February 11, 2003
War is Cathartic

America loves a good war. They like the drama, they like the excitement, they like the idea of really teaching somebody a lesson -- the lesson being that if push comes to shove, America will kick your booty if you don't shape up. Americans love the spectacle and the notion of American Might, and the illusion of American Might Makes Right. In our role as "global policeman," (a role which Bush campaigned on relinquishing), we have sent troops helter skelter and willy-nilly all over the world ousting dictators, rebuffing attempts to annex other countries, promoting human rights, even stopping warlords from stealing the food from the mouths of the hungry. Since Vietnam, almost all of those conflicts has been very small and involved the use of American force against small armies, or merely organized militant bands. (The sole exception is, of course, Operation Desert Storm, rebuffing the invasion of Kuwait by Hussein.) The action in Afghanistan did not seem like a real war because, while it took place in that country, we were not at war with the country but really only at war with terrorists who had set up bases of activity inside of that realm.)

It's been too long since we've had a really good conventional war, one where there is some real opposition, one where we can send in lots of reporters who can be right on the battlefield, attached to actual units, transmitting pictures and dispatches from the front lines. Very soon American television will be filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the war. When they're not showing us clips of the battles or summaries of the action, they'll be interviewing every military pundit they can find, all of whom will be filling us in on each particular weapon and explaining how they are used and how effective they are.

Every sports event will begin with a jingoistic salute to our men and women of the armed forces fighting the good fight for us overseas (it's already started -- remember the Superbowl?) They'll be plenty of pro-military press and a lot of rah-rah-ing from us lucky folk they're defending.

Initially the support for the war will be high -- finally, many people will think, we're going to get that bastard Saddam -- and polls will indicate popularity for the President and his position on the war. Bush's ratings will go up even as the economy continues to tank.

As the war goes on, and it is discovered that the effort involves a prolonged and difficult, bloody ground attack, with street fighting in Bagdad that never seems to let up, this initial swell of support will erode, at least to some degree. There will be reports of civilian casualties, U.S. losses caused by friendly fire, tragic mistakes and missteps, and grisly photographs. The reality of war will come home to some people.

The Bush administration will try to shore up support by aggressively controlling the media and by manipulating the information released to demonstrate that the war is justified. There will be news of the truly horrific crimes Saddam has committed against his people, people liberated from torture, and many, many claims of discoveries of prohibited weapons and weapons facilities, and much evidence presented of how close Saddam was to using them.

Inevitably, because he has nothing to lose, Saddam will use his weapons of mass destruction -- certainly on the battlefield and perhaps, if he can, in the U.S. -- and the Bush administration will point to this as confirmation of every prediction they ever made. (There will certainly not be any acknowledgment of the fact that invading will be the direct cause of the unleashing of these weapons. Indeed, absent a U.N. resolution calling for war, U.S. actions would be in violation of international law while Saddam's -- defending an invasion of his country --- would not.)

The war is inevitable. There will be a massive anti-war protest in cities all over the country on February 15. More people will turn out than did at the beginning of the Vietnam war. (I'm pretty sure of this -- the recent demonstration in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the awful January cold snap satisfied this statistic.) The war will probably begin the week after. (Maybe two weeks after, but certainly no later than early March.)

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times puts forth a cogent and compelling argument that containment is a far more effective solution to any threat posed by Saddam Hussein here.

It's too bad that no one in the Administration is listening to him, or us.

Posted by Tom Burka at 10:22 AM in Commentary