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What Has War Brought Us So Far?

22 February 2002

The last time I checked, the Constitution of the United States authorized only Congress - not the president - to declare war on anybody.

In the hyper-inflated atmosphere of unity and patriotism in which the nation finds itself, I suppose this is a minor technicality that it is politically incorrect to mention. So instead let's assess what this war has gotten us.

No one knows whether the war's ostensible, primary objective has been accomplished. Whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive is anyone's guess; if he is alive, neither we nor our allies know where he is hiding. Bin Laden, in fact, has all but disappeared from public discussion, which has turned to ever-widening aims: toppling the government of Afghanistan, dealing with what President Bush terms an "axis of evil" that embraces at least three other nation-states and, in Secretary of State Colin Powell's declaration, going "after terrorism wherever it threatens free men and women."

In the meantime, we've managed to bomb out of existence the government of another country for the sole reason that it was where bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts were presumed to be hiding. If giving sanctuary to terrorists is a criterion for declaring war, there are at least two dozen of our allies on which we ought to drop cluster bombs. Before we do, however, we might wish to consider two things:

First, reporters such as Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post who are inside Afghanistan describe "miles of housing, schools and government buildings reduced to rubble" and "tens of thousands of desperate people ... packed into rooms without ceilings, without walls, without water or electricity or heat."

Our military refers to this, along with the untold thousands of civilians killed by American bombs, as the "collateral damage" of war. It's doubtful that it provides much incentive for Afghans or millions of other people in the nations we've identified as potential targets of our wrath, to trade the despotic regimes under which they presently live for the benefits of freedom and democracy.

Second, in bombing Afghanistan, we've managed to make a mockery of the notion of national sovereignty. No matter how primitive we think its moral code or backward its treatment of women, in destroying the government of Afghanistan we've also destroyed the principle that nations, except in the most egregious of circumstances, are immune from the assault of other nations. It's a principle we insist is inviolable whenever it is our national behavior that is at issue.

Meanwhile, here in the "homeland," the war on terrorism has produced some added frightening developments. Five months after Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft still refuses to disclose the names of more than 1,100 people being held in detention as suspected terrorists.

The governor of Oklahoma has declared that racial profiling is just what the country needs to keep an eye on potential terrorists -- something he oddly failed to think of when the terrorist was Timothy McVeigh, a white, crew-cut Army vet who wreaked havoc in the governor's state.

And Bush, determined to get maximum mileage from his popularity in the polls, proposes a $120 billion increase in the military budget - $48 billion in the coming year alone. No indication is given as to how spending $475 million for mobile howitzers, $910 million for reconnaissance helicopters, $1.3 billion for 23 stealth fighter jets or $5 billion for new navy destroyers and submarines will help fight terrorists who, if Ashcroft is right, are already in our midst.

Dealing with fanatics who think they are doing God's will by slaughtering other people is, without doubt, the single most important task facing the nations of the world. We need to find ways to do so without turning people and their homes in other nations into "collateral damage" and without turning America into an example of the very despotism it seeks to destroy.

If the past six months has taught us anything, it ought to be the recognition that the struggle in which we are engaged is for the hearts and minds of impoverished, marginalized, angry people around the world. That struggle won't be won with howitzers and helicopters.

Hubert G. Locke
Published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ©1999-2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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