Commentary: Waging War - Playing at War

By WILLIAM S. LIND   |   March 14, 2003 at 12:03 PM

WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- Wars, it is generally assumed, are launched for profound reasons of national security and even survival. And governments usually seek to ensure national unity by making these profound reasons clear to their own populations before resorting to such extreme measures.

Yet, as the universally expected U.S. military strike on Iraq looms closer, people have been asking me, "Can you make any sense out of what is going on?" I assure them that, like most of the people I know, I cannot. Washington seems hell-bent on war with Iraq, and nobody -- including my friends in the military -- understands why.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations did not answer the question. Considering that we are talking about war here, the grounds he offered for it were trifling. It brought to mind the War of Jenkins' Ear, when 18th century England declared war on Spain over the ear of a British merchant captain named Jenkins, supposedly sliced off his head by a Spanish coast guardsman. Jenkins presented the ear, pickled in a bottle, to Parliament. After the war was over, no one really understood why it had been fought.

The mismatch between causes and means raises a deeply troubling question: is the Bush administration playing at war? For make no mistake: war is the most perilous and unpredictable of all human endeavors. Playing with war is more dangerous than playing with fire, because fire can usually be contained; war, too often, cannot. Wars have an unpleasant habit of evolving in ways that none of the participants anticipated. When, in the summer of 1914, Europe resounded with cries of "A Berlin!" or "Nach Paris!" no one imagined the Somme, or Verdun, or the starvation blockade of Germany that killed 750,000 civilians.

The sense that Washington is playing at war is strengthened as we analyze the politics. If the Bush administration were in desperate political trouble, one could at least see a rationale for a wild gamble on war. But politically, the administration could hardly be riding higher. It just gained strength in Congress in an off-year election -- a rare event. President George W. Bush's poll numbers are more than comfortable. Yet the White House is risking it all on a single roll of the dice. If this war goes badly it is the end of Bush as president and any hope of a Republican ascendancy for the next 20 years. Our next president might well be Hillary Clinton.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said that a war with Iraq would be over in six days or perhaps six weeks; it almost certainly would not last six months. Here too, one senses someone playing at war. What if Iraq fights in the cities, where the built environment negates "high-tech" weaponry? What if we take Baghdad, only to have a suitcase nuke go off in Seattle? What if Willie says to Joe, "Hey, Joe, you got a case of the sniffles?" and we find thousands of our troops dying from a genetically engineered disease? All these possibilities are quite real. But the War Party in Washington dismisses them with a shrug.

If anyone should be cautious about playing at war, it is conservatives. The greatest conservative catastrophe in the 20th Century was World War I. The three conservative monarchies that had kept the poisons of the French Revolution in check through the 19th century, Russia, Prussia and Austria, were all swept away by that disastrous war.

As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has correctly argued, the result was a vast spectrum shift to the left. Before World War I, America and France, because they were republics, represented the international left. By 1919, they represented the international right, not because they had changed, but because the world had shifted around them. The reason Americans today find themselves living in a moral and cultural sewer is, in the end, due to World War I.

Then, too, in that fateful summer of 1914, governments played at war. Austria saw a chance to restore her image as a Great Power. Russia perceived an opportunity to take revenge on Austria for her humiliation in the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany rightly told the Chief of the German General Staff, Helmut von Moltke the younger, that he wanted to stay on the defensive in the west and attack in the east, which would have kept Britain out of the war. Moltke collapsed on a couch and said it could not be done. In fact the plans to do it were actually in the file. Yet the Kaiser gave in. Everyone agreed that the troops would be home before the leaves fell.

Four miserable years and millions of dead later, the Kaiser was an exile in Holland, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his family were dead and the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary had ceased to exist. The British Empire had bled to death in the mud of Flanders, and, on the streets of Paris, there were no young men. The future belonged to people no one had ever heard of, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin.

If there is a game conservatives should never allow their government to play, it is playing at war. But nobody seems to have delivered that message to the current occupant of the White House.

(William S. Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.)

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