy.

The one thing of which the public has concrete knowledge is that U.S. soldiers are being killed. As a result, domestic discussion of the war takes the form of “supporting our troops.” This concept, proclaimed by millions of bumper stickers, is surprisingly complex. It can mean that we should win the war for the sake of our soldiers or that concern for our soldiers should take the form of ending the war. It is worth noting that the welfare of our troops is the only clear meaning of the war on which large numbers of Americans can agree. Perhaps this is why among the great outrages of the conflict are the government’s failures to adequately protect and later heal their bodies.

Unfortunately the consensus position of supporting our troops does not lead toward a program for either winning or ending the war. In the absence of a powerful, organized “movement” among important sectors of society or, for that matter, in the streets, popular opinion does not press government toward a particular solution. Government itself (and the military hierarchy), trapped by its own insistence on the benevolent nature of our power can find no means of letting go of the evolving enemy for fear of acknowledging that the war was serving no moral, or even strategic, purpose. Moreover, if a world power withdraws from the field of battle at a time when its defeat is not possible, it is held that a great edifice of stability will be pulled from under the structure of the world order. Indeed, the electorate might punish such a leadership simultaneously for promoting the war and for “losing” it. As a result, U.S. leaders find themselves watching the decline of the nation’s economic and international position entranced by the possibility that some change on the field of battle or the international balance will provide an “honorable” means of escape. Despite the passage of five years, this has yet to happen. It appears that only nations very much assured of their world mission and in possession of a great deal of wealth and power, are able to avoid dealing with questions about their mission.

While we await some development that will remove us from our self-imposed immobility, we must at the same time endure a narrowing of the protections of citizenship. The Bush administration declared a “war on terror” as its response to the assault on our power (or as we prefer to say, on our “way of life”) that took place on September 11, 2001. To protect ourselves from “terror” at home while we grapple with it abroad in places with strange names, the open spaces in our society -- so many of which turn out to be related to our freedoms – must be narrowed. Thus, as our wars abroad have turned up many more “terrorists” than we had expected to find, the rule of law at home, even in the absence of another large terrorist assault, has had to bear the burden of ever-lengthening expectations about the duration of the war. Not only must we be vigilant; we must be endlessly vigilant. Terror, despite the agonizing imprecision of the term, seems protean enough to threaten us for all time. Which of the values for which we fight will survive the conflict?

To take just one example, what will happen to the administration of criminal justice for the duration? So far, the principal impact of the war on terror has been to wipe away questions of justice concerning non-citizens. These “enemy combatants” (some of whom were neither) have been treated in ways that recall the most degrading aspects of our Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Unprecedented nevertheless is the scale of the brutality and the fact that the veil of secrecy was lifted from it even while the deeds were still being done. While the courts and judiciary have slowed the open expansion of presidential power, by keeping the lawless treatment of prisoners offshore, the administration has been able to avoid the difficulties attendant to habeas corpus. Still, like the war as a whole, Washington has become trapped by the yellow jump suits of its own making. A program of torture-and-release would be a public relations nightmare.

As for Americans whose papers are in order, we are relatively safe in the homeland as long as we do not mingle our electrons with those of the enemy. Should we be discovered sharing a ride on the information highway with evildoers however, our electronic entrails will be hung online. Moreover, we are unlikely to have much of a private world to return to even when “terror” has been replaced on our most-wanted list. Covert record keeping, so useful in peacetime (like the “peacetime atom”), will become a matter of efficiency.

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