Spring 2004


Can Bush Stop Leaks? The President Wets His Daily Briefs


Condi, Cheney, Rummy Play at War and Lose; Pass the Pacifiers


by Henry William Brownejohns

(Printed in "Fodder" as "ON LOSING THE WAR")

America tells itself things, to please itself and to satisfy a civic vanity; as a nation, it surpasses all the others for its remarkable nimbleness as a mass-conscience. Every thought and gesture you make, as an American citizen, is figured into the whole circuit of the American mass-mind, and in this way, we are joined together as an enormous, ungainly, admirable, and deeply flawed individual. This is why America is so subject to faddishness and reactionism. As deluded as you may be in your own personal self-perception so, too, is the nation you are a part of. We are perpetually whispering praise into the mirror. We harbor a panoply of nonsensical impressions of ourselves: that we are especially good; that we are especially industrious; that we are especially rational; and, of particular import, that we are winners. Thirty years after we were routed out of Southeast Asia, the diligent history texts have yet to make a tally in our Loss column. The War of 1812, Vietnam, Korea—even, somehow, the Civil War—are all framed in the American mind as a Draw at worst, and in many cases, are believed to actually be some kind of victory. Likely nine and three-quarters out of ten Americans would tell you the Alamo is the site of a great American triumph, and not a gruesome rout. We are compulsive winners, even when we have been soundly drubbed. Seeing clear through these memes of collective misperception, I intend to suggest a heresy against our self-conception: that we are losing another war—the Terror War now under way—and we are losing it soundly.

In terms comprehensible even to those of us not privileged to audit a class at West Point: if I am in a fight with a foe, and that foe causes a certain piece of geography—where I once could go—to become off-limits, then I have lost, in a tactical sense, to that enemy. After all, territory is the very stuff of war, as chips are of poker. And while the latter may be changed for money at the end of the game, the former is converted into the bent will of a people—enough territory is lost, and the inhabitants concede to the idea of being occupied. In either case, territory is a fair first criteria for the measurement of progress in conflict.

And how much territory have we gained against this group of unnamables, the Terrorists? Even the one we have a name for, Osama Bin Laden, hasn’t so much as had to change mountain ranges in two years. He entered this conflict already restricted in his movement; he isn’t a free man, by any means. And so when the equation is balanced, this war must be measured by the places we, the free, can no longer call our own.

The upper floors of the Empire State Building are in the hands of Al Qaeda, so long as they are not accessible to sovereign Americans with the cost of an elevator ticket. The crown of the Statue of Liberty may as well be strung with Mr. Bin Laden’s hammock, for all the presence of American citizens there. The very steps of the Capitol Building are now owned and operated by wild-eyed radicals in the mountains of Afghanistan, or so we presume, because they are no longer the property of the free American public. And the Mujahideen have declared an end to the age-old tradition of the White House tour.

If this conflicts with your perception of the front line, keep in mind the efforts of the Bush Administration to pretend all is well. The Statue of Liberty has had a lot of attention lately for her imminent reopening this summer—but in fact the Statue will remain closed, and visitors will only be permitted into the base. The Department of the Interior is unsure if Lady Liberty will ever be habitable again. Her web-site even snidely asides, “Did you know that the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty wanted people to view his work from the outside? It was originally planned to fill the inside with sand for stability.” You didn’t know that? Well now you can stop complaining. (And when Mr. Bin Laden redecorates with the sand he has grown accustomed to, he’ll only be adhering to the ‘original’ plan.)

The Empire State Building, too, rarely gets any credit for being lost to the Terrorists. Visitors to the 86th floor observation deck might never even notice they are toeing the trenches of the War, unless those visitors recall that the Building is 102 stories tall.

And perish the thought that the White House would acknowledge its own loss; it has just made a wonderful fuss about the resumption of the famous tours. Rather tucked away in the press release is that prospective tourists will only be admitted with a reservation made through their congressional representative’s office. This hardly amounts to public accessibility. What foreign visitors are expected to do is unclear, and it is a fair principle that ‘public access’ is diminished if the public must jump through hoops to enjoy it. Call it prior restraint or bureaucratic booby-trapping, but for all intents and purposes, the White House deed remains on the floor of a cave in the Hindu Kush.

So, too, with the St. Louis Arch, the Washington Monument, the D.C. Mall, the financial district of New York City, and Philadelphia’s own Independence Mall. All of these notable locales remain—nominally—open, but under such extraordinary measures of limitation and lockdown that ‘public access’ is a kindly myth. Al Qaeda has only achieved a time-share here, but they have most certainly forced our retreat. Now many of the temporary barriers erected in these places are being made permanent—with complete disregard for public aesthetics, the ‘original plan’ of the designers (unless that plan means welding the doors shut), or the effect on the morale of American liberty. Al Qaeda has permanently sealed off the edges and the centers of all our civic forums. And of course, there is the matter of the so-called Sleeper Cells. Your own neighborhood, once so tranquil and sure, is now tense with the possibility that it, too, is enemy territory.

We are losing the war. We are afraid to go into our own buildings, and the danger of doing so is considered so tangible that the government enforces the restriction. We have been beaten into submission aboard our means of transportation, to such an extent that we only allow ourselves to enter a vehicle with a friendly plainclothes soldier already aboard.

The dismal score of this contest is the more difficult to see because of the nature of our enemy’s goals. No one seeks to occupy us. Indeed, we occupy Iraq, and it might be said that there is a war we have won—except that Iraq was never our enemy, and now that we have overrun it, its citizens are rising up and becoming our enemy.

The actual enemy we are engaged with is bent not on redecorating the Oval Office with new, garish flags and enslaving the American people, but instead in simply breaking the mechanism of our society. Airplanes fly into our skyscrapers, and, predictably, we strip dangerous and anarchic Liberty away from all things associated with aircraft and tall buildings. Now we are less of a nation—both in strict terms of square-footage, and in the pitying eyes of the world. We still say these self-flattering things about our country, how it is the Home of Freedom and the Seat of Democracy, but of course we all know now that this is less true than it was three years ago.

Next, our postal services, our shipping lines, perhaps our utilities, will flinch under the threat from the Enemy. And when these things become expensive, impractical, and intensively restricted—by virtue of our clumsy and belated attempts to protect them—then we will have yielded still more of our nationhood.

If a being moves in response to every move of another—whether it is in mimicry or self-preservation—we call that object either a puppet or an ape. Neither is flattering. Yet every time Mr. Bin Laden utters a noun from his sovereign cave, whatever he has named becomes his. If our satellite hears him say “Yankee Stadium,” do you think anyone will be freely allowed into that amphitheater again? I think not, at least until we hear Mr. Bin Laden tell us that he takes it back. Mr. Bin Laden wields as much power over our lives, if not immensely more, than your mayor, your governor, or your president.

Liberty—real, absolute liberty—cannot go to war. It can surely be attacked, and it has (though a much, much longer time ago than 2001), but if it is to remain true to its dictionary definition, then Liberty must remain inert. For if Liberty responds to its attacker, then it is in a way beholden to that attacker, it awaits the next move, it anticipates, and it counters. It isn’t actually Liberty anymore—it is an aggrieved zoo animal.

If we extend this model to the material world, you might notice that such a situation would be terribly costly. It would mean that, to be free, we must ignore every attack upon us, and simply go on being free and enjoying it, embracing the tenuousness of life and certainty. We must bury the victims of freedom’s foes, and then savor the freedom of our own lives. We must go back into our buildings, set our children to play out in the yard, take our airplanes into the air, and comprehend that every instant of life is fraught with risk. Either we live through it or we do not, but of what we will have experienced, we will have experienced it as Free People. We must, frankly, permit our liberty to be used against us, if we are committed to preserving it.

The only thing the Enemy in the Terror War hopes to achieve is to continue fighting. Ultimately, Osama Bin Laden is a miniscule figure in this conflict—he is a small-time warlord who has terrific press and a good business sense, but the same grievances against the condition of the world as millions of others. He has no desire to sit where Mr. Bush sits now; rather, Mr. Bin Laden will be happy if he dies fighting America, and if America keeps on fighting those like him. The empty space of our nation’s institutions already belong to him, by default, because they do not belong to We The People anymore. Perpetual war will simply maintain that demarcation—so long as our leaders perceive the threat of our enemy, they will keep up the barriers. Of course, after a generation or two, this new America, this America the Lackey to its Enemies, will be such an unpleasant place to live that it will not seem worth protecting so ferociously. People will find other places more truly free, where one can go about the mundane act of living, without feeling tugged by the paranoia of the more powerful. And when this occurs, America the Ideal will have been finally abandoned, and then indeed it will have lost the war, clearly for all to see.

I ought to append, of course, my own preferences for the outcome of this conflict. I would like, and soon, to be able to go to the top of the Empire State Building—and if while I am there I am killed by an Enemy of the principle of human liberty, I would like my fellows and my society to realize that is an acceptable price for the time I have spent as a free citizen of an enlightened society. I would like to donate my life to risk, so that the next generation will know what it is to be free. And if I were to spout something still more optimistic, I would argue that if enough free men and women were content to be sacrificed in such a way, to the cause of passive response, then freedom’s enemies might even lose the satisfaction of their aggression.

All the blood that is spilt as you read is merely slaking the unslakeable thirst of dogmatic autocracy. While Mr. Bin Laden and his like lay back in their bunker, they may tally every one of your soldiers’ lives as one of their own victims. And when Mr. Bin Laden is long gone, he will still be killing your soldiers and your fellow citizens, simply by virtue of the clumsy reflex he has set into motion. The zealots will be happy so long as there is a fight; fear is only incidental. That it is so useful to our own zealots is unfortunate—but the society they are shaping, where it is so fine to be wealthy and white and so difficult to be anything else, is doomed to shrivel and disappear in any case. What use is a briefcase full of tax savings if that money can’t buy me a ticket up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty? Let the radicals rewrite all the documents in the archives—so long as they are losing us this war, none of that stuff is material anyway.

This is a fine time to finally examine the claims we make about ourselves: about our Goodness, which we claim to be the world’s best; about our fairness, which we like to think is unsurpassed; about our Freedom, about the great limitations of which we remain deluded; and about our invincibility, which has been American history’s best-kept secret ever since we “tied” the British in 1812. We have an imperfect record; we may even be playing only .500 ball. But we ignore the losses, mislabel the stalemates, and celebrate the victories, until they are all mixed into one great culture of imagined success.

If we were willing to consider the prospect of losing, as every nation large and small has done; and if we were willing to think ourselves blameful (for example, the secret arrest of sovereign citizens of dozens of other countries and their indefinite internment and unlawful punishment at a remote military installation), then we might have the mental dexterity to correct our faults. It is the self-help cult’s most tiresome maxim, but perhaps nothing but this sort of treacle will bond with the public’s neurons: the first stage is denial, and our first stage has lasted two and a quarter centuries.

We must conclude, as based on the evidence of history, that the United States is not necessarily such a capital ‘G’ Great Country. It may be a good one, and we are certainly entitled to much affection for it. But we are impotent to improve ourselves until we acknowledge that there is anything to improve. The alternative is to be improved, forcefully, by others, and by their most inhumane means.

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