In this time of great and exalted excitement, let us be especially thankful this year for a new war against a new enemy.
Or maybe just a reboot of an old war against an old enemy. Either way, it’s all good.
Paris was attacked, rather than New York or London or Madrid, by ISIS rather than al Qaeda, but here we are again in yet another “civizational conflict—either we win or they win.”
Thank God for a renewed sense of common purpose in these desultory, fractured, and hyper-partisan times. Let us not overthink this new-old war because that would be weak. The drums, after all, are already pounding out a pleasing, quickening beat for more bombs and more troops in Iraq and Syria.
Let us just be thankful for the struggle that we have been waging for virtually all the 21st century: the Global War on Terrorism, GWOT, whose acronym sounds like something from the Old Testament or a next-generation PlayStation 4 release, and thus is attractive to the vast range of young people who will be asked to bear its burdens, shoulder its sacrifices, and (eventually, when the loans finally come due) pay its bill.
War is a force that gives us meaning, war is the health of the state, and war is no longer hell, even though it’s still kind of rough on the men and the women who fight it either in person or via remote control. And it’s still very rough on the innocents whose only sin—a mortal one, alas—was to be born in the wrong place and the wrong time.
This is a “crusade against evil,” said George W. Bush back when the rubble of the World Trade Center was still smoldering like the fires of Gehenna and the terror of Paris was off in the future. “We have found our moment and our mission,” he said. And so we have, forever and ever amen.
Different presidents and different parties have since prosecuted the war and declared victory. But we’ve never come home from Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else. Indeed, we have since sent more soldiers around the globe, in Syria, Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, and elsewhere.
While our nation’s partisans and politicians argue amongst themselves about who is tougher, more determined, and thus more patriotic, these disagreements are differences in degree rather than kind. Some leaders surged in Iraq, others in Afghanistan; that neither action accomplished anything lasting is unimportant. Some in-sourced torture and started mass surveillance, while others outsourced torture, increased surveillance, and tossed secret kill lists into the mix. Some invaded foreign lands under false pretenses, others invaded without constitutional authorization. “What difference at this point does it make?” explained someone.
The important thing—the only thing—that matters is the leading candidates for the presidency have all declared that they will continue GWOT, especially in Syria and Iraq, at the Mexican border (even as Mexicans flood back south), and at every job in America via work databases. “ISIS is not going away,” at least not until it is replaced by whatever grows up next, fertilized by the new bombs and bodies we drop on the rich soil of Mesopotamia.
Our mission—to bring to justice those responsible for 9/11, to rebuild Ozymandias’ ruins wherever we find them, whatevs—-still is unaccomplished, which means our common purpose still binds us together and makes us exceptionally American.
The real purpose of war, especially a war against a tactic rather than a specific enemy, is not to win but to keep on fighting.
The ultimate effect of constant war is to distract us from everything else, from the excruciatingly boring and uninspired details of everyday life and everyday governance, especially from failed attempts to restart the economy, to fix healthcare, to pass a budget, and to regain the trust of the American people.
Constant war means not only that we can—thankfully—keep fighting the last war but also that we can refuse to ask, much less understand, anything about its objectives, tactics, and lack of efficacy.
The greatest gift of war, of “civilizational conflict,” is that it makes it possible to ignore the soul-crushing ironies of history both big and small.
How can we acknowledge that we are fighting on the same side as Bashar al-Assad, the very dictator whose regime we seek to destroy?
How can we appreciate that our strongest allies in the current fight, Russia and Iran, are our sworn enemies in every other context? And that other friends—the Saudis, for instance—are not only the enablers of terrorists but practitioners of medieval, anti-modern justice?
How can we live with ourselves refusing refugees—even orphaned children—from a part of the world we’ve done so much to destabilize?
How can we not understand that after years of uninterrupted bombing, droning, and killing that we are supposedly less safe not despite our war but because of it?
And that there are other ways of combating terrorism and defending American lives and interests than repeating precisely what has failed not in distant memory but the immediate past?
This is why we should be thankful this year for a new war.