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The guns of March



The demonstrations continue. The maneuvering at the United Nations continues. The inspections continue. But none of this matters. As President Bush remarked some weeks ago at a press conference, chiding an impertinent reporter:

"I'm the one who gets to decide [whether we go to war], not you." And as thousands of Fort Carson soldiers ship out to the Middle East, it's obvious that the decision has been made.


I'd like to think that, at the 11th hour, a deal could be made, but it's simply not realistic. We have no exit strategy.

The president and his chief advisers seem to be impelled by a kind of vengeful triumphalism, a sense that this is the time to settle accounts and remake the Muslim world. I wish that I could believe that this is all about the geopolitics of oil, because then those of us who oppose the war could present rational arguments to rational policymakers.

Unfortunately, I don't think that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Perle and Wolfowitz care one thing about oil. They assume that regional governments, whatever their ideology, will always be ready to sell crude to the highest bidder, and they're probably right. They see the Middle East as a messy, dangerous place that needs to be cleaned up, like a ghetto neighborhood full of violent gangs dealing crack.

Post 9/11, they've persuaded themselves that the most far-fetched scenarios (Suitcase Nukes! Smallpox! Dirty Bombs! Nerve Gas on the Subways!) are not only possible, but highly likely. And once you enter into that particular belief system, everything else makes sense.

Attack Iraq because, hypothetically, they might go after us with weapons of mass destruction? Sure. And once we've settled accounts with them, how about Iran? And Syria? And shouldn't we station a few thousand troops in Pakistan, to forestall any Islamic takeover? And what about those crazies in the Sudan? And Yemen? And North Korea?

We're in Rudyard Kipling's territory now. Remember the famous lines from "The White Man's Burden," addressed to America, ruler of the Philippines, in the wake of the Spanish-American War?

Take up the White Man's burden

Send forth the best ye breed

Go, bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need;

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child

Do some minor editing (substitute "America's" for "the White Man's"), and there you have it -- our current foreign policy in faultless Victorian rhyme.

It's possible to argue that this policy, so rooted in the trauma of 9/11, is both mistaken and foolish. If Osama bin Laden is looked upon as a cult leader, a Jim Jones who persuaded 20 young men to crash airplanes into buildings, then al Qaeda is far less menacing. Deprived of any base of operations, the object of an unrelenting manhunt, we can expect that his organization will wither, capable of occasional atrocities such as the Bali bombing. Whether that's realistic or not, I don't know -- but I do know that such an assessment is ideologically unwelcome to the Bush administration.

In January of 1962, The Guns of August -- Barbara Tuchman's account of the first month of World War I -- was published to universal acclaim. It was, and is, a dark and terrible book very unlike the current crop of war stories.

Tuchman brilliantly described the heedless stupidity, willful errors and tragic miscalculations that led to a disastrous war. The year it published, President Kennedy sent British Prime Minister MacMillan a copy, observing that contemporary statesmen must at all costs avoid the pitfalls of 1914.

Clearly, Kennedy took his own advice, combining firmness and restraint to resolve the Cuban missile crisis a few months later.

I can't imagine that Bush and his circle have read The Guns of August. Had they done so, they might be a little more respectful of the wisdom of "Old Europe." Consider these simple facts: In August of 1914, French casualties amounted to 206,515 soldiers killed or wounded. And at war's end, the known dead per capita of population were 1 to 28 for France, 1 to 32 for Germany. Such a toll, if suffered today by the United States, would amount to 14 million dead.

The men of 1914 entered into war with eager optimism, relying on elaborate, supposedly infallible, battle plans. They were wrong.

Let us hope that our leaders' faith in the invincibility of our arms, the infallibility of our plans, and the righteousness of our cause is not similarly misplaced.

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