The Other I

September 13, 2011

Sitting vs fighting

Filed under: Political thoughts,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:14 pm

After my post yesterday on the alternative responses to the terrorist attack on 9/11, I have returned to a question I have been asking myself for more than half my life:  when should we fight and when should we choose instead to sit quietly knowing that we are strong enough to endure without lashing out?

One of the reasons I feel so betrayed by the Iraq war is that it was justified as a response to liberate people being persecuted, imprisoned or displaced by a dictator whom they were impotent to fight.  As a child of World War II, I came to believe that sometimes one cannot say about injustice “it’s nothing to do with me.”  And so I thought the Iraqi war was a just war.

I believe now that it was wrong on two counts.

First, we had and still have no idea how to mend Iraq, and we should have known that before we went in.  George Bush said when he was running for the presidency that he was not into nation-building.  I wish he’d kept his word.  We have not built a nation, but America has lost huge prestige and moral leadership in the world.  I know because I live outside the United States and the press here is not beholden to Washington, and does not have to worry about alienating its American readers.

Second, the lies that the American people were told were culpable.  They weren’t mistakes.  They were lies.  The evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction was substantial before the war began.  What we really went in for was oil.  It’s why, in the end, we didn’t wait to build a coalition through the United Nations.  And why we didn’t listen to the nuclear inspectors who thought it was unlikely that the weapons were there.  And why we were told that Al Qaeda was there when they palpably were not.  Al Qaeda got in on the coat tails of the American military.

Once we were fighting the war, our methods of torture, of rendition, of indefinite detention in Guantanamo are violating our principles of justice and are in violation of international law and the Geneva Treaty of which we are signatories.

But I’m not sure that means we should never go to war, never be prepared to fight to the death.   It seems to me to be a very complex question fraught with terrible guilt.  The costs of war are so great that going to war in situations where we cannot win the peace seem to me to be immoral.  Obviously, going to war as a mere manifestation of power is wrong.  Going to war on false premises or even as a result of having failed to learn the full facts is wrong.  Going to war when one has not exhausted all the other means of re-establishing justice is wrong.

But when in those situations when we honestly believe we have exhausted all other alternatives?  Is there, in other words, really such a thing as a just war?

Should we sanction a non-violent approach like Gandhi’s in  a fight against a mad man like Hitler, for instance?  Or more recently, were we right to refuse to tolerate Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Albanians in Kosovo?  I think so.  Should we have intervened militarily in the slaughter in Rwanda?  Are we right to be supporting the Libyan rebels with NATO air strikes as we speak?

After 9/11, America really could have chosen to sit quietly for a little while instead of “kicking ass.”

But I’m not convinced that sitting quietly is always the right choice.

Although I do know that fighting is never the whole answer.  After the military were finished and World War II officially ended, America spent years helping to rebuild Europe and Japan.  At least we had learned the lesson of World War I that total military victory does not win the peace.

I hope that somehow we can remember that again.


  1. Thanks for this post and your recent reflections on 9/11 in which you thoughtfully struggle to understand its meaning. I have observed the pomp and ceremony of the anniversary but I haven’t discussed my thoughts or feelings about this with anyone up to this point. Today’s post, however, has goaded me into making at least a brief observation. I am clearly an “odd one out,” but here it is.

    I’ve never felt sympathy with the USA over 9/11. I’ve never felt even a tinge of empathy for the majority of Americans who were emotionally shocked by the event and felt the need to lash out. Why? Am I simply “cold hearted,” somehow psychologically impaired? Perhaps, but I think it is more likely that on 9/11/2001 I was reacting to my own trauma played out years earlier on 9/11/1973 in Santiago, Chile and the empathy I felt for the victims of that much larger tragedy.

    For 28 years before 2001 I had already noted every September 11th as a “day of infamy,” as the day US-backed reactionary forces overthrew the democratically-elected President of Chile and installed years of anti-democratic military dictatorship. That event destroyed thousands of lives, through imprisonment, death, poverty or exile. My own life was changed forever.

    Without accountability—in fact, with impunity—the the US government was able to devastate the hopes and dreams of millions of people in Chile order to establish a favorable space for its imperial ambitions. Besides Chile, it did this overtly or covertly in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba 1959, Congo (1960), Iraq (1963), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Ghana (1966), Afghanistan (1974), Argentina (1974), Iran 1980, Nicaragua (1980-81), El Salvador (1980s), Cambodia (1980s) Angola (1980’s). And it didn’t stop with the end of the “Cold War,” the ostensible justification for these interventions.

    So you see, most of “our” fighting has not been in reaction to ills done to us. Yes, we lost a lot of people on 9/11/2001: We are told we lost 3000 Americans. (To be exact, there were 2380 Americans and not usually mentioned 372 of other nationalities for a total of 2752.) Of course this was tragic. But in perspective, was it so much worse than the damage our country has inflicted on the lives of other peoples around the world over the years? Where was the sense of tragedy over those actions?

    Over the past ten years 9/11 has been turned into a “Sacred Myth.” Like the Myths of old it has become for us the “orienting and mobilizing story that reminds a people who they are and why they do what they do.” Our Sacred Myth of 9/11 goes something like this: “America, because of its goodness, was attacked by fanatical Arab Muslims who hate our freedoms.” The services, the prayers, the speeches, the monuments all lend themselves to nurturing this sense of victimhood based on our goodness.

    What makes me sad is the willing ignorance of so many Americans about the world and the role of our country in it. This willing ignorance makes them prey to the sacred mythology of “9/11 victimhood” with a resulting self-righteousness and need to find and punish scapegoats, rather than leading to humility and quiet reflection on how we can build a better world.


    Comment by margschu — September 13, 2011 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much for breaking your silence. It helps me a lot to clarify and amplify just what it is about America’s response to 9/11 that I find so worrisome.

      Yes, have we no sense how often we have bombed other countries? The list is terrifyingly long. And yet it seems to give us no insight into how other countries must see us.

      I remember a very dear friend here in England saying to me several days after the attack “America still doesn’t get it.” I was still in deep shock and did not know yet if either family, friends, or colleagues had died, and my only feeling at that time was that the attack was unjustified.

      Perhaps. But certainly understandable. And your post makes it much clearer why.

      I was painfully aware that Americans had deposed Allende — we even knew someone who admitted to being on the palace roof that night. But I’d never noticed that it was on 9/11. But I’m sure Chileans did. Because it was a day, as you say, that changed their lives every bit as much as your life, too, was forever changed. And it was American planes that came uninvited and unannounced in a hostile attack as profound as the attack on 9/11/01 in America.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — September 13, 2011 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

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