The endless war

October 24, 2002|By Daniel Meltzer

NEW YORK -- World War I was called the "war to end all wars." World War II proved it wasn't. Korea was a "police action," not a war. Vietnam was a tunnel, from whose end shone a perpetual light that never got closer but blinded us nonetheless. The current conflict may well end up being the "war without end" (WWE).

President Bush says that we are already at war, and Congress eagerly has surrendered to him its constitutional right and duty to declare it. Everyone in a position to commit our youth, money and integrity to the fight seems to agree that the war has begun, although no one can name the nation or "axis" of enemies whom we must defeat to end it. The theater of operations appears to be the planet.

It's a war against terrorism, Mr. Bush says. But terrorism has no borders, no capital, no chancellor or premier, no commanding general, common flag or uniform.

Israel has been in combat with Palestinian militants for more than two years and yet it doesn't pronounce itself to be in a "state of war." The hard-working people of Northern Ireland have been tyrannized by Catholic and Protestant terrorists for decades. Though Britain maintains a military presence there, it has refrained from calling it a war. About half of Colombia is said to be occupied by narco-terrorists. Has someone declared war there?

By "war against terrorism," does Mr. Bush mean that we must now take on all terrorists? Or only the ones who currently seem to have the United States in their sights? In which case, shouldn't it be called the "war against al-Qaida"? And if it is, then why, after months of study, with no "smoking gun" linking al-Qaida and Iraq, are we planning to attack Baghdad? What about nuke-ready North Korea?

Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were not a state but an academy for fundamentalist slaughterers and its dean, renting space in Taliban-run Afghanistan. They since have been routed from there, dispersed across the globe.

Al-Qaida's hatred for the United States reportedly stems from bin Laden's resentment of our women's uncovered arms, legs and faces, from our freely exposed opinions and from the American military presence in his homeland, Saudi Arabia. It's a monarchy where Jews are not welcome and where women aren't allowed to work or drive. We are not at war with Saudi Arabia, however. Saudi Arabia is an ally.

If this is a war against a dispersed network of cells of saboteurs and killers, how will we know if and when we have won? As with the common garden worm, how can we know that, even cut into a hundred pieces, each piece will not reconstitute itself, become whole and grow again?

A war against terrorism without parameters, without a coherent goal, could conceivably last forever. Or until Mr. Bush or a future president decides that there are no more terrorists anywhere, no one left who hates America and has or can hijack the means to hurt us.

You might as well declare war on cockroaches, rats or bacteria. But the odds are that those will still be here long after the war on terrorism has become history, assuming it ever will, and that someone will be here to write, teach or read it when it does.

Daniel Meltzer is an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.

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