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Nation Topics - US Wars and Military Action

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Whoever controls Saudi Arabia's oil wields great power over the world economy.

The war in Afghanistan, coming after the atrocities of September 11, provokes a welter of contradictory emotions. On the one side, a desire for justice and a yearning for security. And on the other side, dread of a war unrestrained by national boundaries, time frame or definable goals.

We believe that America has a right to act in self-defense, including military action, in response to a vicious, deadly attack on US soil by a terrorist network identified with Osama bin Laden. There is a real threat of further attacks, so, as Richard Falk argues on page 11, action designed to hunt down members of the terrorist network and those in the Taliban government who collaborate with it is appropriate.

But acknowledging a right of response is by no means an endorsement of unlimited force. We must act effectively but within a framework of moral and legal restraint. Our concern is that airstrikes and other military actions may not accomplish the ends we endorse and may exacerbate the situation, kindling unrest in other countries and leading to a wider war. They have already triggered bloody riots in Pakistan and Indonesia and on the West Bank, where the cease-fire is in shreds.

This effort ideally should have been carried out under the aegis of the United Nations Security Council and bin Laden and his associates brought to justice for their crimes by an international court. The United States should still seek a mandate from the Security Council for its military actions. This would give the campaign the international legitimacy it needs to avoid playing into the hands of those charging an American war against Islam, and it would offer some protection against the calamity of a wider and uncontrolled war. It would also help strengthen the UN's policing and peacekeeping capacity.

If limited military action in self-defense against bin Laden and his backers and cohorts is justified, an open-ended "crusade" against pariah nations to stamp out ill-defined evil is not. There are already ominous rumblings in the Pentagon that such interventions are contemplated. The Administration has notified the Security Council that it might pursue terrorists in other nations. This may be more of a threat than a promise, especially as it pertains to the Philippines and Indonesia. But it is no secret that hard-liners hanker to expand the war to include strikes against Iraq, Iran, Syria and other hard cases.

Military actions inside Afghanistan must be circumscribed by limited political objectives and carried out with a minimum of civilian casualties. The report of the killing of four Afghan UN employees (engaged in clearing the deadly harvest of mines sowed by two decades of war in that nation) in the second day's bombing underscores the potential costs when vast firepower is unleashed against a poor nation with comparatively few military targets. As civilian casualties mount and more refugees are driven from their homes, international support for the US effort will dwindle.

The US air war has already magnified humanitarian problems that call for urgent attention. In addition to 7.5 million Afghans facing famine before the war, which has interrupted overland shipments of food, half a million refugees have fled the bombing. American cargo planes dropping 37,000 box lunches cannot mitigate this problem, so US contributions to international agencies giving food and medical aid must be stepped up. With fleeing Afghans massing at border chokepoints, the Pakistani government should be pressured to allow aid to go through. The UN, with US assistance, must expand the number of camps that will take in the uprooted.

Also looming in Afghanistan is the prospect of the Taliban government falling and leaving a power vacuum, into which rush the furies of anarchy and civil war. The UN should immediately convene a coalition of opposition groups (including those representing Afghan women) in an attempt to ease the transition to a new government that is broadly representative of the Afghan people.

Here in America, responsible members of Congress should demand clarification of the Administration's goals in this war and oppose the President's attempts to curtail Congressional oversight of the conflict. In this regard, we hope that the courageous statement of Representative Jim McDermott that the Administration lacked a "fully developed and comprehensive strategic plan" will hearten more of his fellow Democrats to engage in similar scrutiny. And let us also praise Senator Russell Feingold for at least slowing down an antiterrorism package that the Senate leadership was trying to rush through Congress by severe limiting amendments or debate.

As the fog of national security closes in Washington, the press must resume its appropriate watchdog role. Civil liberties groups should stay on high alert, flashing early warnings against unconstitutional laws and violations of civil rights--especially those of innocent aliens apprehended in early antiterrorist sweeps.

As we have said before, military means are only one weapon in the fight against terrorism--and a very limited one. Of greater importance are diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence efforts. Beyond those, instead of more US military attacks we need a multinational coalition dedicated to attacking the conditions breeding terrorism--the endless Israel-Palestine conflict, the corruption of US-supported Arab regimes, the world inequality and poverty spawned by globalization. And on another front, as Jonathan Schell warns on page 7, the question of weapons of mass destruction has acquired a new salience as a result of the recent events. Nuclear disarmament, a test ban and stronger nonproliferation measures are sorely needed. We should not let the military action overshadow these greater challenges.

As Schell writes, "The world is sick. It cannot be cured with America's new war. The ways of peace--adopted not as a distant goal but as a practical necessity in the present--are the only cure."

The bombing part is easy. Not of course on the civilians, the "collateral damage" likely to be killed in unseemly large numbers, as they were during the Gulf War.

The Kerrey revelations raise anew issues of morality and military power.

What exactly Bob Kerrey did one night in a Vietnamese community should concern every citizen.

The war was years ago, but that does not excuse misrepresenting one's participation in it.

George W. Bush's description of the US-British bombing
of Iraq as a "routine mission" unwittingly summed up the mechanical
nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been
bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no
one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The
only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam
Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new
administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq's improved air
defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State
Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East.

But the attack's main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European
allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington's unilateralism
(even Tony Blair's foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing "the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm," but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles
were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington's obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam's claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.

Far
from strengthening Powell's mission, the bombings stirred up renewed
hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team's campaign
pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new
ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the
past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel
sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this
point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the
best check on Saddam's efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it
happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi
foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the
bombing surely hasn't helped this initiative. And there is virtually
no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef
up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide
coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.

The wisest future course for the United States is to forge
a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the
support of America's partners. It should aim to put in place limited
and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq's import of
advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means
abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of
this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies
in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and
Russia.

It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of
Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences--its
failure to bring peace and stability to the region.

We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:

It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.

"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.

"Since when?"

"I don't know. A long time."

"I must of missed hearing about it."

The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.

In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."

I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.

"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."

In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.

The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.

Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.

"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
      It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.

It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:

"The whole world's like that," he said.
      A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.

This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:

Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.

None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."

In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."

And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.

The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:

When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.

"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."

Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."

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