The United States appears to be irrevocably on the road to war. In the contemporary reality of large armies and great distances, an army which has been mobilized for war and transported thousands of miles soon runs out of options. It cannot stay there waiting for things to change. Keeping an army in the field is very expensive.
Even discounting the war hawks who argue that you have to go to war if you said you were going to, or those who say once you have drawn your sword you are compelled to use it, the chances the U.S. will withdraw from the battlefield when it has 200,000 soldiers in the field are very remote. The war, whatever its outcome, will do little to harm or deter Al Qaeda.
It will be very difficult to recruit the usual allies to the battle. The world knows that for the most part, organized and armed aggression is undertaken for the purpose of plunder, and the U.S. seems poised to keep this tradition. Our allies all know that the "chicken hawks," the pro-war advisors in the Bush administration who themselves never donned a military uniform, wanted to invade Iraq before 9/11, partly because some of them see it as a way of stabilizing the Middle East and securing Israel.
To say that "nobody wants war" is simply untrue. These people want war. The U.S. has a military which can defeat any nation in the world and there are those who are determined to use it. It is not well suited to the "war on terrorism," and not the right instrument to attack Al Queda, but it can be applied to Iraq. The American people are being told that the war in Iraq will unfold with a quick shock attack to demoralize the Iraqis who will then either surrender or overthrow Saddam Hussein.
War is always a terrifying event, and it has its consequences. In her landmark book "Against Our Wills," Susan Brownmiller wrote about violence against women. Much of the book, however, is about violence against women as a consequence of war. Throughout history she finds examples of soldiers violating women. It raises an unpleasant issue in the United States where one in three women are thought to experience some form of male sexual violence. This is far more prevalent in the U.S. than it is in most other countries, even in countries where women's rights are not defined as they are here. Indeed, the countries of the world which have the highest rates of male sexual violence directed against women are those whose soldiers have gone to war in foreign lands, or against distinct populations domestically.
War produces other forms of "blowback," or unintended consequences. A minority return from the violence as violence-prone drunks or people nursing intense internal conflict and who take it out on their wives and partners, or strangers. Soldiers are subjected to a particular kind of training which requires that they abandon their instinctive aversion to killing and learn to do it without thinking. This process is called "disengagement," and it's what the military needs in its lean, mean killing machines. It's not what you need in a neighbor or lover. You might remember Howard Unruh, a 28-year-old WWII veteran who shot 13 of his neighbors in 1949. He was the first modern serial killer. There have been many who followed, including Muhammad and Malvo and Timothy McVeigh. War is sometimes necessary, but war comes at a cost to society. It should never be entered lightly.
The war which is proposed in Iraq is not going to be pretty. Modern warfare involves complex bunker and underground tunnel arrangements not unlike those encountered during World War II in Okinawa or in Vietnam a generation later. This time the bunkers and tunnels are under a major Arab city. Bagdad has a complex underground shelter system the details of which, we must believe, the U.S. has some knowledge about. In the first days of the war the U.S. plans to rain down some 800 cruise missiles on Bagdad. Bagdad has a population of four million. Is it possible to send 800 missiles into a city of four million and not cause significant, even dramatic, civilian casualties? Some of our most important European allies don't think so.
America's European allies have significantly greater numbers of Arabs among their populations and a greater stake in keeping some sense of even-handedness. They are on the front lines of any wider "clash of civilizations" with Islam. They think that if they can keep enough inspectors busy inside Iraq, they can keep Saddam from doing anything foolish. They fear and loathe Saddam too, but some of them have not been convinced such drastic action is necessary. The tactics the U.S. used in Panama to hide the extent of civilian casualties and to blur the objective (we invaded Panama to reposition the canal zone in U.S. hands, not to fight the drug war) will not work in Iraq.
Most Americans are cool to the idea of war, but not agitated in opposition enough to cause alarm among the pollsters. Opposition to war is not a liberal or conservative issue, and there are many conservatives who harbor serious doubts about the necessity of war. People of conscience should oppose the war to the last minute, but we might also remember that there are terrible potential outcomes should things go badly, and it would be a bad thing to lose this war in any way. I can understand how some people will express solidarity during the fighting, and demand accountability afterward. While conceding that war is sometimes necessary, it is incumbent on those proposing it that they prove there is no alternative; and there is legitimate disagreement whether the U.S. has met this burden. And it is not a possibility that the U.S. can go from one mindless adventure of military conquest to another or reduce a country to rubble and then walk away as though nothing more is to be done.
The cessation of violence and the removal of Saddam need to be the end of this period of military aggression. A far more serious program of reconstruction of the social, economic and political life of the country needs to be undertaken than has been undertaken by this administration thus far.
John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.