Playing the World War Two Card: Nostalgia and the War on Terrorism

Published as a ZNet Commentary, December 16, 2001

Traveling through airports can prove to be quite an educational experience. Therein, one can engage in people watching, examine the culinary habits of corporate types and tourists, and occasionally gain insight into the mindsets of one’s fellow citizens, or at least some of them. This one can do in any number of ways: eavesdropping on conversations is among my favorites, followed closely by the far less intrusive practice of examining the reading materials of other passengers, or noting which books are on the racks in the bookstores and newsstands that litter America’s concourses.

Perhaps it was like this before 9/11, but lately it seems as though every guy in every plane I’ve been on is reading either a Tom Clancy novel, or some book by flag-waving historian, Stephen Ambrose. The hot sellers at the airport bookstores are tales of wartime heroism, with retrospectives on World War Two and the so-called “Greatest Generation” leading the pack.

This bodes well for the Bush Administration, which needs the public to continue thinking about the triumph of good over evil (a constant in Ambrose’s history offerings and Clancy’s spy stories), especially as the war on Afghanistan continues, and yet Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and most al-Qaeda principals remain on the run.

Listening to discussions about the war in Central Asia, one gets the impression that Americans are in fact desperate for another “greatest generation.” Naturally, when the search for such a bunch swings into full gear, as it seems to have done, said search almost invariably focuses on military heroism. Having been fed tales of wartime glory ever since middle school, many Americans have a hard time imagining greatness decoupled from soldiering. Still reeling from Vietnam, and not convinced that our outing in Iraq was such a great idea, many seem relieved to see their nation fighting what to them appears to be the first “just war” since World War Two.

That many have been going out of their way to conjure up the justness of World War Two so as to propel the battle in Afghanistan is readily apparent. Within the first few hours after the 9/11 attacks, commentators were likening them to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Since then, Ambrose has been much sought after to offer analysis on network news programs, despite the fact that he has no background in the area of terrorism. On December 7th, the President referenced the Japanese sneak attack of sixty years prior, as historical context for his current actions.

And ever since writing my first criticism of the current bombardment, my email has been inundated by folks who insist that massive retaliation will ultimately prove successful in the war against terrorism. As proof they offer up what else but World War Two: after all, it sure humbled Japan and Germany now didn’t it? And whatever bombing doesn’t accomplish can, according to others, be vouchsafed by way of a reconstruction of the nation after we’re done strafing it, a la the Marshall Plan efforts expended to rebuild Europe after, you guessed it, World War Two. But in truth, the world and the current situation are both quite different than in the 1940s.

As for the Pearl Harbor analogy, it fails on many levels. The bombing on December 7 was an act of aggression by one nation against another; with an instigator whose assets were identifiable and whose targets for retaliation were easily located. Not so with the attackers of 9/11, whose identity and connections are murky, though we know that none of them were from the nation we have been pummeling, nor did most apparently spend any substantial amount of time there.

Secondly, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Germany too declared war on the U.S., thereby making clear another sworn enemy. But this time, no nations, including those that have sponsored terrorism and that despise the U.S., have declared war on us or made common cause with Osama bin Laden. Nor are they likely to do so. This alone makes overuse of the Pearl Harbor analogy dangerous. After all, if we are to truly view 9/11 as analogous to that prior incident of infamy, then should we also be willing to do what was done in the wake of that attack? Namely, incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians as in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And would we be willing to do this, even though this time around the enemy targets are not to be found merely or even mostly in the place we are attacking?

And there are further flaws in the comparisons made between this war and the fight against the Nazis and Japanese. Back in the day, our force was applied against national governments. Once crushed, they were out of commission, and victory assured. Today, the adversary is a pan-Islamic, transnational network. Destroying Afghanistan might prevent that nation from attacking the U.S., but they had never done so in the first place. Meanwhile, the current bombing cannot be expected to have much effect on reducing the danger posed by al-Qaeda, few of whose members live in Afghanistan and who hardly need that nation’s support for terrorist training camps in order to continue operations.

Unlike Japan and Germany, al-Qaeda could rebuild camps in any number of the other 63 countries where they have operatives. There are, after all, key personages in a number of these places who have harbored and funded their members every bit as much as the Taliban. Although some claim this would be unlikely, since other nations would now understand the fate that awaits those who harbor terrorists, such a newfound recognition would be, for many, an empty threat.

The House of Saud, for example, knows full well that the U.S. would never bomb their sheikdom no matter the fact that is has significant ties to the Taliban and even al-Qaeda. No matter that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi and had been able to operate in that nation prior to coming to the U.S., without any fear of detection. We depend on Saudi Arabia for about 17 percent of our oil imports, and we also depend on their purchase of billions of dollars worth of arms, automobiles, computers and other goods from the U.S. It is rare, to be sure, that a nation wages war on a country where its own corporations have over $4 billion in direct investments.

So too Pakistan. Would the U.S. really launch a war on a nuclear power such as that run by Pervez Musharraf? Even though that nation has provided ongoing support for the very Madrassahs where young boys are taught the extremist Islam that animated the Taliban and that motivates al-Qaeda? Of course not. We bomb people who can’t fight back. As such, al-Qaeda will continue to have plenty of options as to the location for their primary staging ground. In fact, with information technology spreading so rapidly, they could plan and plot future attacks via the internet, without even having to set up base camps in remote mountain passes. And their steady stream of recruits would only be likely to increase the longer we continue to bomb Muslims, contributing to the refugee crisis, and “accidentally” killing entire families.

As for the promises of reconstruction after the bombing stops — a favorite of liberals who seek to justify Operation Enduring Freedom by supporting a new “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan — there are any number of reasons why such a promise is empty. First off, there has been no such promise made, nor is one likely. With budgets tightening, it is doubtful that voters will be happy with the idea of writing the kinds of checks to the post-war regime that we would have to write if we were serious about true reconstruction.

Secondly, we haven’t the cultural attachment to Central Asia that we had to Europe in the wake of World War Two. The American public, whites in particular, wanted to rebuild Europe because that was where so many of them were from. But the dominant majority in the U.S. has neither the cultural, racial or religious affinity for Afghans that we had and still have for Europeans.

Most importantly, the adversary in this so-called war on terrorism operates in about one third of the nations on Earth, and heavily so in more than a dozen. Thus, to successfully reconstruct a truly vanquished enemy we would have to first destroy that enemy completely, as was done in World War Two, and that would require more or less leveling a number of those nations: something we aren’t going to do even if we could. Furthermore, by crushing (or re-crushing) Afghanistan, and then rebuilding it, we might please the Afghan people enough to keep them from attacking us, but again, they never did so to begin with. And why would al-Qaeda members, who are mostly Saudi, Egyptian, Sudanese and Pakistani, care that we rebuilt a nation where they don’t live anyway?

It’s interesting to hear war supporters hearken back to World War Two so as to justify the current operations in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the President says this is a “new war,” that is being fought with “new weapons,” and that is unlike any previous conflict in which the U.S. has found itself. And yet on the other hand, those pushing for the prosecution of this “new war” are falling back not only on the usual weapons (cluster bombs and “daisy cutters,” very original), but the usual rhetoric as well: Pearl Harbor, massive retaliation, and reconstruction.

So desperate is our nation for a “good” war — one that will make us feel happy to wave the flag again — that we are willing to overlook the obvious differences between this conflict and the last one that most folks consider truly just. So desirous are we of a new “Greatest Generation,” that we seem willing to rush into military action no matter the consequences; no matter the likely anger such actions will engender, thereby increasing, not reducing terrorism; no matter the innocent civilians we will snuff out in the process. We say we want safety. But really, what we seem to want is a rejuvenated patriotism that can paper over our fears, even as it does nothing to make us safe.

Perhaps if we had instilled the idea that greatness could come from peacemaking and cooperation, instead of merely kicking ass, as many prefer, we wouldn’t have come to such a pathetic point in our history, where projecting power is more important than increasing security. Where image is more important than reality. Where we think we can sell anyone on anything if we just put the right package together. And where in the U.S., at least so far, we have.

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