As war looms, cliches abound

Dan Rodricks

January 16, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends."

Paul Fussell According to news reports from Washington, President Bush strolled the White House grounds at dawn," which evoked the cinematic image of a solitary commander-in-chief, reflective and contemplative, awed by his power and the immensity of his responsibility. Other news reports said the question of war with Iraq "weighed heavily" on the president. He was described as "somber and grim." A White House reporter found Bush's "presidency at the precipice."

Having checked for the proper symptoms, the press secretary declared that Bush was "completely at peace with himself." The president conferred by phone with a bishop. They discussed "the moral question of going to war to stop a brutal aggressor," which suddenly elevated Operation Desert Shield to the level of religious crusade -- "aggressor" being the Western equivalent to "infidel" or "enemy of Islam." This is the phony poetry of high purpose, of grandiose and historical consequence. It is a kind of language, spawned anew in each era of war, that helps men who make war sound noble, even elegant.

In the World War I, for example, the enemy was "the foe," warfare was "strife," a man's death was a man's "fate," to attack was "to assail," a friend was "a comrade," and dead bodies on a battlefield were "the fallen." Paul Fussell calls this a "raised, essentially feudal language" aimed at making war palatable, never vulgar, to detached onlookers.

That bit about Bush strolling at dawn and those descriptions of his D-Day mood were the administration's way of telling us that this president has not been reckless or cavalier about his decision to "draw a line in the sand" (a wonderful, Lawrencesque phrase that could very well be the title when Hollywood makes the movie). We need to know -- and the spin doctors are quick to help -- that the decision to wage war is the most serious decision a president can make, and that this president does, indeed, take this duty seriously. He is not some cool, calculating cynic, but a man of conscience, exasperated by the way things have played out with Saddam Hussein.

"He knows war is hell," a Washington columnist declared.

But the president is reported to be "resigned to war."

An odd national psychology takes over here. If the president is resigned to war, the rest of us must be -- or, at least, we are told to "brace for the worst." War is inevitable.

That's why we were up late last night watching the big hand and the little hand move toward 12. That's why, yesterday morning at a Giant supermarket, a cashier said that, in 14 years, yesterday was the first time no one had to ask her the date before writing personal checks for groceries. Everyone knew. The whole world was watching. It was Ultimatum Day for Saddam Hussein. It was President Bush's "defining moment of history" -- more grandiosity -- that would establish and preserve the "new world order" -- Orwellian grandiosity.

Now we will watch for signs of war -- or, as a network broadcast called it, "the outbreak of hostilities."

War, we are told, is a "foregone conclusion."

So we are going to war to free oil-rich Kuwait from the hands of the bankrupt dictator of a poor, war-weary nation and to return it to the hands of a wealthy feudal monarch. Another purpose of this "defining moment of history" is to make the "new world order" safe from despots and terrorists -- even though we might provoke a long and ferocious Arab backlash in the process. We are going to risk the lives of Americans and probably kill a lot of Iraqis to this end.

Events and decisions seemed to have propelled us into the historic slum of wartime. The last-minute peace proposals were rejected by Saddam. The Bush administration didn't go for them, either. "No linkage," they kept bleating, between the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the Palestinian question. So, pushed up against a deadline, Saddam Hussein increased his defiance and promised that Americans would "swim in their own blood." Bush emerged from church the other day and, when asked by reporters about the growing anti-war movement, retorted: "We've got to do what we've got to do." Which called to mind the roughneck/leatherneck rhetoric of cowboys and sound stage warriors: "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

And he probably will.

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