Column: The Phony War

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history.

America has found itself in a situation known in Europe from September, 1939 to April, 1940 as the"Phony War." The bin Laden-inspired airborne devastation of human life on September 11 was as much a Blitzkrieg as Hitler launched at 4:45 am, September 1, 1939 against peaceful Poland. For about 6 months, however, the stench of real war in Europe was deferred. So inactive were the opposing armed camps that British citizens began calling the interlude the Sitzkreig -- the sitting, or phony war. That casualness turned to cataclysm when Hitler terminated the lull by invading Scandinavia and then thundering into the Netherlands and Belgium in May, 1940. Throughout the ensuing 5-year marathon of unprecedented human slaughter there was never again anything phony about the word"war".

One cannot say the same of our war today, as the president chose to label it. What we face is a true and just struggle against fanatical renagades, but it's no war -- no more than the"phony war" on drugs that limps along for political resume-embellishment. One hopes that our battle against terrorism will not -- for too long -- rest on sustained bombings, or sea-launched missile destruction, or the deployment of numerous ground troops in harm's way. Rather, our more aptly designated"struggle" should be conducted through diplomatic chess maneuvering, international police coordination, midnight arrests and daytime .45 slugs in the head. There's no doubt we'll continue to see localized air strikes, but those are designed more for American morale and revenge-satisfaction than demolition of the enemy. Let's face it, if you're a 98-pound weakling and receive news that Guido the Bruiser is headed for your house with a" complaint," you won't throw a pop-tart in the toaster and wait around to see what's on Guido's mind.

It's a shame that terrorists don't stage international conventions in Qandahar to which all card-carrying psychotics are encouraged to attend. They would make nice targets, but the blackguards just won't cooperate. In the long run, this White House will be forced to face reality and do much as the Clinton administration did. Seek reliable intelligence through allies, arrest culprits at every chance, and conduct occasional strikes on a contained basis to avert as many civilian deaths as possible. Wholesale obliteration of civilian populations has never been the norm of American military strategy.

Thrust upon us is a ghost war -- indeed a phony war in the 1939 sense -- and the White House, occupied as it is by political animals, will squeeze the predicament for every exploitative drop of dramatic politics and bold leadership. That's not a criticism or cheap shot, just a political fact of life. This White House must exploit to survive 2004, and were I a presidential advisor I'd advise just that. Use the war analogy at every turn to promote frenetic support for the gipper. Maybe that will smother the electorate's memory of what an appalling administration this was just weeks ago.

Fresh out of the gate Bush Inc. got itself stuck in political muck like no administration before. The president's ghastly record of schoolyard bullying and brazen reversals of campaign promises were premeditated, swiftly administered, and executed with mind-boggling ineptitude. Lordy, lord, even the Grant and Harding administrations can now be seen as paradigms of uprightness compared to the eager Bush gang, which, without an ounce of shame, quickly advertised the White House as a bawdy house where"you pays your money and you gets what you want." Questions of the social good were mere irritants fielded by the Tripartite of Right Think: Thought Cop Ari Fleischer, Kill-'em-with-Kindness Karen Hughes, and Karl"Strangelove" Rove. Should K.R. ever begin wearing those small, dark, circular sunglasses, I'm moving to a very, very deep lead bunker.

As troubling today as Bush's bygone policy fiascoes -- were Clinton still in office Republicans would refer to them as high crimes and misdemeanors -- are these ubiquitous boasts of super-patriotic unity on the evening news, cable channels, talk radio (but that bunch is often stewed to the gills with blind patriotism), and letters to the editor. The boasts have me -- and I'm sure countless others -- utterly flummoxed. Unity of what? Against what? For what? Against a dispersed, demented religious goon club that's well financed and specializes in hiding, moving about, and playing sleeper-agent for years? Are those Walmart-bought paper flags adorning living room windows everywhere really indispensable to the pursuit of religious cutthroats? Not only is this war phony lexically, the manly patriotism behind it seems pretentious, emotionally immature, and just plain phony itself, because it's all so overworked and absolutely unnecessary. Muscle flexing for the ladies.

To be sure, anything less than visceral outrage over September eleventh's insane act would be repugnant to the American character. Prideful pronouncements of that old-time patriotism, however, have nothing to do with what needs to be done. This is one conflict in which town parades and marching bands are empty of meaning. Maneuvers against the disparate goons we seek were in place and America's leaders had no doubt about the strong national consensus behind them. For once, my hat went off to the White House for its deliberative posture. It was the smart move. With luck and calmer heads the White House will return to deliberation and stealth and quitclaim this dazzling but counterproductive star-spangled-banner business. Also quite un-smart, it seems to me, is Bush's talk of apprehending these savages and bringing them to justice in the United States. I don't think their friends would fancy that. Their new jihad would be for the release of their imprisoned brothers. And how would they so intelligently articulate that demand? By blowing up more Americans, of course. Let us not light more fuses. Just whack the sociopathic scourges on the spot and walk away.

Yet there are other downsides to overblown patriotism that angle far steeper than mere adolescent pretentiousness. The nation's collective super-patriotism is permitting public absolution for Bush's past sins -- those being his enacted policies as harmful to America's vitality as any terrorist cell. Heading the list is the administration's imbecilic, budget-busting 10-year tax cut. Already America is back on the deficit highway. That path, for a while, seemed like a disdainful memory, but it's now acceptable again and we'll live to regret it. Another victim of war mania was the executive-congressional agreement not to tap Social Security to pay the nation's bills. That's history, and additional military expenditures will come from the sweat of future retirees.

We'll soon be re-engulfed in the deficit abyss of the Reagan years, and hard-core conservatives -- like W. and Cheney -- will be delighted. Education? Sorry, no money. Health care? Sorry, no money. Prescription drug coverage? Sorry again. Budget sacrifices for the Pentagon? Well, now that's something the public demands, as shown by their unblinking support of what we're getting away with by calling this a war. Can't skimp on the military in wartime, you know. And"war" is what we'll continue calling it, no matter what. It offers all those nice public relations benefits. Any who question this as war had better watch themselves, as Propaganda Offizier Fleischer so helpfully suggested the other day. The boys at the top are usually mindful of what folks at the bottom think of decisive policy initiatives, and bottom-up suspicion helps keep things in legislative balance -- usually. But blind patriotism and its"go-team" spirit are trumping the democratic impulse. In rapid order, demands for executive accountability have become unAmerican, for who among us should question knowledgeable power leading us to certain and glorious victory? Those somber-looking men and women in the Rose Garden are the experts. They know what they're doing, so just leave then alone and follow.

Most intimidated by all the patriotic hoopla are the spineless residents of the Hill, many up for reelection, who know that while terrorism must be engaged with determination, we must also mind the economic store as a matter of equal importance to long-term national security. That means gutting Bush's tax cut -- at least those cuts for the top 1-5 percent in income. Leave intact any middle- and working-class breaks, for those groups buy the kinds of goods that regenerate sagging economies. Yet with all the Bush-hugging and public flag waving, how many in Washington have the courage to insist on scaling back Bush's crown project? Don't expect an army of them.

Nothwithstanding premature editorials announcing Bush's remarkable and noble shift from hard-line conservatism to moderation, the president is the same ideological man today he was on September 10. A lifetime of engrained ultraconservatism doesn't undergo a psychic transformation in the course of 28 days. Bush will have and hold his radically conservative tax scheme; defer social spending to military exigencies; and bail out airlines who fought stricter security measures as too expensive. Military spending priorities -- reasonable or not -- will raid the treasury.

In short, rather than moving to the center, Bush has stumbled on a way to fortify his brand of flaky conservatism. For now he's untouchable. And should responsible congressional minds not return to the business of scrutinizing all executive policies, Bush's radicalism will be allowed to haunt and eat at the nation's health for decades to come.

Less ego-inflating patriotism and more pragmatic attention to the nation's myriad ills are sorely in need, before Bush walks away with all the marbles and leaves us holding only the bag.

P. M. Carpenter is a writer, student of history, and professional artist. His artwork site is: http://www.geocities.com/pmcarpen2000

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fsd fggr - 8/28/2003


John Galt - 10/18/2001

Karen, you are one sick puppy! Six thousand of your fellow citizens dead in the street, anthrax showing up in offices across the nation and all you can worry about is the left wing agenda? You and Mr Carpenter are un-American.

To see 90% of our country united behind OUR President is heartening. Knowing that you and the remaining 10% are not on our side is incomprehensible.

Better take a look around, Karen. The tide has turned your liberal, politically correct agenda is gone!


John Galt - 10/18/2001

Sorry Mr. Carpenter. Your left wing socialistic drivel is no longer envouge. I understand your lashing out, you are running for your political life. Too bad, its over. A sleeping giant has indeed been awakened and he is waving the Stars and Stripes not the hammer and sickle

karen waddell - 10/10/2001

Someone is finally brave enough to risk being called "un-American" for putting all this hyper-flag-waving patriotism in its place. It's more frightening to me than the acts of September 11 themselves. All the consequences mentioned are dire and long-lasting. It reminds me of the Afgans who never liked the Taliban regime but are now burning the humanitarian food drops and American flags as a point of their nationalistic pride. I also detest seeing businesses using "God Bless American"techniques to make a buck out of a tragedy. You have put into paragraphs what I have been wanting to say but didn't know how. Thank you