War or Nothing

A tale across the years; seven lessons learned from a quarter-century in a war-oriented society, where the greatest crime is any opposition to killing.

War or Nothing

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It's 2001—the year the movies promised us we'd make contact with aliens—and the United States has rather recently been attacked by terrorists who flew passenger planes into buildings. I have a distinct memory from the day of the attacks, of a news anchor announcing—before the buildings even fell—that we were now at war, which we technically weren't; thanks to my high school civics class I knew that news anchors aren't empowered to declare war, but I guess whoever it was understood something I did not yet know, which is that in the United States we are a war-oriented society, and felt they may as well get the old ball rolling.

As it turns out, we were going to learn many lessons about what it means to live a war-oriented society over the next quarter-century.

Flying planes into buildings is a sick and vile act. It is also a terrorist act. I don't think that's controversial to say no matter what else you think about what happened before or after. Terrorism is sort of an amorphous word, but I'd say it applies to acts of mass killing of civilian populations by a person or entity that doesn't have the requisite power to wage something called war. War used to be when armies met armies and kept civilians out of it, or that was the idea, but if that was ever the case it hasn't been the case for damn near a century now; now war is a matter that touches civilian populations most of all. When you're a person or entity powerful enough to make other people validate your reason for bringing death and terror to civilian populations, then you're powerful enough to call it war and make it stick, and then it is war, and it is more official and respectable for that. If you're not the aggressor, then war isn't as distinguishable from terrorism; like terrorism, it's something that you didn't choose that is happening to you for as long as you can survive it, and then after it is over, if you survived, then its a thing that was done to you, and if you don't survive it, nothing is happening to you anymore, and you probably don't care so much which one it was.

And sure enough, here in late 2001, old what's-his-name the news anchor has been proved right: we're heading to war in Afghanistan. I reckon this was the first lesson of a war-oriented society that we are all learning. Old what's-his-name knew, with the sage wisdom of somebody living in a war-oriented society: When you are attacked, war is not optional. Killing is not only an appropriate answer to killing, it is the only appropriate answer.

Afghanistan is not the country where most of the people who attacked us hail from, incidentally. It is a country where the perpetrators have frequently operated in the 80s and 90s, and they operated there in part because we were secretly funding them with cash and weapons to help install some very bad guys into power, because doing so served our national interests, or at least the interests of those leaders in the 80s and 90s who got to decide what our national interests were and in some cases broke the law to do so. So we've already been bringing death to the region for a while now, something millions of us notice has made us less safe, not more safe.

And millions of ace students who have already learned all a war-oriented society's lessons very well inform us that pointing out this observable fact means that we are suggesting that those who died in the terrorist attacks deserved it, that we would prefer to denigrate their memories by doing nothing.

These are the choices, we're learning: war, or nothing. The only two flavors, when you have been attacked. The only way to honor the dead is with more death.

Some millions of us notice that this alignment toward death also seems to be how terrorists think about things. Our noticing this is offered as further proof that we love the terrorists. I am told that I want to invite them home for tea. I am told that I must not have any children, because if I had children, I would be willing to support maximum killing to keep them safe. Don't worry, though; speaking from the future of 2024 using the magic of narrative device, I can assure you that my children are still alive—thanks, I suppose, to maximum killing, and no thanks, I suppose, to me and my opposition to a non-optional war.

War sometimes isn't optional, it's true. When you are a weaker power and a stronger power decides to attack you, you're at war until they decide to stop or you make them stop, and you don't get to decide about that. For example, here in 2001, the people of Afghanistan aren't going to get to decide whether or not to experience the war we are bringing them. Still, there are some millions of us who wonder—do we have to go to war? And millions of others tell us with breathless certitude that even wondering that means that we are aligned with the terrorists, with the ones who want to bring death to America; that we, too, for the crime of wondering about whether war is optional, also want to bring death to America.

This strikes millions of us as odd, because the terrorists, who are not a country, do not have the ability to force us into war. This is why they attacked us in the way they did. Flying the planes into the buildings was an act of terror—everyone agrees. This suggests military or political objectives. What were they? Here in 2001, millions of us believe that it doesn't matter much; we will crush the terrorist's objectives by crushing them, which we will accomplish by showing them just how much more death we are able to deliver to them then they are able to deliver to us.

And millions of us wonder how increasing the killing opposes an entity that wishes to increase killing. Many of us in opposition are still fresh-faced students, and because many of us are students we have not yet learned all the lessons of a war-oriented society, and due to our inexperience we are dismissed as ignorant fools. And many of the millions of us—student or otherwise—are ignorant, to be sure, and some of us are fools, and all of us are dismissed by our institutions of power and influence, but millions of us who are not ignorant and not fools can't help but notice that within a war-oriented society, the most ignorant and foolish within any anti-war group is always given the most attention by our institutions of power and influence, and this attention is used to apply ignorance and foolishness to the whole, and then the group is dismissed on those grounds, divested of all power and influence even as they are framed as an empowered threat to the inherent safety of war. And this is the second lesson of war in a war-oriented society: The worst betrayal possible is any opposition to killing.

And now it is 2003, and we are fixing to go to war in Iraq, which means the people of Iraq will not have a choice about whether or not to experience war, and we do have a choice, but we are saying we do not. We are going to deliver something called "shock and awe" to them; not just killing, but a lot of killing. This is the third lesson of war we're all learning: The only appropriate answer to killing is not only killing, it must be disproportionate killing—a hundred times more killing, a thousand times more. This suggests that we believe almost instinctively that we are much more valuable as human beings than any other human beings from any other places—a hundred time more, a thousand times, so much more valuable, that it might be said we don't even think of those other people as human beings. We lost over 3,000 people on that terrible day of terror, so perhaps we intend to kill 300,000 terrorists. Millions of us wonder if there are even 300,000 terrorists to kill, but that's not a problem for a war-oriented society, because Iraq is a country of millions, so we'll have enough people to kill soon enough.

Iraq is not a country where most of the people who attacked us are from, either. It is a country that some of our current leaders indicated they wanted to go to war with even before we were attacked, and they said they wanted to do this because there is a very bad guy in power there, which is true, and he is in power there in part because we helped put him there, which is also true but not mentioned as much. We put the bad guy in power there because doing so served our national interests, or at least it served the interests of aw shucks you know the rest. And sure, there's a lot of oil in Iraq, and our most prominent current leaders who most wanted war in Iraq are oil men, but never mind, we were talking about safety. Now our current leaders—some of whom were involved with putting the bad guys in power in Afghanistan and Iraq—are saying that Iraq, which has not attacked us, is about to attack us, very very very soon, and therefore it needs to be attacked. This is the fourth lesson of a war-oriented society: Any hypothetical future threat of potential attack justifies the same disproportionate violent response as an actual attack. Any imagined threat must be taken as the same as a real one.

So yes, our leaders say that Iraq poses an imminent threat. Our leaders say never mind their current proof, because the next proof will be a mushroom cloud. Our leaders say there is evidence. The experts whose jobs involve knowing such things say there actually isn't any evidence. We are told by our leaders that this means the experts are aligned with the terrorists, who apparently more than anything do not want us to go to war in Iraq, because they want to kill Americans and nothing apparently will make the job of killing Americans more difficult than if America deploys its military to two ground wars.

And now it is 2005, and we have brought a lot more death to Iraq and Afghanistan than was ever brought to us, and we've brought it to people who did not attack us. It's true that some of the people to whom we delivered this death weren't involved in the attack but have been very eager to get involved in a war killing Americans and seem to be delighted to finally have been given such a ready and open forum. But hundreds of thousands of others (or maybe even over a million) to whom we have delivered death are just people who were hoping to live their lives, who aren't going to get to do that now, because we were attacked in 2001, and the only choices for us are war or nothing. And some 10,000 of our troops have died or will eventually die in these conflicts, and tens of thousands more have suffered or will suffer horrible physical or mental injuries, and have been or will be abandoned by the same people who were so eager to send them into danger in the name of safety. And the war has cost us most of our reputation and more money than the attacks ever did. And the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan have been broken in ways that seem irreparable, hi-ho.

And millions of us find all this death and maiming tragic. And we're told by millions more—the same people who told us that we were aligned with terrorists for predicting this exact eventuality—that finding the death and injury of foreign civilians tragic means we are aligned with the terrorists; that we hate our country and love the terrorists, because we have failed to recognize that the United States is not to blame in any way for the wars that it started and continues to wage. This is the fifth lesson of war in a war-oriented society: Any killing we do, no matter how indefensible it is, can only ever be self-defense. Anyone who suffers and dies is a victim not of us but those who threaten or harm us, or of themselves. Those who had no choice about whether or not to be at war are the ones who are blamed for not ending the war, which is not something that is in their power to do. Our violence is not only pure; it is self-purifying. It doesn't just make us safe; it is safety itself.

But never mind that, because now it is 2007, and it is time for even more war.

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Yes, it is 2007 at last. In the movies, this was the future, but now it is now.

We were told that this war in Iraq would be over in a matter of days—months, maybe, not years—but it is 2007, and the war is somehow only getting bigger and more entrenched. We're now told that this means we need to deliver more death to more people, in the name of making us all safe the only way safety can be achieved, which is through war.

Millions of us think this is absolute bullshit. Those who brought the case for war have been exposed as terrible liars, and their rationale for the war has been exposed as a sham, and their operation of it has been an unmitigated corrupt cock-up on every level. And sure enough, we have by now been exposed as a country that employs torture to achieve its military and political aims. Many of us are shocked and dismayed by this betrayal of what we believed to be our nation's identity, and we don't want to be complicit in the killing of thousands of people who just wanted to live their lives, so we still commit the great crime of opposing the war, and we oppose expanding it.

And we're still told again and again, by the same people as before—the ones who insisted on opposing terrorists who wanted to make a world of death by making a world of death—that by opposing the war and our torture program, we have proved that we love the terrorists, and are allied with them and their cause; these same people are eager to tell us that because we oppose bringing death to people we do not know, it means that we want to do nothing, nothing, nothing at all, because our options are war or nothing. And just like old what's-his-name the newscaster in 2001, everyone with the power to create and entrench narratives seems aligned with promoting and defending this framing.

The people who were wrong about everything are presumed to be right and normal and interested in our security and safety. The very people who created the danger, then failed to prevent the attack, then increased our danger, are still invited to opine as trusted sources on what we should do about future dangers, and their answers always involve more killing. They are considered real Americans, extended an indestructible credulity by our institutions of influence and power not in spite of wanting to create a world of killing, but because of it.

The millions of us who were right about what would happen are presumed to be wrong, not real Americans but dangerous traitors, a threat to safety; we are extended an indestructible skepticism by our institutions of influence and power, not in spite of our opposition to killing, but because of it. There are still ignorant fools among us, and they still receive the most attention, to cast us as ignorant and foolish against the wisdom of those who know that the choices are war or nothing.

And this is the sixth lesson of war in a war-oriented society: Wanting to wage war makes you correct in a way that overcomes evidence or results or even coherence. You don't have to have been correct about why you wanted to kill, and you don't have to have been correct about what the result of the killing would be—simply wanting to kill is right enough to make you perpetually right. Most of all, you can act in fathomless bad faith in favor of killing, and use as your rationale the exact opposite of the thing you are creating. For example, you can send Americans into two standing wars of choice and opportunity, and say you want to do it to make Americans safe. Or you can stand from a position of the most power and influence and claim you are powerless, and that those with the least power and influence have all the power and influence, and are to blame for the reality you have created. Or (to use an example that is more speculative for the year 2007), you could spend 20 years demanding that student protests against antisemitism and every other bigotry and even literal Nazism on college campuses be quashed in the name of promoting free speech, only to turn around and use antisemitic framings to demand that student protests against killing be quashed in the name of fighting antisemitism.

But never mind, because now it is 2020, and the police in the United States are rioting—not for the first time.

I should explain the police to you. They are our standing army, accountable to nobody, who we use to wage war against our fellow civilians, people we treat as domestic enemies. As a matter of historical fact, the institution started out as slave-catchers, but now it has uniforms and protocols, and everything is much more above board, even though we know that the police are infiltrated with Nazis and Republicans and other types of white supremacists, and the people they put into our ever-growing prison system are subject to slave labor, so hey, time is a flat circle. You can tell the police are an army because we give them military equipment to do their jobs. You can tell the police are accountable to nobody because whenever those who are supposed to have the power to check them try to do so, the police respond with threats of implied violence and shows of violent solidarity and with actual violence. You can tell we use the police to wage war against our neighbors because we fund them, and the more violent they get, the more money we give them. They eat over half our city budgets in many places. And if you want to know which of our neighbors we consider our domestic enemies, you just need to watch who the police menace and kill here in 2020.

On that subject, a police officer was recently waging war in one of our nations' residential occupied zones—a neighborhood in Minneapolis that I'm told is a site of historical racial conflict—and while doing so, he murdered a Black man named George Floyd. Floyd begged for his life as he was being killed, but the officer killed him all the same, using practices that were standard practice for cops, we all later learned, which is how you can tell that murdering Black people is sort of standard operating protocol. And this was in no way the first such murder, nor has it in any way been the last.

In 2020, millions of us all over the country have found, almost to our surprise in some cases, that we are opposed to this, and in response millions of us all over the country took to the streets and demonstrated for an end to police brutality.

The police have taken this questioning of their right to kill as an act of violence. In response, the police are rioting and waging war all over the country against American citizens. All over the country, all summer long, they are brutalizing protesters. They've welcomed white supremacist militias toting massacre weapons as unofficial deputies and kettled large groups of unarmed people into tiny inescapable areas, then demanded the people leave those inescapable areas, then drove their heads into the concrete with their knees for not complying, tased them, shot them with rubber bullets, hog tied them and left them bleeding on the ground, hauled them into prison, pushed them to the ground, and more.

It's been violent—as wars waged by the state against its own citizens tend to be. And millions of people have blamed not the police, but the protesters, for not protesting in a non-violent-enough fashion. And afterward the police have received even more funding, even while millions who support the police insist that they were defunded—not because they were defunded, but because millions of us dared suggest they should be. And the communities to whom we sent this standing army of police to wage war—the communities who have no choice whether or not they are at war, because it is being waged against them on behalf of the rest of us, in the name of safety—they are being blamed for all the danger and the violence that comes with the war we wage against them.

Millions of us are horrified by all this. And we are told by millions of others that this means we are aligned with crime and murder and death, that because we want to abolish this standing army of white supremacy and stop waging war against our neighbors, we want to leave ourselves open to danger, even as we further empower the force that creates danger for us all. We are asked: What is our solution—nothing?

In the minds of millions, opposing the violence of the police justifies any violence the police might do against any of us.

This is the seventh and final lesson of war in our war-oriented society: Killing is the only thing that will keep us safe from killing. Therefore, anyone who opposes killing represents a threat justifying further killing.

And millions of us, who have been watching since 2001 or even before, can see how framing the apparatus of killing as indistinguishable from safety helps the apparatus of killing, but do not see how it helps make us safe. We can see how framing a country as indistinguishable from its murderous government helps that government, but not how it helps the country. We can see how framing all a country's citizens as indistinguishable from its murderous government helps that government, but not how it helps the people. And we can see clearly how framing killing as the only way to bring safety, and any act other than killing as nothing favors those who want to see a world of death, but not how it helps honor the dead or keeps any of the living safe.

Millions of us think the bigger problem might be the killing. It seems to us war as the only option represents the greatest possible failure of human imagination there can be, and our wealth and resources and ingenuity seem to present many other options. Perhaps if we put our heads together, we might think of something else to do that isn't nothing but isn't war, either. And even if many of us are foolish and ignorant about what that something might be, we think that seeking that something is better than not seeking it. And even if many of us are foolish and ignorant, many of us are not, and even those of us who are ignorant fools can see the way the suggestions and solutions presented by those who are not ignorant fools are ignored while those of us who are the most ignorant and the most foolish receive the most attention from our institutions of influence and power, to frame this whole act of imagination as ignorant and foolish.

And even those of us who are ignorant fools can see how this helps promote the ideal of "war or nothing," but we don't see how it helps us find something that is not killing but isn't nothing, either.

Maybe the terrorists in 2001 and the ones who came after weren't anticipating our response. Maybe they didn't realize we had a powerful military, or that we had a history of using it extensively in retaliation for attacks. But millions of us think it's safe to assume they knew, that they might have been expecting a violent response, and it's always been curious to us that people who understand that the terrorists wanted to create a world of violence were always so eager to create far more of it than the terrorists themselves were ever equipped to deliver.

It makes me wonder: who is aligned, practically speaking, with terrorists? Who is endangering us? The ones who oppose using our fear as a pretext for increasing war and killing, however ignorant or foolish many of us may be? Or is it the ones who fund the terrorists for political advantage and then use the danger of them as a pretext to bring the war they want to bring?

Some days it seems to me that what the terrorists most feared is that their work would be for nothing, and we wouldn't have a maximally violent response—which would have been something other than decades of war, but I'm hard pressed to say it would be nothing. It's hard to say. People who bring violent death to civilian populations aren't always upfront about what they intend. Not being upfront about what you intend is called bad faith, by the way, as is deliberately mis-framing somebody else's position, like for example saying that people who don't want to give terrorists exactly what they seem most likely to want are aligned with the terrorists.

But never mind, because now it is 2024, and the protesters against killing are coming out once again, and the police are coming to meet them and brutalize them for the crime of asking what are you doing? And those who want the killing to continue are equating a country's entire population with its violent government, as if doing so protects the people rather than the government. And they are equating Jewishness with allegiance to Israel, as if doing so isn't a foundation of antisemitism. And none of the protesters have power or influence to stop the killing they would like to see stopped, but all of them are being treated by our institutions of power and influence as if they have all the power and influence—particularly those who are most ignorant and foolish—even though most protesters are not ignorant fools. All those opposed to the killing are being told that opposing killing means that they love terrorists, and hate safety. And all of those opposed to the killing are being told that their opposition means they think that the victims of a terrorist attack deserved it. All of the protesters are being told that they don't understand the danger, even though many of them are the ones most in danger. All of them are being told that they don't care about the victims of an attack, even though many of their number identify directly with those attacked. All of them are being asked what exactly it is they want, if they want the war to stop—nothing?

Yes, now it is 2024, and I have to ask: What lessons have we learned, and from what school have we learned it?

And have we learned them well?

Are we seeking war, or something that is not war, but is not nothing, either?

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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and the upcoming essay collection Very Fine People, which you can learn about how to support right here. He is also co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. Oh, his hair is getting good in the back.