The second-month anniversary last weekend of "the events of September 11th" coincided, of course, with Veteran's Day, a holiday originally known as Armistice Day, celebrating the date in 1918 when hostilities ceased at the end of World War I. After four-plus years of previously-unimaginable carnage, millions of soldiers and civilians breathed a gigantic sigh of relief, pledging to celebrate November 11th as a day of peace as long as human memory persisted.
Of course, that generation didn't call the conflict just ended "World War I." Back then it was called, simply and eloquently, "The Great War." Our history books tell us, though, that peace proved elusive, and that the rest of the twentieth century brought an even more horrible world war, as well as myriad other genocides, holocausts, and barbarisms. "War is hell," famously said the Civil War's General Sherman. The twentieth century proved his comment an understatement.
Not surprisingly, those who endured the First and Second World Wars were never given to flippancy in their use of the "W" word. War for them was, if not quite General Sherman's hell, a long, long way from business as usual. That was undoubtedly one reason why President Harry Truman took pains in 1950 to characterize our country's involvement in defense of South Korea as a "police action." War was the last thing contemporary Americans wanted. Preserve us from more of that, please, they said.
Now, a half century later, under the leadership of a president whose own nickname, ironically, is "W," we throw the "war" word around like a poker chip. Every tv network has its own euphemism for exactly what it is were involved in today: "America's New War," they all say in one variation or another.
It is a given, then, that we are "at war." Whatever hawk/dove debates we have today focus almost entirely upon the prosecution of the conflict. There is virtually universal acceptance that this "war" is just, reasonable, and, ultimately, the only course we can pursue to avenge the outrages of September 11th, and to prevent such outrages in the future.
At the risk of appearing shamefully unpatriotic, then, allow me to take exception to this premise. There truly was another course we might have taken, a course we fatefully chose not to pursue in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. Time will tell if this "road not taken" will be one we can and will eventually revisit. Perhaps things will all work out, and a revisitation will be unnecessary. In the meantime, we might hold our breaths, and hope we can wiggle our way out of the present situation with mimimal damage to our national interests.
If Korea was a "war" masquerading as a "police action," this current conflict is a police action masquerading as a war. Who says so? Well, let's start with Mr. Noah Webster. In the dictionary, he defines war as "a state of open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations."
We may not have the appropriate acts of Congress in place, but Mr. Bush has certainly made clear his intention to use arms in aggressive fashion. So consider us, Mr. Webster, "declared." And consider the bombs we are dropping left and right, day and night, on the state and/or nation of Afghanistan, an indicator that open and armed hostile action has commenced.
So that puts us "at war" with Afghanistan, right? Well, not exactly. We have taken considerable pains to explain that we are not at war with the people of Afghanistan, but with the Taliban, the "evil ones" who shelter the ultimate Evil One, Usama Bin Laden. Hence, the bombs. Hence, the bellicose rhetoric.
But the Taliban is the government of the Afghan nation, right? Well, not exactly, again, unless you consider legal recognition by just three of the United Nations' 189 members a ringing international endorsement. The Taliban control much of what once was the unified country of Afghanistan, but do so, we are told, in dictatorial fashion, without a popular mandate. And without any international standing.
Indeed, our declaring war on Mullah Omar's crowd is a bit like our declaring war on Columbia's drug traffickers. Like the Taliban (who also know a few things about narcotics), Columbian drug lords control wide swaths of that nation's territory, maintaining their own militias and intimidating the population. And like the terrorists given shelter by the Taliban, the drug cartels, in their own way, have wreaked havoc upon America.
One can carry the parallels too far, obviously, but over the past thirty years, the drug "war" has claimed tens of thousands of American victims. They may have perished far less visibly -- and many far less innocently, to be sure -- than those who died in the World Trade Center. But they are all just as dead.
So when do we start bombing Cali? I don't mean to sound flip, but think about it. Bombing Afghanistan has made most of us feel better; it certainly has provided an outlet of sorts for the justifiable rage that September 11th inspired in us all. But it also gives our enemies a dignity they hardly deserve. The Taliban are illegitimate thugs, and we elevate them beyond telling by declaring any kind of "war" on their operations.
But here we are, nevertheless. So what was the alternative to this approach, to this overblown, hyperpatriotic "War on Terrorism" upon which we have now so recklessly embarked?
For starters, the alternative approach wouldn't have been easy. It would have required calm, logic, and a substantial degree of national humility, commodities all in short supply, understandably, in the days after September 11th.
We can be sure, however, that this was the alternative that virtually all of our Western allies wished we would have taken. That's because it's the one that's worked best in the past. It was the alternative favored by President Truman in 1950, and ironically, by President Bush Senior in 1990: the alternative of working through and with the United Nations to achieve our legitimate foreign-policy interests. However imperfect the world political organization is (and god knows, it's that), it's the only one we've got. And it's just the kind of organization required for the task at hand.
Both in Korea and in the Gulf War, we went to bat -- within the UN Security Council -- in defense of countries (South Korea and Kuwait) who were clearly and obviously the victims of aggression. This time, we were ourselves the victims of aggression. And we missed a golden opportunity to unite the world behind us in a battle that can and must eventually be fought on the international playing field, not just our own.
It would have been easier for us to take this approach, of course, if we as a people could truly understand that one country declaring war on terrorism is a little bit like one nation declaring war on rain. Myopic as usual, the American people -- aided and abetted by an equally myopic media -- act as if terrorism became, for the first time, a matter of real international concern only after September 11th.
But just ask any Northern Irishman who's seen or heard a car bomb go off in his neighborhood, or, worse yet, an incendiary device blow up his favorite pub. Better yet, ask any Rwandan, or any Bosnian, if they understand the meaning of the word "terrorism." Ask anybody who was in Munich in 1972. Ask Nelson Mandela. Ask the families from around the world who were widowed and orphaned when PanAm Flight 103 fell out of the sky over Lockerbie in 1988
No, terrorism is not new. And it's nothing that can be opposed unilaterally, by one nation doing it "on its own." Unilateralism in this case will get us nowhere. The last time we decided to "go it alone," we were fighting an equally amorphous war, a war against communism. The place was Vietnam, and we all know how that turned out.
That's how and why we blew it on September 12th and 13th. Instead of -- or better yet, in addition to -- breaking out the flags and singing "God Bless America," we should have gone straight to the United Nations' Security Council with a request for international support, and with an offer to take the leadership of an unprecedented worldwide effort on behalf of the entire planet's civilian population. We should have asked for a mandate to root out any and all networks of persons whose political agendas sanction the use of violence against innocent men, women and children.
Getting UN approval for such an approach -- rather than an American "war against terrorism" -- would have been a piece of cake, at least at the Security Council level. More importantly, it would have transformed what is now virtually a solo effort into an international police action of the first order. Nearly every major nation in the world has spoken out against terrorism; how much better could the campaign against terrorism have been waged had those states all been truly part of a coordinated effort, as components of a multi-national, anti-terrorism strike force organized and led by the United States?
Much better, I would suggest. We may not have dropped as many bombs on Afghanistan by now, but we would clearly have avoided the kind of polarization in the Islamic world that is, as numerous commentators have observed, the single most dangerous aspect of our present situation. And we would have avoided turning a legitimate, necessary campaign for the elimination of international terrorism into a "war" between those who want to smite the "Evil Satan" and those determined to nail the "Evil One."
A struggle between dueling evils will get us nowhere fast. Let's put the "W" word back on the shelf, and figure out how to get back on the track towards a truly international approach. Then let's take out Bin Laden, all of us together.
(Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., parent company of
The Memphis Flyer. He is also the author of several world-history textbooks, including
Perspectives on the Past, first published in 1989 and still in wide use in American secondary schools