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War. What Is It Good For? | The Nation

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War. What Is It Good For?

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By the time you read this, the invasion of Iraq may have begun--or it may be over. The Iraqi military may have put daisies in their gun barrels--a London-based Kurdish journalist I know has received dozens of reports of soldiers in northern Iraq deserting or trying to surrender--or Republican Guard troops loyal to Saddam Hussein may be putting up ferocious street-by-street resistance in Baghdad. Thousands of civilians may be dead, and since US plans for bombing entail leveling one in ten buildings in Iraq, it's hard to imagine less carnage. But perhaps the number of casualties will be surprisingly low.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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Saddam Hussein may torch oilfields or use biological or chemical weapons against US troops--or the United States may deploy sinister new weapons of its own, like the 21,000-pound MOAB bomb the New York Times says sends "a devastating wave of fire and blast," an electromagnetic pulse bomb that crashes entire computer networks, even a nuclear "bunker buster." Or both. Or neither. People like to predict, whether to strengthen their convictions or to prepare themselves psychologically, but war is inherently unpredictable: The Afghans were supposed to be formidable mountain fighters who would rally round the Taliban and hold out fiercely against the hated foreigner, and World War I was supposed to last six weeks.

Unless the worst predictions prove true, the antiwar movement--not to mention the United Nations--is sure to be scorned as crying wolf when it warned of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi children and thousands of US body bags. I sometimes thought that too much stress was laid, at antiwar protests and candlelight vigils, on the simple fact that people--yes, even children--are killed in war. After all, people--including children--are killed by tyrannical regimes, too. Had the Taliban remained in power, torturing, massacring, executing, they might have killed outright as many people by now, or even more, as were killed by American bombs, while continuing to poison Afghan society with illiteracy, ignorance, ill health, brutality, fanaticism and the most extreme misogyny the world has seen. Saddam Hussein has been a disaster for Iraq, and no doubt would continue to be so if left in power. Whether the Iraqis greet US troops with cheers and confetti or with sullen, resentful glares, you can be sure that they won't be singing "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" or "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

According to polls, most Americans now believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks and support the war--however anxiously and unhappily--in the mistaken belief that it is necessary for self-defense. The 9/11 connection is ceaselessly, demagogically promoted by the Administration. In his speech warning of imminent invasion if Saddam failed to leave Iraq in forty-eight hours, George W. Bush alluded to this discredited canard seven times.

Liberal prowar intellectuals, though, don't talk so much any more about self-defense as a motive for war--avoiding any embarrassment about the nuclear weapons Saddam turns out not to have, for example, or his decrepit military that is supposed to threaten world security even as it is on the brink of collapse. They know that Iraq has far less to do with terrorism than, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, and that there are plenty of other sources for weapons of mass destruction. Their chief cause--I'm thinking here of Michael Ignatieff, for example, the most eloquent exponent of humanitarian imperialism--is "regime change": They argue the moral rightness of overthrowing Saddam by force and setting Iraq on the path to democracy and normality.

This is a seductive vision indeed--who wouldn't like to see Saddam in the dock at The Hague? I'd be surprised if the Iraqis got real democracy out of US invasion and occupation, but maybe the next strongman or puppet or junta will be an improvement, the way Karzai is an improvement on the Taliban. It could be that, as Samantha Power (author of "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide) told the New York Times in early February, "a unilateral attack would make Iraq a more humane place, but the world a more dangerous place."

Humane? Maybe. More dangerous, for sure. Whatever the immediate results--this many dead children versus that much freedom from repression--the fundamental issue has to be the perils of "pre-emptive war" in volatile times. However it works out for the Iraqis, invading their country will be bad for the rest of the world. It will aid terrorist recruitment, it will license other countries--India and Pakistan, for example--to wage pre-emptive wars of their own, it may even consolidate Islamic fundamentalism as the only alternative to American power in the Middle East. Those are the fears not just of the American antiwar movement but of the majority of people around the world, even in the nations whose leaders have joined with ours.

But who cares about the majority of the world's people? We'll go to war unilaterally, with our pathetic collection of allies (Britain, OK. But Spain? Italy? Latvia?), while the rest of the world stands by appalled. We'll boycott the Dixie Chicks, eat our freedom fries and even, as documented in the New York Times, pour Dom Perignon by the gallon down the toilet ("I'll bet it was just water," said the manager of my local liquor store. "Nobody would waste great champagne like that!"). People will be called traitors if they wear peace T-shirts, fail to salute the flag or dare to suggest that anyone in the Administration has lower motives than the selfless salvation of humanity. Journalists "embedded," as the odd phrase goes, in military units will send back an endless stream of heartwarmers that will reinforce the confusion of "support the troops" with "support the war." If, in the end, the Iraqis turn out to hate and resent the nation that bombed them into freedom, we'll shake our heads in angry bewilderment: After all we did for you, this is the thanks we get!

The issue raised by the invasion of Iraq is American imperialism. That won't go away, no matter how this particular adventure turns out. See you at the demonstration.

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