Unintended Consequences

February 27, 2002

KUNM, 89.9 fm, Albuquerque, NM

The current temptation in Washington is to think about war like a John Wayne movie, as when a hero rode through a village of outlaws, threw a fire bomb into a saloon and wiped out all the bad guys. Simple victory for the brave, the decisive, the unafraid.

Unfortunately, we just rode through Afghanistan and instead of a simplicity we left behind ministers who don't get along. One faction recently set upon and murdered the minister from another faction, on a public plane.

In the real world the unintended consequences of violence are not simple, and are often cyclical. Israel's Ariel Sharon is finding this out. Two Israelis are killed, Sharon kills 15 Palestinians. The Palestinians then kill five Israelis. Sharon kills 20 Palestinians and bulldozes a village. Violence is a dark whirlpool, it has its own logic, its downward pull toward atrocity and lawlessness, not only for Israelis, Palestinians and Afghanis, but, unfortunately now, for Americans.

The Founding Fathers were wary of militarism. They provided in the Constitution that war would be declared by the Congress, after debate, and not by the President who may enjoy too much the thrill of battle, the messianic pull. After 9/11 Congress has not made that declaration and we have not had that debate. We are "at war" according to the President, but not according to the Constitution.

Debate, were we to have one now, would surface that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are not alike and are grossly overstated to be an axis of evil. Debate would surface that many Americans do not approve bombings against civilians in Afghanistan; nor permanent detainees in Guantanamo Bay; nor suspension of the Geneva Convention. Debate would surface the grave long-term implications of military trials, suspension of due process, of the rights of habeas corpus. Debate would surface that a war to protect freedom is more convincing if the President honors the Constitution than if he ignores it.

As many as 3,000 people may have died at our hands in Afghanistan. They may have belonged to the Taliban, and they may not, it is hard to tell from an airplane. The Taliban were brutal warlords bound together by local politics. But they did not declare war against the United States. They supported Bin Laden, or tolerated his presence, but we attacked their numbers as if to be Taliban was the same as being him. Not all Palestinians are Arafat and not all Israelis are Sharon and not all Americans are Republicans and to treat any Taliban member as the moral equivalent of bin Laden is sloppy. Unfortunately, war propaganda blurs these distinctions between combatants and civilians, between observers of criminal activity and the criminals themselves.

Another unintended consequence of militarism is that arms makers become embedded. President Eisenhower saw it and warned us. Cost-plus contracts in America are the most egregiously non-capitalistic, risk-free, guarantee of corporate profit that campaign contributions can buy. The military industrial complex depends upon cost-plus contracts like mosquitoes sucking on children. Historically, this is not new. The British historian Arnold Toynbee in his famous study of civilizations concluded that the military in whatever country, in whatever century, always ask for more money, never less, and this is the appetite that ultimately defeats empires.

We don't have to look far for current examples. According to the Inspector General and Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the Pentagon cannot properly account for $1.2 trillion in transactions. It has written off $22 billion worth of items as "lost." It has stored 30 billion worth of spare parts it does not need. But today the same Pentagon is asking for $45.6 billion increased spending. This is the latching on to the gut that Eisenhower believed is like a cancer. This is how Toynbee saw that civilizations spend themselves into exhaustion and eventual oblivion.

It is therefore true that the American republic has been rocked by 9/11, but not just in the way we at first imagined. The inexorable logic of militarization is causing a weakening in debate, in Constitutional protections, and in a siphoning from education, from health care, from highways, and from our forests and rivers. The President calls this a militarization for freedom; but it has far more the feel of the erosion of freedom. War rhetoric encourages the idea that we should be number one. But civilization is not football and in civilization there is not really any number one. There is only all of us and no amount of extermination will ever overcome the ultimate requirement to get along.