News & Politics

The Iraq 'War' is Over

Bush isn't fighting a war in Iraq; he's presiding over an occupation as a civil war unfolds.
Listening to public debate you get the impression the Iraq war is not over yet. But, it is -- at least in terms of having reached, or passed, identifiable goals. Regime change? Check. WMD? None there, but check. New "democratic" government? Check.

The president isn't fighting a war in Iraq. He's presiding over an occupation as a civil war unfolds. Of course, it could be claimed, we're still engaged in a global "war on terror." (Remember Afghanistan?) But when you consider the stubborn fact that terrorism is a tactic and not a flesh-and-blood enemy, the confused terminology becomes plain.  

And what does "winning" the "war on terror" mean? That there won't be evil in the world anymore? There will be no such thing as nihilistic murder or political violence? The Second Coming?  

The Bush administration and many of its supporters have come to realize this vacuous verbiage and try to add a bit more precision to their war rhetoric -- a war against radical Islam, a war against Islamo-facism (careful not to say "crusade," though that's exactly what the president called it in an unscripted moment on Sept. 12 standing atop a pile of rubble at Ground Zero).  

The foolishness of casting the response to terrorism in apocalyptic terms notwithstanding, the president alone can't be blamed for this kind of predictable and unimaginative thinking. It's embedded in our culture. Any complex social problem, we must "war" against it. War on poverty. War on drugs. War on cancer. War on AIDS. War, war, war is the answer.  

Whatever you call the "war on terror," it is a "new kind of war" -- not necessarily nation against nation, but a war against a decentralized network of terrorists who don't wear uniforms, as the logic goes.  

The gloves come off, international law and civil liberties be damned -- out of one side of our mouth. Out the other side, we pay lip service to "the rule of law" because that's what is supposed to separate the civilized from the barbarians.   What's the difference between law enforcement -- where the means, and not just the ends, matter -- and war, in which "all is fair"?  

"War, by definition, is an activity undertaken against a political or social entity, while the terrorist network...is a coalition of individuals. Law enforcement, by definition, is an activity undertaken against just such individuals or networks," is how James Carroll parses it in his book "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."  

Carroll's point underscores why this language thing is so important. "By clothing our response to the (Sept. 11) terrorist acts in the rhetoric of war, we make it far more likely that members of groups associated by extrinsic factors with the perpetrators will suffer terrible consequences, from being bombed in Kabul to being discriminated against in Boston."  

Two other problems with war rhetoric: 1) In war, results matter far more than methods. The ends justify the means. And 2), war generates its own momentum. History has shown that war "has a way of inhumanely overwhelming the humane purposes for which the war is begun in the first place."  

Law enforcement is the use of force against individuals who violate the law. It targets individual suspects and accomplices. If a crime syndicate takes root in a city, law enforcement doesn't bomb the city's infrastructure and terrorize entire neighborhoods with tanks, helicopters, grenades, house-to-house raids, mass arrests, torture, and other intended and "unintended" consequences that come with war -- none of which can be written off with glib utterances of "war is hell" and "collateral damage happens."  

The rule of law gives rise to order. War, literally, unleashes chaos, as the semantic history of the word reflects. (The word "war" can be traced back to the Indo-European root wers, which means "to confuse, mix up.")  

We must "do something" about terrorism is a common refrain. That's true. International law enforcement; not war. Initiating an illegal war to carry out a police action creates more enemies, not less -- and in such an asymmetrical war, the civilized/barbarian distinction in the battle over "hearts and mind" is also lost.  

Republicans are arguing that we need to "win the war in Iraq" and that Democrats stand for ending the war. Why aren't Democrats saying: We are not calling for an end to the war. The war is over. We're calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq, collective global security through focused police action, the return of the rule of law and the reclamation of our civilized humanity?
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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