A War Without Sacrifice

"What did you do in the war, daddy?"

Years from now, when my daughter asks that question, I won't have a good answer. I can tell her that it was awfully tough deciding whether to watch it on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News Channel. ("Honey, do you want to see 'America Strikes Back,' America Recovers,' or 'Anthrax in America'?") This is -- and will be -- a disengaging war for those of us who are not Special Forces commandos or high-tech bombardiers. Since much of the war will be secret, as President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld keep saying, we television consumers of the war will not even be privy to the real action.

What sacrifice can Bush ask of the citizenry? He is requesting patience, as well as blind faith he's prosecuting the secret war reasonably. But that's not too filling. In this war, there's no need for any Rosie the Riveter. It's not as if American factories will have to churn out millions of night-vision goggles and military-style PDAs to defeat a few thousand terrorists. There's no call for victory gardens. (How will we be able to tell when victory is achieved in the war on terrorism?) And war bonds? No, the government is not asking taxpayers to dig into their pockets for this war. Rather, the Bush Administration aims to dole out bucks to taxpayers -- well-to-do taxpayers, that is -- via a new round of tax cuts.

The House Republicans passed a tax giveback that hands $25 billion to corporations -- including blue-chips like General Motors and IBM -- by retroactively repealing the alternative minimum tax. The ostensible point of the legislation is to stimulate the lackadaisical economy. Consequently, the House Republicans are compelled to argue that tax breaks to healthy corporations will pump up consumer demand more than, say, supplying that money to low-income consumers. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 42.3 percent of $162 billion tax cut passed by the House GOPers will go to corporations and businesses over the next ten years; another 43.5 percent will be showered upon upper-income taxpayers. Talk about war profits. Four percent is dedicated to spending and tax breaks for down-on-their-luck workers. In September, the Congressional Research Service noted that "a capital gains tax cut appears the least likely of any permanent tax cut to stimulate the economy in the short run." Yet a capital gains tax cut is another prominent feature of the Republican package.

All this may go too far even for Bush. But he's not averse to using the war to push for a new round of business tax cuts. How will the nation pay for the tax cuts and the new war and rebuilding New York City and beefing up security and bailing out the airlines? The lockbox is long gone. The Social Security surplus will be tapped -- which is not unreasonable in a time of emergency and economic slowdown. But the government should not rush toward deficit-land in order to finance further tax cuts for the well-heeled. In fact, Bush could have postponed his tax cuts for the rich -- and could say no to new tax cuts for corporations -- with the explanation, "Sorry guys, you're just gonna have to wait until we've taken care of that bin Laden. Defense, security and reconstruction comes first, and you all have to give a little." Instead the Sept. 11 attack greases the skids for corporate America. CEOs across the country can say, Thank you, bin Laden.

Forget about financial self-sacrifice -- unless you want to count telethons and benefit concerts. (The best moment of the show-biz efforts: Neil Young singing John Lennon"s "Imagine." Look at the lyrics: "Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/No religion, too." Those are hardly words for a country marching off to war.) So how can the average citizen participate in the war on terrorism? Is there anything to do beyond attaching flags to car radio antennae and heeding the postmaster general's advice that we wash our hands after opening mail?

Our leaders haven't offered much guidance in this regard, other than urging us to hit the malls (I'm only interested in shopping, if I can find a home anthrax test) and telling us to get accustomed to new security measures and longer lines at airports. Recently I had to take a flight. I resolved not to gripe about the wait at the airport. No patriot should bitch. While I have not been enthusiastic about the bombing campaign in Afghanistan (and now the Pentagon is admitting the Taliban isn't so easy to lick), I could wholeheartedly support those folks toiling hard to enhance security. I issued not a peep when I arrived at the airport three hours early and encountered a line that seemed to stretch for miles. Just as I took my place, an airline employee approached and said that I might prefer curbside check-in. I gazed outside; there were six people waiting there. Thanks, I said and scurried over. It took me ten minutes to make it through check-in and security. And on the return trip, I passed through the airport in less time. Alas, no sacrifice here.

As a media person, I could try to meet my civic obligations by reporting on the war. But polls show that most Americans are not eager for journalists to expose information about the war on terrorism. These folks probably would not be much interested in learning about my favorite factoid of this week. Buried within a New York Times piece on opium production in Afghanistan were the following lines about the Afghan guerrillas who fought the Soviet invaders in the 1980s: "Often, officials said, the convoys of donkeys and trucks that smuggled arms to the mujadedeen [guerrillas] returned to Pakistan with raw opium, sometimes with the assent of the Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance. From there the drug was usually converted to morphine base or smuggled to Turkey to be refined into heroin." Wait a minute. CIA officials were approving the flow of drugs? Isn't that news, bigtime? But these sentences were an aside slipped into the middle of a long piece. I suppose highlighting such scandalous information would not be considered by most Americans as a contribution to the war effort.

What else to do? The other day the Pentagon announced it was seeking help for its war on terrorism, and it asked inventors, military contractors and anyone else to propose ideas on how to defeat "difficult targets." (It also requested assistance in "conducting protracted operations in remote areas and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction.") The process is as follows: you submit a one-page concept description. The Defense Department will then select notions deserving additional development -- up to 12 page's worth of elaboration. After that, the Pentagon will pick the most promising ideas and invite the submission of full proposals.

With this contest, Americans can roll up their sleeves and plunge right into the war effort. I already have several preliminary brainstorms for the Defense Department.

* Instead of offering $5 million as bounty for Osama bin Laden, make it $1 billion. That's a fraction of the cost of Operation Enduring Freedom and perhaps enough to even interest the Taliban. In a similar vein, the Bush administration could vow to spend $40 billion -- the amount of the emergency package Congress passed -- to rebuild Afghanistan, in an attempt to convince Afghanistan civilians that the United States really is bombing their country to help them. It could issue direct payments to Afghan citizens. That would come to about $1,500 a person -- a significant sum for many Afghans. Or, why not dump millions of dollars with the food being dropped by U.S. military aircraft? The United States does not seem to be winning hearts and minds with its bombing campaign. Perhaps it ought to try buying them.

* Build a time machine and send operatives back to 1953 to convince President Eisenhower and the CIA not to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. Then, the Shah of Iran would not gain the throne and rule dictatorially for three decades (with the support of Washington and the help of savage secret police). He would not breed anger in Iran and elsewhere, and establish the conditions for the 1979 revolution and the rise to power of fundamentalists in Iran. These operatives could next visit CIA headquarters in the 1980s and tell officials there to stop encouraging fundamentalist Arabs -- like Osama bin Laden -- to head to Afghanistan to join the holy war against the Soviets.

* Put together a coalition of Western European and Middle Eastern nations to lean on -- really lean on -- Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resolve their conflict. You don't need 12 pages to detail the idea.

This is a start. In the meantime, citizens can continue to stay involved in the war by watching television. For the moment, there still is something to see on our screens. (Bombing raids are difficult to hide.) But if the war ever progresses to a post-Afghanistan phase, we may no longer be able to serve our country as couch warriors.

David Corn is Washington correspondent for The Nation.

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