Vol II no. 5 March 4, 2003  
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The Alternative to Bush's War

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.


War war war war war. Stand up, let your head hang loose and dangle your arms, wriggle your wrists, flex your knees, loosen up your body and mind – and say it a dozen times. War war war war war.

War. A little clump of vowels and quasi-vowels, without any operative consonants. As close to a grunt as "oil" is to a squeal. Once you reach the point that the syllable has become a kind of babble-sound, try to examine what you know about the concept. War.

War. Too many of us are using the word without thinking. Especially the chorus of American TV reporters and pundits who are practically salivating at the prospect of easy ratings.

War. Most of us can't possibly know what war really means. We are told by those who know the real thing that Hollywood's version is notoriously misleading. An older generation of Europeans know bloody well, but most Americans have experienced war only as entertainment. Even our liveliest flights of imagination can bring us about as close to the experience of war as the Holocaust Museum can bring us to the reality of the Holocaust.

I'm willing to bet that most Americans, asked to describe war, would set their description on some sort of battlefield, as if war were something "over there" where the soldiers are; and that most Europeans of a certain age would, instead, set their description among familiar landmarks, conjuring visions of destroyed cities, of forlorn refugees, almost all of them civilians with a preponderance of women and children and the elderly.

Yet in the argument about war on Iraq, proponents of war are bandying the word about as if they were prescribing a home remedy, or discussing a video game, or playing office politics. War.

War in Iraq was originally proposed as a response to 9-11. The war plans, which had been developed during the first Bush administration, and further elaborated during the planners' "exile" in the Clinton years, were ready for prime time on 9-13. To an American public who, polls show, don't know the difference between an Arab and an Iranian, it was easy to morph two mutually inimical Muslims into a single enemy. So two days after Osama bin Laden struck, the plan to destroy Saddam, including a PR/propaganda program to explain it, was proposed and set in motion.

The original pretext – we must call it that because it is one of a series of flexible and inconsistent rationales for a call to war – was to combat terrorism. The most recent pretext, but one, was to disarm a rogue state. In just the past few days, the Bush administration has made clear that disarming Saddam isn't enough. They now insist on regime change: Saddam has to go, along with 40-50 of his close personal friends.

In other parts of the world, especially in nations south of the equator, when America says "regime change" they hear "covert operations." We have a history of deposing national leaders and replacing them with (often military) leaders of pro-American disposition. What distinguishes the Bush administration – and this has reawakened concern in the "old" countries north of the equator as well – is that what used to be covert and at least somewhat inhibited by shame is now overt and cause for bragging. Our national strategy is now explicitly that the U.S. should be the world's sole superpower.

That might not seem like such a bad thing in itself. And before 9-11 (and immediately afterwards) world opinion was well-disposed toward America's role as a guarantor of peace within a world order – which is another way of saying that Europeans, especially, gave a gallic shrug of acceptance if not indifference: if you Americans want to spend your national treasure on your military instead of your social needs, that's up to you.

The Bush administration's pretexts for war include the allegation that Saddam is in cahoots with bin Laden and must be called to account for 9-11; that Saddam conspires with terrorists (terrorism aimed at Israel is equated with terrorism aimed at U.S. targets) and is planning future violence against us; that Saddam is a threat to his neighbors and a threat to Mideast stability; that Saddam possesses nuclear weapons; that Saddam has previously sought to develop nuclear weapons; that Saddam possesses biological weapons like anthrax; that Saddam possesses chemical weapons like Sarin; that Saddam has previously sought to develop biological or chemical weapons; that Saddam has conventional weapons he shouldn't possess; that Saddam is maniacally homicidal like Stalin or Idi Amin; that Saddam is a fascist totalitarian like Hitler; that only decisive war in Iraq will bring peace and democracy to the Mideast; that Bush has gone so far in his threats that to back down would be disastrous to American credibility in the eyes of the world.

None of these pretexts but the last are unique to Saddam. Several are most likely untrue, but even the true ones are but pretexts for war. Yet war is urged by people who don't know what war is.

This is largely due to the breakdown in our information system, compounding the shortcomings of our education system. As the fourth branch of government – the only industry to be explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution (the states can't even charge sales tax for a newspaper or magazine) – our media are supposed to be the information switchboard for an informed citizenry. In theory, the press is as essential to the workings of our democracy as the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government. Without a vigorous, independent press, only those in authority hold the high cards of reliable intelligence, and the sovereign people are directed by, rather than enabled to direct, the policies and day-to-day operations of their government.

Increasingly over the past 25 years, along with general trends in corporate domination of the economy, the major media have followed the money. The broadcast news media are pure entertainment, political talk shows are the modern version of bear-baiting (in our day, as in Shakespeare's, more popular than higher forms of entertainment), and the print media are almost wholly driven by profits. These are not original observations – we have an entire library of diatribes by the best minds in the field, whose self-criticism is much more intimately informed and endlessly articulate than any criticism from without.

One effect of this decadence of the media is "pack journalism" – the often unwitting conspiracy of news professionals to subscribe to whatever conventional wisdom has developed. It's a useful fiction, to establish a common narrative, a story-framework, in which individual stories can be embellished without the danger of dissonance, of straying from the "facts" that "everyone knows."

Pack journalism is rooted in human nature. A journalist friend told me of his trip to cover the Pope's visit to Poland twenty years ago. The American journalists were clustered together in a hotel overlooking the streets thronging with the faithful and the patriotic, and they were at a loss to estimate the crowd size. "One hundred thousand," said one, "easily." "Naw, closer to a million," said another. My friend claims it was his number – a quarter of a million, I think – that the journalists agreed upon. While it was important that the number bore some relationship to reality, it was more important that they all used the same number, lest their editors back home raise hell.

Coming up with a fictional but reasonable, mutually agreeable number is a relatively benign product of "pack journalism." A rush to judgment is far worse – it reminds us of the potential for hysteria that once led to burning witches. And worst of all is the fundamental distortion of reality in the media's treatment of the very concept of war.

Especially with the help of alternative media, and easy access to other independent journalism in Europe and Asia, and one-day items in the U.S. major media, there is hardly a story that has not surfaced sooner or later in the print media. But a Pew poll tells us that most Americans get their news from radio talk shows – not news programs on radio, but talk shows like Rush Limbaugh's – so you can imagine the quality of information out there. The media can claim that a proliferation of news sources guarantees that the press is still performing its historic role, and that's technically true: the stories are there for readers who have initiative and lots of time. But as a practical matter, American public opinion is as polluted as the Los Angeles air.

"Reality-TV" is the new new thing. You know, shows without stars or even paid actors, with minimal production values (and therefore additionally cheap to produce) – for audiences attracted by the unpredictability of the action. Hollywood plots are boringly formulaic, but in reality-TV, as in sports, anything can happen.

The electronic media treat the idea of war in Iraq as the ultimate in reality-TV. We're well past the point where any sensitivities are offended that a war comes with a theme song and a logo. We take it in stride that war is a commodity like coffee, that can be branded by a range of competitors, from the heights of PBS to the depths of Fox. All this has a direct effect on public opinion. It should come as no surprise that the polls show that American citizens support a president who is hell-bent on war. Whatever that is.

But what are we talking about when we talk about war?

For instance, is war necessarily a contest between two opposing forces? Does the concept require that, no matter how lopsided the odds, there be some uncertainty about the outcome? If there is no uncertainty, must we substitute another word, like "massacre?"

If war means contest, then can we speak of a "War in Iraq?" Everyone concedes up front that the Iraqi military is no match for the 300,000 or more American troops amassed nearby. Our jet bombers control the air over Iraq and have been flying deadly missions over targets there for years. Our navy controls the waters. The country, crawling with U.N. inspectors with backstage passes to every military and civilian venue, is already invested, already lies supine and at our mercy.

Or does war instead mean a remedial action, a surgical removal of something bad, to be followed if possible by rehabilitation, as implied in the locutions, "War on Poverty," "War on Drugs," and "War on Terror?" That is, can you have war without a single identifiable personal enemy? Can "undesirable conditions" substitute for the role of enemy in classical warfare?

If so, what are the "undesirable conditions" that apply in this case? Without revisiting the litany of pretexts referred to earlier, the conditions are not unique to Iraq; and if we adopt this concept of war, we are indeed embarked on an infinite crusade that will alienate Americans from world opinion, and from their better selves, for decades to come. When Bush asserts that this will be a long, long war, he seems to be talking about this kind of Orwellian nightmare of a perpetual war that justifies severe curtailment of individual rights within the countries who are "defending themselves."

War. Historically, war means making up the rules as you go along. All's fair. A general's needs in the field come first, before any protest from burgomeister or priest. Even a century and a half of international rules to mitigate the horrors have been operative only until some extremity requires more extreme measures. That is, war means chaos, where oftentimes the worst sort of people are calling the shots.

War. One thing we know about war is that war results in untold human misery. War means bridges destroyed – I refer to physical bridges, over rivers. Not one, but entire networks of bridges, to prevent transportation of enemy assets. A bridge that can be destroyed in minutes may take years to replace. The food and supplies and people that formerly crossed that bridge will have to take the long way round. Don't think of an unnamed bridge in Iraq, or Serbia. Think of the Michigan Avenue bridge, and all the bridges that cross the Chicago River. Imagine your life without those bridges.

War. We know that war entails the destruction of power grids. Try to picture throwing a switch in your home, out of habit, and then remembering that the power grid has been destroyed, and there will be no more electricity for domestic use for a long time. That's why you have a block of ice in your refrigerator.

War. We know that war means that water becomes unsafe to drink. Even after a potable supply of water is restored – a matter of days if not weeks if not longer – it will taste funny for years, and there will always be an element of mistrust about whatever it is that makes it taste funny. The authorities say that it's the purifying chemicals that are now necessary, but suspicions will linger that the pipes and aqueducts have been jerry-rigged and what you're drinking is contaminated. And forget about Evian – the trucks can't get through and there are higher priorities than designer water.

War. We have seen the pictures and we know that war results in ruined buildings. But our experience of buildings open to the elements is pretty much confined to buildings under construction. It is hard for us to imagine occupied buildings, with all the effects of human activity, in a tangled tumble. Not one, but a whole block at a time. Just the dollar value of all that wreckage is beyond our experience, never mind the human toll.

War. We know that war means death, but fortunately we have no yardstick with which to measure the full horror. Most of us have had the experience of walking past a person sleeping in a doorway. We are not acquainted with the horror, experienced in other parts of the world, of walking past bodies of war casualities. And, of course, the number of children with one leg and women with their faces burned off far outnumber those who have been buried.

War. Is this the glory of America? Is this what we want to be known for? Is this how we want to spend our treasure?

War. A hundred years ago it was still possible to speak of a lovely little war. There was educated opinion, of the best and of the worst of men, that war was a cleansing act, a wholesome way of clearing the air, righting the table, refurnishing the game board with fresh markers.

We're hearing some of that same language now from educated men and women who should know better.

But thankfully we are also hearing the protests, from millions of men and women worldwide. We are hearing it from business executives and cultural figures and religious leaders – not splinter groups, but the leadership of major denominations worldwide, including Pope John Paul II.

War. It is not necessary for us to be simply anti-war. There is an alternative concept we can support, though the concept has been abused, and that is police action. Miscreants suffer, not their innocent neighbors and neighborhoods. They are hunted down, caught, tried and punished. Where it works well, there is no collateral damage, and justice is served.

There exists a vehicle for this alternative, in the United Nations. There is overwhelming world support for U.N. action, especially as the spectre of a unilateral American Peace starts to look ugly. This is what liberals should line up to support, proactively, as an alternative to Bush's war.

© 2003 Alton Miller
Use freely with notification & attribution
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