TCS Daily

War and Wishful Thinking

By Lee Harris - September 22, 2003 12:00 AM

The war metaphor is the basis of the Bush administration's reference to Iraq as the new front in the war on terrorism. It is the image invoked in Bill O'Reilly's assertion that we are currently in the midst of World War III. It is the backdrop of Michael Barone's recent essay comparing the American reconstruction of Iraq with the post-World War II American reconstruction of Germany and Japan. Indeed, it is even the premise behind Mark Helprin's recent criticism of the Bush administration, expressed in his claim that "[h]ad the United States delivered a coup de main soon after September 11 and... had the president asked Congress on the 12th for a declaration of war..., the war on terrorism would now be largely over."


Helprin's criticism of the Bush administration policy makes the exact same assumption that the administration and its defenders have also made. All believe that we are fighting a war, with the disagreement arising only from Helprin's seemingly brutally realistic insistence that we should have struck sooner and harder.


But the question here is: Struck sooner and harder at what? Against whom would the coup de main have been directed, and in what shape would the fist have appeared that struck the blow? Does this mean nuking or bombing randomly selected Arab cities across Africa and Asia? And if the administration had decided to make a declaration of war, against what legal entity would this war have been declared?


A failure to descend to these questions of concrete detail is surprising in a novelist like Mark Helprin -- a novelist's one great advantage, after all, lies in his habit of visualizing in the vivid round what the mere thinker is apt to see as a bloodless abstraction. In a novel, it is not enough for the main character to declare war -- he must declare it on someone, and this someone must be specified in order to make the story seem like a story, instead of merely the outline for one.


But who is the someone upon whom we should have declared war? And what should have been the target of our coup de main?             


It is by asking such questions that the latent wishful thinking in Helprin's apparent Realpolitik becomes self-evident. Helprin wants to believe in the war metaphor because this metaphor permits him to think that if only the United States taken suitable actions two years ago, we could have already won the war on terrorism. The only difference between Helprin and the administration is that Helprin's wishful thinking is expressed as nostalgic regret for a lost opportunity, while the administration's wishful thinking still remains their blueprint for victory.


This process of wishful thinking began on 9/11, and it began the moment someone first called 9/11 an act of war.


Clearly, those who called 9/11 by this label intended it as a way of indicating their justifiable horror and outrage at the act; but in choosing this particular label to apply to the event, they were, without noticing it, invoking a whole hidden array of metaphoric associations, all of which revolved around the traditional concept of war -- associations that unconsciously seduced our nation down a path that would inevitably generate a whole gamut of misleading analogies, distorted perspectives, and false hopes -- not to mention Monday morning quarterbacking that fails to notice the radically different rules of the game that emerged that September Tuesday over two years ago. On that day traditional war became obsolete -- not because an epoch of perpetual peace had arrived, but because a new form of anarchy had been unleashed.


It is wishful thinking to believe that what we have before us is simply another war, of the kind that we have fought in the past. And no amount of hit 'em hard or hang tough talk will alter this fact in the slightest bit. Though it may serve to make us feel better, such a response is as unrealistic in the present crisis as it would be in fighting a renewed outbreak of the bubonic plague.


Yes, 9/11 was a colossal act of violence, such as occurs in war. But war, as we have come to understand it, is akin to Aristotle's idea of a work of art: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It begins with a political demand that one's opponent will not, or cannot, accede to -- hence the long and painfully drawn out diplomatic wrangling that precedes the declaration of traditional war, as in the War of 1812 as well as America's entry into World War I and World War II. War is the acknowledged and official act of a classical nation-state: it is not Hitler or Roosevelt that declare war, but the nations, and the people, that they represent.      


War, finally, is a process that has a clear cut termination. Either the parties at war reach a negotiated settlement, or else one of the parties surrenders to the other -- a surrender which, like the original declaration, is the official and acknowledged act of the nation-state that originally declared war.


All metaphors mislead. When a poet compares his love to a red red rose, he probably does not mean to imply that she is capable of supplying her energy needs through photosynthesis. But in the case of the war metaphor, it is precisely these unintended implications that have perversely gotten the upper hand in so much of our public debate and reflection. We talk of fighting a new front on the war on terror, when in fact the terrorists can open a front anywhere in the world, at anytime they choose. Their last front was on four airliners taking off on routine flights, and their next front may well be equally unlikely. We worry, quite rightly, over weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a man like Saddam Hussein, and thereby forget that, in the different hands, a box-cutter can become a WMD as well. We criticize the administration for not having already ended the war on terrorism, but fail to ask the simple question that anyone could have asked the first afternoon of 9/11, "How will we ever know when it is over?"


This simple question demolishes at once any pretension to adequacy of the current war metaphor. The day may come when there is no longer a threat of terrorism, but this day will clearly not be a day like V-E day or V-J after World War II. Nor will it end, as World War I did, in an armistice capable of being reckoned down to the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the last day.


No war has ever been waged where the combatants had no way of deciding in advance what would count as victory, or what it would look like when it came, or even who it would be victory over. No war has ever been waged where there was no one to negotiate with, and no demands that could be met, or quid pro quo's that could be worked. No war has ever been waged where surrender was impossible, simply because we would not know to whom to surrender, or even what surrender would mean.


Everything about the present crisis is new. Historical analogy drawn from the period prior to 9/11 more often misleads than illuminates. We are in a brave new world, and the sooner we recognize the unreliability of all our prior categories and metaphors to guide us, the sooner we will free ourselves from the wishful thinking that perhaps an even greater threat to our survival than the terrorists themselves.


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