A Progressive Response to Terror

A Progressive Response to Terror

If the United States can abandon the idea of a “war” on terror in favor of a comprehensive and equitable collective response, we may have a shot at stopping the right from destroying the nation in order to save it.


Let’s stop talking about how dumb President Bush is: He’s smarter than we are. He wraps whatever he wants to accomplish, from lower taxes to more drilling, in the flag of his “war on terror.” And he has waged the perfect “war” for a self-indulgent capitalist democracy, which worships at the altar of individualism at the expense of the community.

As directed by the Bush Administration, the “war on terror” is being fought by professionals, first responders and contractors. And since it is being financed with debt, the average citizen has not been called on to make any meaningful sacrifice. It is as if we are buying this war: Specialists are fighting it; future generations are paying for it. The war itself has become a consumer item.

By conflating Saddam Hussein’s regime with the attacks of 9/11, Bush has given the American people what they wanted: a real shoot-’em-up to watch on television and an economy that continues to grow at decent rates of 3 percent to 4 percent a year. The President’s prescription that we keep personal spending levels high has met no resistance from the right or the left. And like the federal government, we have borrowed heavily to pay the bill.

Similarly, the government has borrowed a technique from the private sector in which we increase productivity by investing capital in machinery and equipment. So in this contemporary military struggle, capital has been successfully substituted for lives, with superior technology serving as a force multiplier to increase the lethality of our troops, while minimizing casualties. The ratio of American wounded to dead is higher in Iraq than it was in any past wars, presumably due to investment in superior protection and medical treatment. A perverse side effect of that greater protection is the unprecedented proportion of grievously wounded, which will impose a meaningful cost on our society for years to come.

Today, according to The Military Balance, an annual publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there are 2.8 million people enlisted in the military, roughly 1 percent of the population. The proportion of our citizenry that is enlisted is lower now than it was in any past wars–save the Mexican War of 1846 or the Spanish-American War of 1898. With all the headlines, the “war on terror,” including the Afghan and Iraqi theaters, outlasted only by the Revolutionary and Vietnam wars, has (so far) been one of our least costly in human casualties as a percent of the population.

Many articles have been written discussing the huge cost of the Iraq War in terms of dollars and lives–which it is. But I wanted to put these costs in the context of past conflicts by looking at casualties as a percentage of the population and the dollar cost in relationship to the economy.


The human cost of war: Each column represents US casualties as a percentage of the population; lines represent total casualties.

Sources: US Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970; US Department of Commerce, Statistical Abstract of the United States and US Census Bureau

Since the September 11 attacks, an incremental $435 billion expenditure has been authorized in aggregate for Iraq, Afghanistan and other operations in Bush’s global “war on terror.” The Congressional Budget Office projects additional incremental costs of $200 billion to $400 billion under two different Iraqi wind-down scenarios. These projections do not include replacement of equipment earlier than planned due to wear and loss. Nor do they include other defense expenditures that have been deferred due to budget pressures. They do not account for the possibility of additional Iraq-style actions, which, according to the Administration’s Third Quadrennial Defense Review, are to be expected. But though the incurred and projected expenditures are huge in absolute terms, they remain modest in relationship to the US budget, the economy and the stakes. While the politicians squabble, the President likely has enough leeway to do exactly what he wants as commander in chief until we are finally rid of him at noon on January 20, 2009.

Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been only 103 American casualties worldwide attributable to terrorism since the losses of September 11, 2001. We know our enemies are determined to make that number rise dramatically. They are recruiting from a vast population, and they are willing to accept certain death in order to inflict damage on us. It is unlikely that we will enjoy a 100 percent success rate in stopping them. But it will be difficult to engage the sustained attention of the public in continued attempts by terrorists and their successful thwartings.

In a contest for hearts and minds where you can win every battle and still not prevail, the Pentagon budget will eventually prove to be a mere fraction of the commitment our society will be called upon to make to fight the real threat of terrorism. If the past is prologue, the role of government will expand significantly in the coming years. Our job as citizens is to change our response to terror from support for a “war” to a new kind of vigilance that involves every citizen.

Government could play a greater role in requiring lower per capita consumption of energy and in increasing expenditures on education to improve our human intelligence, surveillance and data-mining capabilities. Greater resources would also be required for traditional diplomacy, now at historically low levels of support relative to the Defense Department budget.

National security in this attenuated struggle will depend on a cohesive society, underpinned by a strong economy. And there’s the rub. We have in the past sustained larger deficits than the 2 percent to 4 percent we are currently running, and US debt held by the public, now at 40 percent of GDP, has historically been a larger proportion of GDP. But these deficits are projected to grow rapidly from here, in a world in which half and ever-growing percentages of the outstanding amount we owe is already held by foreign central banks. This puts the dollar and our ability to defend it at risk. It is unclear whether we can, or should, continue on the current path without mandatory national service, energy taxes or even rationing and enforced conservation of natural resources.

We would be well advised to recognize, as Bush already has, the opportunities presented by this most unusual struggle and reorder our priorities as a society. We need to look through the predictable wind-down of the Iraq War and get organized for an attenuated, “always on” contest that will try not only our attention span but also our collective will.

We can create an American community that more fully embraces fair burden-sharing among our classes, races and generations. When there is another attack on the American heartland, conservatives will predictably exploit our collective fears to further their program. If we can abandon the idea of a “war” in favor of a clear, collective response to the real threat of terror, we will have a shot at stopping the right from destroying the nation in order to save it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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