[OPE-L:7645] NYTimes.com Article: Real Battles and Empty Metaphors

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Wed Sep 11 2002 - 10:20:30 EDT

Real Battles and Empty Metaphors

September 10, 2002

Since last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the
American people that America is at war. But this war is of
a peculiar nature. It seems to be, given the nature of the
enemy, a war with no foreseeable end. What kind of war is

There are precedents. Wars on such enemies as cancer,
poverty and drugs are understood to be endless wars. There
will always be cancer, poverty and drugs. And there will
always be despicable terrorists, mass murderers like those
who perpetrated the attack a year ago tomorrow - as well as
freedom fighters (like the French Resistance and the
African National Congress) who were once called terrorists
by those they opposed but were relabeled by history.

When a president of the United States declares war on
cancer or poverty or drugs, we know that "war" is a
metaphor. Does anyone think that this war - the war that
America has declared on terrorism - is a metaphor? But it
is, and one with powerful consequences. War has been
disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is
deemed to be self-evident.

Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning
and an end. Even the horrendous, intractable conflict
between Israel and Palestine will end one day. But this
antiterror war can never end. That is one sign that it is
not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of
American power.

When the government declares war on cancer or poverty or
drugs it means the government is asking that new forces be
mobilized to address the problem. It also means that the
government cannot do a whole lot to solve it. When the
government declares war on terrorism - terrorism being a
multinational, largely clandestine network of enemies - it
means that the government is giving itself permission to do
what it wants. When it wants to intervene somewhere, it
will. It will brook no limits on its power.

The American suspicion of foreign "entanglements" is very
old. But this administration has taken the radical position
that all international treaties are potentially inimical to
the interests of the United States - since by signing a
treaty on anything (whether environmental issues or the
conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners) the United
States is binding itself to obey conventions that might one
day be invoked to limit America's freedom of action to do
whatever the government thinks is in the country's
interests. Indeed, that's what a treaty is: it limits the
right of its signatories to complete freedom of action on
the subject of the treaty. Up to now, it has not been the
avowed position of any respectable nation-state that this
is a reason for eschewing treaties.

Describing America's new foreign policy as actions
undertaken in wartime is a powerful disincentive to having
a mainstream debate about what is actually happening. This
reluctance to ask questions was already apparent in the
immediate aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11. Those who
objected to the jihad language used by the American
government (good versus evil, civilization versus
barbarism) were accused of condoning the attacks, or at
least the legitimacy of the grievances behind the attacks.

Under the slogan United We Stand, the call to
reflectiveness was equated with dissent, dissent with lack
of patriotism. The indignation suited those who have taken
charge of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The
aversion to debate among the principal figures in the two
parties continues to be apparent in the run-up to the
commemorative ceremonies on the anniversary of the attacks
- ceremonies that are viewed as part of the continuing
affirmation of American solidarity against the enemy. The
comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941, has
never been far from mind.

Once again, America was the object of a lethal surprise
attack that cost many - in this case, civilian - lives,
more than the number of soldiers and sailors who died at
Pearl Harbor. However, I doubt that great commemorative
ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale and
unite the country on Dec. 7, 1942. That was a real war, and
one year later it was very much still going on.

This is a phantom war and therefore in need of an
anniversary. Such an anniversary serves a number of
purposes. It is a day of mourning. It is an affirmation of
national solidarity. But of one thing we can be sure. It is
not a day of national reflection. Reflection, it has been
said, might impair our "moral clarity." It is necessary to
be simple, clear, united. Hence, there will be borrowed
words, like the Gettysburg Address, from that bygone era
when great rhetoric was possible.

Abraham Lincoln's speeches were not just inspirational
prose. They were bold statements of new national goals in a
time of real, terrible war. The Second Inaugural Address
dared to herald the reconciliation that must follow
Northern victory in the Civil War. The primacy of the
commitment to end slavery was the point of Lincoln's
exaltation of freedom in the Gettysburg Address. But when
the great Lincoln speeches are ritually cited, or recycled
for commemoration, they have become completely emptied of
meaning. They are now gestures of nobility, of greatness of
spirit. The reasons for their greatness are irrelevant.

Such an anachronistic borrowing of eloquence is in the
grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the
suspicion of thought, of words. Hiding behind the humbug
that the attack of last Sept. 11 was too horrible, too
devastating, too painful, too tragic for words, that words
could not possibly express our grief and indignation, our
leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in
others' words, now voided of content. To say something
might be controversial. It might actually drift into some
kind of statement and therefore invite rebuttal. Not saying
anything is best.

I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy
that opposes most of what I cherish - including democracy,
pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless
men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun.
And not for a moment do I question the obligation of the
American government to protect the lives of its citizens.
What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war.
These necessary actions should not be called a "war." There
are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the
extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be

America has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of
these crimes and their accomplices. But this determination
is not necessarily a war. Limited, focused military
engagements do not translate into "wartime" at home. There
are better ways to check America's enemies, less
destructive of constitutional rights and of international
agreements that serve the public interest of all, than
continuing to invoke the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of
endless war.

Susan Sontag, a novelist and essayist, is author of the
forthcoming "Regarding the Pain of Others.''


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